“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I remember sitting in the computer lab at Hendrix College my sophomore year when I first read this quote from Fredrick Buechner. I was about to sit for an interview with the Hendrix chaplains and a few professors as I applied for a spot on the Miller Center’s mission trip to Cuba. It was the hour before the interview and I was scanning the Miller Center’s webpage for some solid talking points. I was still trying to figure out what the Miller Center was – what it meant to be the center for vocation, calling, and ethics. In my research, I remember being captivated by the clarity and directness of Buechner’s words.
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” These words definitely came up in my interview and in so many other conversations that I had with the Hendrix chaplains over the next three years. At the basis of Buechner’s formula for discernment is the understanding that one’s vocation, or call, is the work that God gives you or invites you to do; and that this work is to be found at the intersection of that which (a) you need most to do and (b) that which the world most needs to have done. At the point of this intersection, we are to find our life’s vocation.
And we are all created to be in a process of discerning this point of intersection in our lives. While the Episcopal church has formalized a process of discernment for those exploring a call to ordained ministry, the utter truth is that all of us are invited by God to engage in a routine process of discerning our vocation in our daily lives as we discover, through God’s grace, how we are to be in this world.
Discernment is a process of open listening. According to Buechner it is listening both inward for God’s call and outward for the ever-unfolding needs of the world. Responding to God’s call, is a process of, as the poet and philosopher David Whyte says, living half a shade braver.[i] Answering God’s call involves responding with great vulnerability and courage.
The lectionary readings for today bring three call and response stories to our attention. In the Old Testament reading, we encounter the prophet Isaiah as he responds in a vision to God’s call of Whom shall I send? with the brave and willing statement “Hineni”[ii] which means Here am I, in Hebrew; send me!
In our epistle for today, Paul writes to the people at Corinth about his own experience of Jesus’ post resurrection appearance and how it changed his life purpose so that he no longer persecuted the church of God but worked unceasingly and under persecution to spread the good news of Jesus Christ amongst the Gentiles.
In the fifth chapter of Luke’s Gospel we encounter Simon Peter as he is called by Jesus to become a “catcher of people,” to which he and several other fisherman responded. They left everything and followed [Jesus] as disciples in the work of God’s kingdom.
A common or shared theme between these three call stories is the sinfulness of the called. All three seem to protest the fathomability of their call by announcing their sin as they recognize that they are in the presence of the divine. Isaiah announces that he is a man of unclean lips. Paul declares that he was unfit to become an apostle because he himself persecuted the church of God. Simon Peter falls down at his lack of understanding and pleads for Jesus to go away because he is a sinful man. We can take this mark of sin as good news! These statements reveal to us that God does not only call perfect, super-humans, but God calls all humans and all parts of the human individual – gifts and sinful parts included.
The promise and good news here is that God does not call the qualified, but that God qualifies the called. With a live coal that had been taken from the altar and touched to Isaiah’s mouth, his sin is blotted out. The burning coal of God’s grace frees and transforms Isaiah, Paul, and Simon from their sins. Sin here could be the disillusionment, as identified by poet David Whyte, that one can go throughout life without being vulnerable, without being humiliated, without ever being heartbroken, without breaking a promise. The transforming coal burns away this disillusionment and all are able to embrace God’s call to vulnerability and relationship.
By extending unending and unconditional grace, Jesus responds to Simon Peter’s sin not just with forgiveness but with a call to discipleship and an invitation into relationship, to vulnerability, to a future of heartbreak and promises that he can’t keep. Do not be afraid, responds Jesus, accept the grace of God and let’s do this kingdom work of revealing God’s abundance together. Do not be afraid, respond to my call, be half a shade braver, Jesus seems to say.
Bravery and courage here is not the absence of fear. I once received the advice that a bit of fear is good – it is where the Holy Spirit can enter into our work. Jesus acknowledges the fear, but asks Simon to be open to fear, to move through it, to be half a shade braver, to be vulnerable and accept his call to partnership.
All three of the called responded with willing vulnerability. “Hineni” Here I am replies Isaiah, in an offer of total availability and readiness to give oneself. Paul, by the grace of God, responded by working harder than any of [the other apostles]. Simon Peter and the other fisherman left everything – including the catch of their career – and followed [Jesus]. Each left their old ways of operating to vulnerably embrace and welcome transformation.
And, with our hindsight, we know that things did not always go perfectly after this self-offering. Throughout the gospels Simon Peter is recorded as failing again and again. In misunderstanding the sign of Jesus’ transfiguration he makes a bad suggestion that results in Jesus calling him out as Satan, his faltering faith causes him to sink when he steps out of the boat, he denies knowing Jesus three times…but in all of this, Peter models for us what it means to be half a shade braver. When the work is this important and urgent, it is always better to go ahead and bravely try to do it before perfecting the process or before figuring out all the right answers. In being half a shade braver, one accepts the inevitability of making a mistake and needing to ask for help down the road.
I invite all of us to search and listen for the dream that is at the center of your heart. What desire in you intersects with the world’s need? If you feel the need to feed people, let your heart sing with the work of Neighbors Table. If you dream of bridging cultural barriers to build relationships, coffee hour at All Saints’ is an opportunity to confront and stumble through the work of overcoming language barriers between English, Karen, and Spanish. And we can all let our hearts sing during the bilingual gospel proclamation. If your dream is to be an instrument of peace in the world, we pray for this at the end of service each week. And if you don’t yet find your dream at work in the world around you or in this community, how can it come to be? How can we all begin to step towards answering God’s call in our lives? In spite of the potential risk of having to be vulnerable, of being humiliated, of having your heart broken, or of breaking your promises…how can we all respond to God’s call and live half a shade braver?