On the Call from God

What does it mean to be called by God? Let us look at two similar examples from the Bible.

Exodus 3:1-12

Meanwhile, Moses was shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. Then the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire within a bush. As Moses looked, he saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed. So Moses thought: I must go over and look at this remarkable sight. Why isn’t the bush burning up?

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

“Here I am,” he answered.

“Do not come closer,” He said. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then He continued, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of My people in Egypt, and have heard them crying out because of their oppressors, and I know about their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and to bring them from that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the territory of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. The Israelites’ cry for help has come to Me, and I have also seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 Therefore, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh so that you may lead My people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11 But Moses asked God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 He answered, “I will certainly be with you, and this will be the sign to you that I have sent you: when you bring the people out of Egypt, you will all worshipGod at this mountain.”

And then, in a later book we read –

Jeremiah 1:4-10

The word of the Lord came to me:

I chose you before I formed you in the womb;
I set you apart before you were born.
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

But I protested, “Oh no, Lord, God! Look, I don’t know how to speak since I am only a youth.”

Then the Lord said to me:

Do not say, “I am only a youth,”
for you will go to everyone I send you to
and speak whatever I tell you.
Do not be afraid of anyone,
for I will be with you to deliver you.
This is the Lord’s declaration.

Then the Lord reached out His hand, touched my mouth, and told me:

I have now filled your mouth with My words.
10 See, I have appointed you today
over nations and kingdoms
to uproot and tear down,
to destroy and demolish,
to build and plant.

Both prophets protested, saying that they weren’t capable of doing what God asks.  But we have to remember that God sees with different eyes.  God knows our strengths better than we do – even ones that are currently hidden.  If God calls you to something, God knows best.  It is important to remember that you will be able to do what God is calling you to do if you do it WITH God, not by yourself.

(Bible translations are from HCSB)

Transaction

People have a habit of coming up to me and telling me the most amazing things. These are really deep, dark, personal things that are very private. I’ve taken classes on how to deal with this because it happened so often. I believe that since people are handing me very heavy stories, it is important that I learn how to receive them and carry them in a way that is safe for me. I believe it is also important to make sure that I handle what they have had to say in a way that is respectful to them. There are many ways to do this incorrectly.

I’m sure all of us have had the experience of when we say something really private and personal to someone that they will say something insensitive such as “Oh something worse happened to me,” or “Oh, it’ll get better,” or “It’s not that bad.” It is important not to diminish a person or minimize their pain. But it is also important not to attempt to fix them. Sometimes (often) the most healing thing you can do is simply to listen.

I know several people who have gone on to become professional counselors because the same thing happens to them. They get paid to listen to people tell their secrets and fears. I feel that to turn such a private and personal and beautiful experience into a transaction cheapens it. I believe that it is exactly the same as the difference between making love and being a prostitute. It has turned a very private and intimate experience between two people into a mechanical thing that has money involved.

Perhaps the answer is that people need to all be trained how to talk honestly, and how to listen with open hearts. We need to share with each other. The relationship needs to be two-sided, equal. And then people need healthy places to share.

Sharing with the bank teller or the store clerk isn’t healthy or equal. The employee is trapped there and is not allowed to share how she is feeling. They are not trained in this either. There need to be meeting areas where people can gather and speak on equal ground.

Heavy words

Some people just aren’t very good at carrying things. Consider if you were going to move. Do you ask someone who weighs 87 pounds and is very frail to help you move your big-screen television and your sofa? Of course not. If they trying to carry that they will get very hurt. Your sofa or your television might get dropped as well. You’ll be sad or angry and your friend will be embarrassed and hurt.

Likewise, if you have emotional things that need to be carried it’s important to find the right person. Some people simply cannot handle other people’s feelings. This often means that they can’t handle their own either. Say you tell someone about something that is very difficult for you. There is something really heavy going on in your life, and you need to share it. If the person listens intently and compassionately, then they are a good person to carry this. If they can listen in a way that helps you and doesn’t harm them, then you are both OK. But if they get angry that you told them, or secretly complain that you confided in them, or even worse, they start to tell you about something worse that happened to them, then you know they can’t carry your problems.

The goal of compassionate listening is to carry with, not carry for. The listener isn’t taking away the problem – they are just making it easier for the speaker to carry their own problems. The best kind of listener helps the other person feel better just for having been there. They don’t have to fix the problem, they just have to listen.

It is just like lending someone something. If you have a new friend and you lend them a book it is best to lend them only one to start off with. See how they act with it. Do they give it back within a week? Or do they forget about it for a year? When they return it do they return it in the same condition that you lent it to them? Or is it dog-eared and underlined and dirty? Is the dust jacket ripped off? If they can properly handle one item that was lent to them, then you might lend them more next time. But you probably won’t let them borrow 10 at a time until they have really proven themselves.

The same is true with feelings. Not everybody can handle them. Sometimes they are just too heavy, or the person isn’t strong enough.

OK

Saying “It is going to be okay” ignores the fact that it is not currently okay. In fact it might suck a lot. Saying “It is going to be okay” ignores the present situation entirely. It glosses over the right now and tries to jump ahead to the good bit. It is the dessert at the end of the meal. Meanwhile you are chewing on this meal which is pretty hard to choke down.

It isn’t honest and it isn’t fair. What people really need is not to hear that it’s going to be okay. What they often need to hear is “I am so sorry that you are going through this” or “Tell me more about it.” or “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.”

Now don’t confuse it with going into the “It could be worse” line. And don’t ever use the “It’s only…” or “At least it’s not…” openers. Certainly don’t start telling them how your situation is much worse. That doesn’t do any good, and in fact it makes things worse.

People just need to be heard and understood. You can’t rescue them from their pain. But you can certainly do a lot to not make it worse. Acknowledging the reality of their pain and letting them talk is a good start to helping them heal themselves.

Circle – truth

The Circle process is about a lot of things. One of those things is truth. It is about speaking your own truth, and listening to every other person speak their truth. It is about knowing your truth. It is about being OK with the idea that your truth may change. It is about being OK with the idea that somebody else’s truth may be radically different from yours.

It is about listening to yourself and to others.

It is about sitting in that space, in that circle, and really being open to what is happening.

It is about understanding that we all want to be heard and seen.

Part of the Circle process is to create a sort of group mind. It is understanding that what you see and what I see are different sides of the same thing. Just like in the story of the five blind men and the elephant, we all are groping towards an understanding of “what is”. When we share our viewpoints and our understandings in Circle, we are opening ourselves up to a bigger understanding. We are essentially creating new eyes for ourselves.

But in order to have new eyes, we have to have new ears.

We have to listen, really listen, deeply.

And we have to know our own truths in order to share them.

And those are both really hard.

We come from a culture that teaches debate, not dialogue. We come from a culture that teaches us to sit down and shut up. We come from a culture that says you have to give up your own ideas in order to get along with others. The group is more important than the individual.

Consensus sometimes means that one person yells the loudest and everybody else goes quiet. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, after all. If you stick your neck out, it might get chopped off.

We are taught that if we are all leaders, then we are going to go nowhere.

Circle isn’t about anybody being the leader, and about anybody being a follower. We all contribute. We all share. We all listen, and we all talk.

One at a time.

And that is hard. It is hard because we aren’t taught this. It is hard because we are taught to just go along with the flow. It is hard because we aren’t allowed to have our own voice in our culture.

It is uncomfortable and unusual to be in a space where people listen to us for minutes at a time.

Half the time we don’t even know what our own truth is. Sometimes our truth changes from moment to moment, with every new voice that is added.

Sometimes the hardest thing is being able to say that something is black when everybody else sees it as white.

Circle is about staying in that process, even in the awkward bits, when you feel that nobody is listening to you and nobody understands you. Circle is about staying in that process, even when you feel like you aren’t listening to everybody else. Circle is about staying in that process even when you think that everybody else is wrong, or crazy, or just plain blind. Circle is about staying even when you want to run away, even if it is only in your mind.

It is about coming back, and staying, moment by moment.

It is really hard. It is really beautiful. It is a whole different way of thinking and being.

And it could save the world.

Edge – Moses, David, and me.

I always feel that I’m just on the edge of knowing what I’m doing. That if I take another class or read another book I’ll know what I am doing.

I feel like life is a pop quiz. That every day, as soon as I just barely learn something, it gets tested. I don’t feel like I know it well enough to do it yet, but God apparently thinks otherwise.

Look at Moses. He wasn’t an expert. God said “Hey, I need you” and Moses said “You have got to be kidding. Me? Talk to Pharaoh? I stutter. Lead everybody out of Egypt? Me? Who would follow me?”

And yet he did. No training. No expertise.

God likes using amateurs. Look at David. He was just a boy. He was too small to wear the armor that was given to him when he went up against Goliath. The whole Israelite army hadn’t been able to get past this giant. One boy, armed with the strength of God and a rock, did the job.

Why a rock? Why not a sword’? David used a rock because that is what he knew. He wasn’t a warrior. He was a shepherd. He used a slingshot to chase off the wolves that were terrorizing his sheep. This time, Goliath was the wolf. One hit, and he was down.

God uses us like that. The small stuff becomes the important stuff. The underdog wins.

I feel like everything is my teacher. I feel like I’m being fed my lines. I feel like as soon as I learn something, it was what I need to know right then. No waiting. It is a little overwhelming. It doesn’t give me any time to polish my skills.

But maybe that is the point. David didn’t use a sword, he used a stone. He used what he knew. But notice this, he didn’t even bring the stones with him. He went to a nearby stream and found them.

God provides what we need for the task at hand at the time we need it.

It isn’t on us to do the work. It is up to us to show up and let God do the work through us.

Confessor.

People come to me. They come to me to confess. They come to me to admit a weakness. They come to me in their confusion and fear. They come to me, unbidden, but not unwelcome.

People tell me the most amazing and awful things. They tell me stories that are so honest and so sad they rip my heart in two. They are strangers. They are waitresses in a restaurant. They are patrons at the library. They are members of the Y. Wherever I am sitting or standing still in one place for longer than 30 minutes, they come.

It is a blessing. It is a calling.

I don’t have to fix anything, I’ve come to realize. I don’t have to make it right. I don’t have to have the perfect word to say. I just have to be there. I have to listen with my whole being. I empty myself out and try my best to let the connection with God be clear and true.

That is it. They aren’t there for me. They are there for God, but God hides in us. God hides in each of us, and when we share from our hearts to another person we are sharing with God.

This is what I went to the minister at my old church for, what, four years ago now? I went to learn how to do this well. I want to be gentle and kind and open with each person who comes to me. But I also don’t want to be stepped on. Empathic people are sometimes confused with doormats. I want to learn how to be an ear for God. Turns out she didn’t really know how to tell me how to do this. She (fortunately) sent me to a pastoral care class and I learned something of this, but they didn’t tell much of the “how to” or the “don’t do this”. It was kind of on-the-job-training.

The trick is just to do it. Just show up. Just be available. And know that I’m going to do it wrong but that is OK too. And when I feel that feeling in my gut that says it is time to back away because it is getting to be too much, listen to it. Don’t fix anything. Just listen. Let people vent. Let them work it out. Be a mirror, or a sounding board. Don’t be a teacher or a coach.

Just listening is healing. Just being there is healing.

There is no magic, no pill, no advice. There is a lot of patience and time and compassion and love. And that is enough.

Walk in healing

Have you noticed the number of walk-in medical care places? They are popping up in grocery stores, in pharmacies, and strip malls. They are urgent care, quick care. They are fast – no appointment. It is designed to be easy and available for people who don’t have primary care doctors or don’t have insurance.

Why not have a faculty for quick care for other needs? Spiritual, mental, emotional – these areas need attention too. There are plenty of three a.m. crises that happen. What if you need to talk to a counselor and it is past office hours?

It isn’t severe enough to need a crisis hotline. You aren’t about to kill yourself. Those phone lines are the equivalent of the emergency room. Sometimes it isn’t just an emergency, it is just inconvenient.

And sometimes the issue is just too big or too heavy for friends. Sometimes friends are helpful and sometimes they are a hindrance. Sometimes the issue is so personal, so embarrassing, that you need to talk to a stranger.

Just like with primary care providers, some people don’t have primary faith providers.

These places could also do other services that people need, like performing marriages. There are plenty of people who don’t have a faith community that they belong to. There are plenty of people who feel betrayed by the church, but still want the rituals.

We humans need rituals to mark transitions. Graduation is more than just finishing high school or college. There is more to it than just getting a diploma. We dress up, have special words, and there is a meal afterwards. We know something different has happened, that we are different. The ritual helps us to know that. Sure, people could get married at the courthouse, but sometimes they want a place where they can invite their family to see them get married and to wish them well.

While I’m all for the idea of the idea that every person become self-reliant to the fullest extent possible, there are some things that we can’t do for ourselves. I reject the idea of hierarchy in faith – I believe that we are called to walk together in our faith journey, not be lead like sheep. I believe that everybody is called by God, and everybody has special abilities.

But sometimes we can’t do it all ourselves. Sometimes we need a compassionate listener. Sometimes we need someone who can listen to our pain and help us find a way out of that hole. Sometimes we need someone who can say “that sucks!” or “that has to be hard for you” or “take a nap and call me in the morning.”

You need to be able to validate the other person’s feelings and experiences, to let them know that they aren’t going crazy, that life is in fact really hard right now.

It isn’t easy to be a good listener. You have to show that you are interested. You have to be patient. You can’t get distracted. You can’t start telling people how it is so much harder for you. That is the worst. Bad listeners are like my aunt, who when you say “I may have cervical cancer”, she says “my daughter had a bad case of melanoma last year.” Don’t be that person.

You can’t go into this to tell people off or tell them what to do. I know way too many people in ministry who think that is what they are called to do. Being a good minister is about kenosis. It is about emptying yourself out and letting God fill in the space. Being a good minister is about being like a shaman. It is about connecting the here with the there. It is about reminding people that “there” is right here. Being a good minister is like being a musician, where you can “translate” the needs of the moment into a song that is healing, except it is with prayers.

This all takes a lot of practice. It takes a lot of faith.

Not everybody wants to be a minister, in much the same way that not everybody wants to be a nurse. Not everybody can handle the intimacy of the soul or the body when it is exposed. So while I think that everybody is called by God, and that everybody can minister in their own way, perhaps there are some people who are just better suited to be good listeners. I think that everybody needs healing, whether it be physical or metaphysical. There is a lot of healing found in just being able to listen, and I mean really listen, to someone else.

Perhaps that is what we all want. We all want to be heard. Perhaps those phone sex lines aren’t about sex at all, but about connection. Perhaps that is why bartenders and hairdressers are so sought out. It isn’t for the beer or the bob cut. It is for someone to listen.

Deaf to God.

What is it that people don’t get about God? Why do they see God as a magic trick or an imaginary friend? Why do they think of believers as chumps? Why are the words “believers” and “freethinkers” opposites?

I can’t ever not remember believing in God. I have always known of God. If faith is believing in things not seen then yes I have faith – because I have not seen God but I still know He’s real. I hear Him. I feel His presence. I know He listens to my prayers. But just because my eyes don’t perceive Him doesn’t mean I don’t know of His reality.

Now, to clarify, I don’t see God as a Him or a Her. God is the Creator. God is above gender. God doesn’t need anything or anyone else to create. But our language doesn’t have a third person singular designation for something that is genderless other than “it” and that word just doesn’t have the weight and presence I feel is needed when talking about the Creator. And as to the term “God” – it is a descriptive. I remember someone getting very angry with me and saying “He has a name!” Yes. But which one? “I am that I am,” or “I am” or “YHWH” or “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” or “The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Israel”? Our Jewish friends feel it is rude to say the name of God. They will write “G_d” or they will say words like “Hashem” which means “The Name.” The Arabs have 99 names for God, which really describe His qualities. God is Love – that is an appropriate name too.

I know is that it is comforting to know that I am not driving the bus. I am not in charge. Something larger than me has it all worked out. My goal is to get closer and closer to this Creator and align myself with Him. I remember having some rune stones when I was younger and one of the explanations for a particular rune was “I will to will Thy will.” I think that sums it up well. I’ve heard it is better to want what you get rather than to get what you want.

I’m OK with the idea of not doing something “right”. I’m ok with “messing up”. I’m ok with it not coming out like I thought it would. Because that too is part of the plan. “All things work together for good for those who follow God,” so the apostle Paul tells us. All things. Even the stuff you don’t think is OK. Judas was filling his role when he betrayed Jesus. He wasn’t in his right mind. It was as if he was possessed. And then, he came to. When he realized what he had done he killed himself. But his actions were prophesied by the prophet Isaiah. Betrayed by a friend for 30 pieces of silver. It had to happen that way. So even “bad” has to happen. Sometimes it is our need to define a situation as “bad” or “good” that becomes a problem in itself.

I used to feel really self-conscious about what I feel is my calling. I first heard the voice of God at 12 while standing in my back yard in Chattanooga. What I heard I would do has perturbed and confused me for the rest of my life so far. It doesn’t even seem possible. It doesn’t make sense. Adding to it – I’m bipolar. I was diagnosed at 30, but I had the first signs of it at 17. I’ve talked to psychiatrists who were also priests (that’s a trick to find) to see if that was a sign of the disease. You know what I mean. Lilly Tomlin tells us that if God talks to us, we are crazy. This is what society says. Yet we take seriously the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Noah, Isaiah, and Moses talking with God face to face. We don’t even question that it happened. So why can’t this happen to us, now? These stories should be considered blueprints – not myths. Here’s how you know that God is calling you. Listen. It isn’t just a story.

Samuel lived in a time where God hadn’t spoken in a while. He had to be taught what to do in that situation. “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening,” is what he was told to say the next time he heard his name called out by God. Perhaps we need to say this. Perhaps we need to stop talking so much. Perhaps we need to turn off the talk radio and the reality TV and put down the latest thriller novel. Perhaps we don’t do this because we are afraid of what we might hear.

I think we would rather sleepwalk through our lives than hear God’s voice. And we don’t even have to hear it to know what to do. We have the Bible to tell us.

There was a homeless guy from Poland named Bogdam who had sort of moved into the post office that is in my neighborhood. He was very pleasant and about 60 years old. He seemed content. I had made a point of talking with him every time I saw him. One day I had picked up supper for myself at Captain D’s and was on my way home. The post office was on the way, and I started thinking about Bogdam. I prayed – God, should I give him my supper? Send me a sign. And instantly the answer was – you have a sign. You have the whole of the Gospel telling you to “feed my sheep”. You don’t need anything else. Of course give him your supper.

So perhaps we don’t often hear the voice of God because we ignore the message we already have with us. We know what to do. Now it is time to take it seriously.