God in the Rear View Mirror

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 6:1-13

Psalm 138

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Luke 5:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Most holy God, the earth is filled with your glory, and before you angels and saints stand in awe. Enlarge our vision to see your power at work in the world, and by your grace make us heralds of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” Isaiah 6:8.

From my first year in high school I looked forward to preparing for ministry. I longed to delve deeper into the scriptures and to share their treasures with God’s people. I looked forward to preaching the gospel and leading the people of God in living out its good news through acts of compassion, justice and reconciliation. In many respects, my yearning echoed the words of the prophet: “Here am I; send me!” There was just one problem. Unlike Isaiah, I had not heard God’s call. I had not “seen the Lord,” whatever that means. No seraphim ever purged my lips and no booming voice ever said to me “Go.” I never experienced anything leading me to believe that God had called me to the work of ministry. I wanted it. I was passionate about it. I thought I might be good at it. But was that enough?

I struggled with doubt about my calling throughout my college years, dropping briefly my double major in religion and classical languages for an education major. I pondered whether perhaps my calling might rather lie in something like social work and explored that option briefly. But somehow, I always found myself back on the ministerial track. When I entered seminary, I was surrounded by people my own age who were confident in their sense of call. My class consisted of many women who, against centuries of opposition to their ordination and systemic inequality in denominational politics, pursued confidently their sense of call. There were also in my class many older students who had given up lucrative and stable careers to follow their call to serve as ministers of word and sacrament. They had some powerful stories to tell about God’s drawing them to seminary. I had nothing comparable to say regarding my call-assuming I even had one.

My first pastorate at a small congregation in Teaneck, New Jersey went well enough. I enjoyed preaching and leading worship, teaching confirmation, hospital and home visitation. Community outreach and evangelism, always a challenge, was nonetheless exciting and rewarding. Still, I wondered, is this really where I am supposed to be? After five years, I resigned my call to enter law school. As I explained to my congregation at the time, I was not leaving the ministry of the whole people of God. I was just leaving the ministry of word and sacrament. I figured that if God had any objections, God could speak up for a change and tell me so. I accepted God’s continued silence as, if not approval, at least lack of objection. For the next twenty-two years I studied and then practiced law in the State of New Jersey. If making partner within my first five years at the firm I joined and winning more cases than I lost makes for success, then I was a successful lawyer. I had found my niche if not my calling. That should have solved my problem.

It did not. I never quite escaped the orbit of pastoral ministry. I was called upon regularly by pastors needing supply preachers during vacation and by churches with pastoral vacancies. The congregation I was attending at the time arranged to call me as a part time assistant to the senior pastor and so I remained on the clergy roster even as I was pursuing a full time legal career. Throughout this period in my life, the need for supply preachers in the state intensified and I found myself filling in at churches throughout northern New Jersey for two or three Sundays out of every month. Then one day I felt a yank on the thread tenuously holding me to parish ministry.

It happened one evening in a hospital. I had just finished up a deposition for a medical malpractice case my firm was defending. Such procedures are frequently held in hospital conference rooms in order to spare medical professionals being questioned the inconvenience of having to travel to our office. I was passing through the lobby on my way out the door when I heard a woman’s voice behind me. “Excuse me, pastor,” she said. “Could you take a few minutes and pray for my husband. He’s in the ER. We think he had a heart attack.”

“Of course,” I replied and followed her through the labyrinth of hallways leading to the emergency room. When I we got to the entrance, the security guard stopped us. “Miss, I see you have a visitor pass. What about you?” he said turning to me. “I’m a pastor,” I said without hesitation and somewhat to my own surprise. It suddenly occurred to me that there was nothing to identify me as clergy. I was wearing a suit and tie-standard attire for an attorney. I wasn’t carrying anything that could be mistaken as a Bible or a communion kit. Yet somehow, I was recognized as a pastor. [1] Furthermore, I had not thought of myself as a pastor since resigning my last full time parish. I hardly thought of my supply work as full fledged ministry. If questioned about my profession, I always identified myself as a lawyer. “OK,” he said. “Go ahead.” So we proceeded to the room where the woman’s husband was placed pending admission. I prayed with them both. I then realized that what I thought was, at best, a side hustle represented who I was at the deepest level. I recognized my call. Within weeks, I was in conversation with my local bishop, received an invitation to sit with a local congregational call committee-and the rest is history.

In fact, I had had a call from the beginning, even if I lacked ears to hear it. From this vantage point in my days, I can see the wind of the Holy Spirit directing me through the maze of life’s many possibilities, past the obstacles and through the detours leading to where I am. But I see that divine guidance only in retrospect and I cannot help but wonder whether the same was also true about the prophet. Could it have been that Isaiah’s call was not given by a blinding revelation in the immediacy of a single experience? Might it rather have been the poetic product born of reflection on a lifetime of experience? Could it have been that, in the ruins of a defeated land and among the scattered remnant of an exiled people, just beginning to turn toward the prophet for understanding of the terrible things that had happened to them, Isaiah finally found the purpose and significance of what occurred on that day in the temple, when he and so many others gathered following the death of a great ruler as the storm clouds of war were gathering?

The truth is, all children of God have a call from God. But that call is God’s baptismal work and becomes visible only by its unfolding in time. In the Book of Exodus, Moses asks to see God’s glory. But God replies that no mortal can see God’s face and live. Yet God does not leave Moses with nothing. God instructs Moses to hide himself in the cleft of a rock. God will then pass by, placing God’s protective hand over the rock until God passes. Then God will lift the divine hand and Moses will catch a glimpse of God’s back side. Exodus 33:17-34:7. Perhaps that is how it always is. Perhaps even prophets cannot know God’s intentions, God’s will or God’s design for their lives except in retrospect. [2] That seems to have been the case for Jesus’ disciples throughout John’s gospel where the evangelist tells us twice that only after Jesus’ death and resurrection do the meaning of his words and actions become clear. E.g., John 2:22; John 12:16. Maybe that is what Saint Paul means when he tells us that we walk by faith and not by sight. II Corinthians 5:7. God’s back side is all we ever see of God this side of eternity and God’s intent for us can only be seen in the rear view mirror. Yet God’s past faithfulness makes it possible to proceed confidently into the future, even when we cannot see what lies ahead. Our lives are, after all, God’s project. What God begins, God can be trusted to finish. Philippians 1:6.

Here is a poem/prayer by the great pastor, teacher and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer exploring the stew of conflicting emotions, self understandings and motivations at work within us and affirming the assertion that, whatever we might be and whatever direction our lives may take, we are finally God’s project.

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I step out from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

Source: Letters and Papers from Prison, (c. 1953, 1967 and 1971 by SCM Press, Ltd.). Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident. He was a key founding member of the Confessing Church which rejected the Reich’s effort to impose Nazi ideology into its teaching. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential. In addition to his many theological writings, Bonhoeffer was known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship, including vocal opposition to Hitler’s euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel prison for one and a half years. He was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was accused of being associated with the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, tried along with other accused plotters and hanged on April 9, 1945.


[1] Though it is tempting to attribute this woman’s recognition to some pastoral “aura” I was projecting, the greater probability is that she recognized me from one of my many supply preaching stints throughout New Jersey. In any case, what I found striking was this sudden incursion of the call I had given up on into my now comfortable life as an attorney.   

[2] I am indebted for this insight into the Exodus story to author Mary Doria Russell and her book Children of God, a fascinating science fiction epic with deep spiritual themes. In one of the final chapters of her book, her character John Candotti remarks, “I wonder now if [the story of Moses and God’s glory] isn’t really about time? Maybe that was God’s way of telling us that we can never know His intentions, but as time goes on….we’ll understand. We’ll see where He was: we’ll see His back.” Russell, Mary Doria, Children of God, (c. 1999 by Random House Publishing Group) p. 428.

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