It is not uncommon for pastors to get asked this question: Tell me, how were you called to the ministry? In his book The Alphabet of Grace, Frederick Buechner includes his response to this inquiry. His answer is not the same as mine, but I love it. He writes this:
“ ‘I hear you are entering the ministry,’ the woman said down the long table meaning no real harm. ‘Was it your idea or were you poorly advised?’ And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else’s. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring of the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself… Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you a high and driving peace. I will condemn you to death.” 1Buechner, Frederick. The Alphabet of Grace. HarperCollins, 1970.
Buechner’s answer to the question from the other end of the table is not my own, but here’s why I love it. The harmless woman seems to be asking: Why did you choose to go into the ministry? Why would you choose this? And his answer is, Ah. Nobody chooses this entirely. There’s a rumbling, and a stirring, and a clamoring which make this path something more than a choice.
And it’s not just pastors who know this is true. I’m pretty sure we all can relate. I mean, what would you say, when they’re asking you from across the table to please explain why you chose to become a teacher, or an engineer, or a musician. Why you have children. Why you don’t have children. Why you live in this town. Why you enlisted. Why you stopped speaking to your grandmother. Why you turned up here today.
Oh see, it is complicated. Sure some of this was our choice; it really was. Some of it was not, and what if there’s something more in the mix… When you hear the rumbling of the circumstances beyond your control, the stirring of your heart, and the clamoring of ghosts, you’ll hear how asking “Why did you choose this?” manages to miss the point. At the same time, it does not relieve us from needing to decide.
Whether you’re graduating from college and not sure what is next.
Whether you’re being forced to consider who you are now that you’re retired.
Whether you know you have to move, and you’re not ready to leave your house.
Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you might find yourself up all night wondering: “What is God calling me to do? How can I make the right choice?”
And what if there is something more than our choice…
Today we’re continuing the summer series on the cursing Psalms. At the heart of our Psalm of the day, we hear the question: “God, what do you want me to do? Help me choose the right path; help me make the right decision.” I know I have prayed this prayer before, and you probably have too. It is a good question to hold open in our hearts, O God, let your will be done.
There is still cursing going on in Psalm Five, but more than a song of revenge, this is a song pleading for help. The cursing is invoked strategically to showcase the soaringness of opposites and make clear to God what’s at stake. “You hate evildoers, O God. You know their throats are full of lies. But I seek refuge in you.”
There’s a trick of using contrast to make something clearer, and the Psalmist is trying to do that with her plea. She sings, “Lead me O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me” (Psalm 5:8). It’s like they’re out to get her! So come on, O God, do not be indifferent. Do not say there are good people on all sides. They’re after me; you’ve got to help me!
Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing. And do you hear the desperation in this Psalm? Let this get into your prayer, it will keep you up all night….
Now this same trick of using contrast to illuminate clarity is employed in the classic Sunday School story of Daniel in the lion’s den. You can hear how the people who crafted and repeated this folk story were downright determined to show off the opposites. It’s not even a little bit subtle.
What happened was that Daniel had been appointed by King Darius to serve as one of three presidents, ruling over the satraps of the land. When Daniel distinguished himself and got promoted, this did not please his former colleagues. They hatched a plan! Knowing that Daniel was devout in his faith, the presidents and satraps convinced the king to establish an ordinance. Now whoever prays to anyone, except to the king, shall be thrown into a den of lions. And the king fell for it!
As you’d expect, Daniel did not let this ordinance stop him from praying to God every day. So the conspirators caught him in the act and turned him in. Now King Darius loves Daniel, but here’s this ordinance. So the king did what he had to do. He threw Daniel into the den of lions; he sealed it with a stone and with this wish: May your God save you.
King Darius was up the whole night. He didn’t eat anything. Usually fasting goes with praying. Of course the Bible authors won’t tell us that Darius was praying, but it does make you wonder… In the morning, the king rushed to the lion’s den calling out for Daniel with words distinctly opposite the classic taunt that goes, “So where’s your God now? Isn’t he coming to save you?” No, King Darius cries, “I hope your God delivered you!” And indeed, she had.
The angel of the LORD came and shut the mouths of the lions. But the writers of this story want us to feel the full swing of reversal. It is not enough for Daniel to get rescued. King Darius rounds up all of Daniel’s accusers, their wives, and their children, and he makes those lions tear the people to bits. No subtle nuance. The lions crush the bones of the children, and God didn’t save them.
Where there had been a law prohibiting prayer to anyone who wasn’t the king; now King Darius turned that so far upside down. He issued a law commanding all the people to tremble and fear the LORD our God.
We can hear how the energy of this story comes from the tension between opposites. The satraps and presidents are on one side; Daniel is on the other. The lions are in the pit; the angel of the LORD comes from heaven. In considering who is opposite King Darius, I think it’s God.
Before the king flips the whole story upside down with this mass execution, King Darius is kept up all night because his soul is troubled. There is no good choice before him. He can’t eat, he can’t sleep, he does not know what to do. And I’m pretty sure you don’t have to be a Bible Storybook King to have this happen to you.
When you find yourself kept up all night by a decision your best analysis cannot resolve, you might feel exactly opposite God whose judgement is clear, and swift, and righteous.
When we find ourselves kept awake all night by trouble in our own souls, we might feel exactly opposite God in terms of where we are sitting. Like it’s God at the other end of the long table. Like it’s God chiding us, asking, “Was this your decision, or were you poorly advised?”
Now it would not be the worst thing to find ourselves positioned across from God. Here we can seek refuge in her word. We can pray the prayer that goes, “God, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it!” Sitting opposite the Holy Spirit, maybe he will choose for us. I am weak, but thou art strong. Oh there is power and hope in this image of God being on the other side, holding out the judgement and direction we’ve been seeking.
What I need to tell you, is that for better or worse, God is not enthroned in that seat at the other end of the long table.
You are not opposite God.
The Holy Spirit is the One Who Comes Alongside, which means when you are up all night, not eating, not sleeping, but wrestling with what to do, God is with you in the wrestling. God is in all the trouble of your soul. I know living with an open question can feel like living with an open wound; this is an act of faith.
When you can see the complexity between good and evil, God is in that mix.
When nothing is black and white, it’s all awash in color, God is in the rainbow.
When you’re praying in the middle of the night, and your prayers spill into your dreams, God is with you.
There is something more than our own choice, and God is in the more. So maybe it’s not a test after all. Maybe it’s not, “Will you follow God’s will, or won’t you? What are you going to do with your life?!” No…
There is something more. Now whatever you choose, or whatever chooses you, we always have the chance to go with God.
Behold, it is God in the rumbling and the stirring. Let us hear the LORD in the trouble of our conscience, in that clamoring of ghosts. Come all ye who are hungry, and up all night, and needing to know what to do, look beside you. God has come to go with us. Amen.
|Buechner, Frederick. The Alphabet of Grace. HarperCollins, 1970.