Call, Purpose, Vocation

Rev. Rebecca Hale   |   May 30, 2014

Call, Purpose, Vocation

Baccalaureate Message for Lynchburg College, May 2014

Rev. Rebecca Hale, NBA Vice President of Mission and Ministry

Exodus 3:1-11

What a moment of awe college graduation is – sit back and take this in – look around you at those you have been journeying with these last few years. You look great and full of promise.  You will change this world! You will change it by the kind of attention you bring to each new day. You will change this world by what you value and how you focus your passion and energy.  You will change this world by everyday acts of loving your neighbor and big bold acts of speaking for justice.

As poet Mary Oliver wrote, the question of the day is: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

This narrative from Exodus is one of the great stories in all of literature and helped form a whole people, expressing their understanding of their God. You may remember Moses: in the Hebrew Bible, Moses, infant child of Hebrew slaves, floated down a river in a basket by his mom, adopted by the powerful Pharaoh’s daughter -- one day as a young man Moses, enraged by an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, saves the life of the slave by killing the Egyptian.  He escapes punishment by running away and making his home in a foreign land. Our reading catches up to Moses after he has made a life for himself tending the flocks of his new father-in-law. Moses: Refugee, adopted child, one somehow at the center of power and yet still on the margins, outlaw, rancher,  – quite a life story!

All the while Moses’ people, remain in bondage, and oh they suffer.
Moses, tending the sheep, a day like the day before and the day before that and the day before that. . . on this day though Moses’ attention is captured by a bush on fire, and a kind of other-worldly fire at-that. Moses stops and pays attention.

Moses encounters the Holy and God, calling Moses by name says:
“I’ve taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people. I’ve heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain.” I have seen. I have heard.  I have known. I will deliver.

God call’s is for Moses to open his eyes to what he already knows to be true in his heart of hearts. His rancher’s life has been allowing him live in denial about what was really real.
I want to make a joke about de-nile not just being a river in Egypt, but that might be in bad taste.

After encountering the Holy, Moses can no longer pretend that it is okay to go about the pastoral life ignoring the cries echoing off the hills in the night. Indeed he returns to Egypt and leads the movement that liberates the people. 

The Moses narrative is part of a grand tradition of “call” stories. Stories of the calling of great leaders in Hebrew and Christian scriptures, stories of prophets like Mohamed at Meca and Ghandi on a 21 day fasts. Call stories where women and men meet the Sacred and understand their life and purpose in new ways – changing the way they live in the world forever.

Some stories of call are epic. For most though, the call to a life lived for something bigger than oneself, with purpose, is more like an encounter with a still small voice. Ghandi said: “For me the Voice of God, of Conscience, of Truth, or the Inner Voice or “the Still Small Voice” mean one and the same thing.” 

Through my job with the National Benevolent Association, the other NBA, I work with young adults, many of whom are about to graduate from college.  The drive of your generation to find ways to deeply care for your communities, your world, the earth is impressive. I am inspired everyday by young adults. In the NBA XPLOR program young adults live together in simple intentional community, intern in local agencies doing service and justice work, spend time in vocational discernment, and spiritual formation. These young adults spend nearly a year asking the big questions about how they want to live their lives: what will their relationship to money and work be? How will they engage their community and best use their passions and talents?

I am delighted to share that two graduates from Lynchburg College are part of this XPLOR year, Shemeka Ferrell and Gillie Martin – congratulations to these two young women!
Hear the response of two of the applicants as they talk about why they want to take this sort of pause before jumping headlong into what is next include these two statements:

“The past four years of my life have been focused on me; my studies, my friends, my schedule, my leftover food in the refrigerator, the list goes on. I want to take some time after I graduate to serve people as much as I can. I want to explore my purpose in life through service to others.”

“By living in simple community, I expect to be stretched and challenged. I will probably be confronted by some level of stubbornness and certainty of my own right-ness that goes unacknowledged in my day to day. I feel like I am drowning in predictability, there is only so far you can grow when you only surround yourself with folks who share your same values & cultural experiences and it is time for me to understand this world from a bigger perspective and how I am called to live in it.”

By participating in this year-long experience of service and reflection, the residents open themselves to encountering the Sacred as they work in vulnerable  communities, sit with one another processing experiences, and make room for the Holy to speak. Call, purpose, vocation – these questions get us into the deep end of life!  Questions of call and vocation they are not only for those who will find themselves in full-time religious service.  Questions of call and purpose are for every one of us and impact every part of our lives. Our family life, love life, work, interests, and our politics. Whatever we do with our time and passions and resources is infused by our sense of call and purpose.
For most of us listening for the voice that nudges us towards our passions and our purpose will be a long and winding road.

Thomas Merton a Trappist monk, wrote, “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach . . . It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
Zen Buddhism calls this awakening a recognition of “your original face before you were born.”

Hearing our call, and understanding how to live it out in our lives requires a posture of attentiveness and openness. Moses was paying attention and could SEE that something was different and then he didn’t run from it, but moved towards it, curious, open, engaged. 
Frederick Buechner rightly notes that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”

Understanding our call is not only about “me” and my personal fulfillment. It is also about “us” – the world -- and the common good. Indeed we find our callings are forged on the holy ground where our heart's desire comes together with what the world most needs from us.

To know our call is a dance of inward listening to our own hearts and outward, engaged listening to the realities of the world in which we live.
Our calls get clear to us as we pay attention:

  •  Pay attention to the voices of the Sacred that whispers to us.
  • Pay attention, listen to the world, particularly the voices of those are oppressed and marginalized – the Holy is always, always, always nudging us to care for our sisters and brothers. 
  • And our sense of calling gets stronger and clearer as we listen to that still small voice that is our “original self” our deepest self. 

As you build your life it will be so very easy to structure your days to rarely see any real need.  Settle in a gated community, send the kids to schools with people who look just like them, take routes to work that mean driving through neighborhoods not much different than your own, read news from perspectives that complement your own becoming ever more comfortable in your own certainties . . . many take this wide path of least resistance. Oh, it is not easy to cultivate a life of attention and to follow calls towards caring for others and working towards the common good.  And to be honest, there are forces in the world arrayed against the quest for us to find our truest self. Forces of personal complacency and denial.  Seductive voices that say the problems of the world are too big and we can’t make a difference or “success is what “I” do.”  There is real self-interested power in keeping the systems that benefit some to the detriment of others in place. You have this going for you – it is no longer just the religious community talking about calling and vocation and purpose. Calling, purpose is now a serious area of reflection across a variety of fields. 

Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania has written a widely read book arguing for the application of a sense of calling to business structures. He presents a compelling case for how people are not just motivated by status and money but by that internal feeling of rightness and creative expression and by a conviction that their work somehow contributes to the world.

Aaron Hurst in the book The Purpose Economy writes that the “purpose economy is defined by the quest for people to have more purpose in their lives. It is an economy where value lies in establishing purpose for employees and customers—through serving needs greater than their own, enabling personal growth, and building community.” He goes on to say, “In today’s world, running an organization without an intentional emphasis on purpose for employees and customers is like running an organization in the early 1990s and failing to implement technology.”*

Those are some strong words coming from voices beyond the religious community and such good news for all of us.  Listening to the Holy and following our call is not for the faint of heart and should not be practiced at home alone – we need each other and we should take support for this life’s project wherever we can get it.

The Moses narrative, where our conversation began today, opens with Moses hearing the Sacred calling him by name and setting him on a risky journey that was well past Moses’ areas of comfort and competency and directed towards the common good, liberating an oppressed people.

This conversation between God and Moses is Holy Ground.
You too come to Holy Ground, as you listen for the call of the Sacred in your lives, calling you to pay attention, to hear the cries of those groaning in pain, and to follow the call of love on risky journeys that will take you places and toward peoples you cannot even yet imagine. 

It may not be tonight.  It may be a day like any other day, a day when something is different and a bush burns, a day like this day in a story of the calling of the famous Sioux Holy Man, Black Elk – hear his call story:

“It was like somebody calling me, and I thought it was my mother, but there was nobody there. This happened more than once, and always made me afraid, so that I ran home. It was when I was five years old that my grandfather made me a bow and some arrows. The grass was  young and I was horseback. A thunder storm was coming from where the sun goes down, and just as I was riding into the woods along a creek, there was a kingbird sitting on a limb. This was not a dream, it happened. And I was going to shoot at the kingbird with the bow my grandfather made, when the bird spoke and said : “The clouds all over are one-sided.” Perhaps it meant that the clouds were looking at me . And then it said: “Listen! A voice is calling you!” Then I looked up at the clouds, and two men were coming there, headfirst like arrows slanting down; and as they came they sang a sacred song and the thunder was like drumming. I will sing it for you. The song and the drumming were like this: “Behold, a sacred voice is calling you; All over the sky a sacred voice is calling.”

Pay attention.  Keep listening for the Sacred, from the skies, from each other, from deep within. Amen.

* Hurst, Aaron (2014-04-02). The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World (Kindle Locations 287-288). Elevate. Kindle Edition.

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