Due to various reasons, which have taken place over the last 20 to 30 years, Stanley Hauerwas says that the church now carries a new burden of proof. There has been an increase, or rise in the Nones, those without any religious affiliation, because they have witnessed scandal, experienced judgmentalism, or faced unfair disapproval by the church. We how have to demonstrate or prove the sincerity of our compassion.
Under those kinds of circumstances, it’s easy to take on a defensive posture, where we stand up in the courtroom, hit the table, and say, “I object!” We want to argue our side of the story—that we are compassionate. The only problem is when we look at the life of Jesus we do not see a defensive posture. But he doesn’t have an offensive stance either. He’s not going around trying to prosecute the other side. He steps outside of the courtroom altogether!
He is simply focused on his calling and purpose, which is why Psalm 139 is so valuable to us. It has a way of reaching deep down inside of us and touching something important, where that poetry says, “O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” We are fearfully and wonderfully made, created with purpose and calling.
It might have been a few years since we last played Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but we can go back and still remember what it’s like to have that blindfold tied around us. Then someone, who’s enjoying it more than they should, spins us around for what feels like a hundred times. We then pause, while the room is still spinning, and we are trying to get our bearings to figure out which direction we used to be facing.
When we feel that new burden of proof as a church, it is disorienting. We don’t know what to say. We’re not sure what to do. We don’t know how to get our bearings. But we find them again by remembering our purpose and calling.
In that story from 1 Samuel, which is referred to as the calling of Samuel because he goes on to carry that title prophet, to name the first kings of Israel, we find Samuel far from that title. It was during a time where it says the Word of God was rare, that either God was silent or hidden or ignored. It says Samuel had not yet encountered God, but he is there helping the priest, Eli. Samuel’s a great help to Eli because his eyesight is failing him, but it says the lamp of God in the Temple has not gone.
It is meant to show the contrast in the story, where we can’t always trust our assumptions or our uncertainty. Whereas, Eli’s eyesight is failing, the light of God has not gone out. Whereas, people have not heard from God, God is going to speak to Samuel.
Then one evening, Samuel hears this voice, “Samuel. Samuel,” and he gets up and he goes running to Eli. And Eli, a little disoriented because he didn’t call out, says, “Go lie back down.” Well, this happens two more times, and finally, that seasoned experience of Eli says when you hear this voice again, simply say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
This story about the calling of Samuel is atypical when we look at all the stories about calling throughout the pages of scripture because so often in the pages of scripture, a calling comes with specific instructions. Think about Moses who is told to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go,” or Jonah who is given a map, and he is supposed to go to Nineveh to speak of repentance to the Assyrians. But in this story, there are no instructions for Samuel, which turns out to be quite helpful to us.
At its very core, a calling is not about a specific task: it is about a way of life. If you want to know about a calling, do not ask a minister. A minister, with this knee-jerk reaction, will start telling you about a calling to a specific task. If you want to know about a calling, ask someone in the pew, like Samuel, who is going to talk about a way of life.
If you asked anybody in the early church, they would describe a calling simply as the Christian faith. It was that way for the first several hundred years because they felt called from no faith, or a different faith, to this new way of life that they called the Christian faith. That may not be our experience. Many of us may have grown up in the church running around these hallways, but a calling is always to a new way of life.
All of that changed in the early church when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of Rome, which came with its own set of problems. If you were born a Roman citizen, you were simply born into Christianity. You were born into the rolls of the church, never giving it much thought. But at its core, a calling is to a way of life.
We should never underestimate the power of purpose. Victor Frankel writes, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Adam Hamilton reminds us that Victor Frankel was a psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor.
In 1942, Victor and his family were sent to a concentration camp. Victor survived, but his family did not. Afterwards he felt compelled to write the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, or by its original title, Saying Yes to Life In Spite of Everything. In the concentration camp, he observed that if prisoners were able to hold on to that belief that their lives, in fact, were still significant—that they were fearfully and wonderfully made—it helped them to persevere. In his medical practice, based on these observations, he developed an approach that helped countless people, who were ready to give up on life.
We find deeper meaning and purpose in the ways of Jesus, where we are all called to compassion and kindness, meekness and gentleness, justice and forgiveness.
Matthew Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic, and he holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. He has worked in a think tank and in a garage. He says he has learned as much from being a mechanic as he did a PhD student.
He says the reason for that is, “Old bikes don’t flatter you, they educate you.” They do not follow a manual. You have to learn along the way. There will be bolts that are rusted, and you have to figure out how to loosen them. There will be parts that are no longer available, and you have to improvise. There will be dents in the motorcycle that make it difficult to take apart and even harder to put back together.
The ways of Jesus do not flatter us, they educate us. We learn by doing them. It’s why we talk about the Word become flesh. We lean into that calling that we all share, and we learn by showing up, by walking alongside others, by listening, by changing, by making sacrifices.
We cannot learn those things by standing at a safe distance. We learn by interacting, by asking, by assisting. We can begin by remembering that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made. We have this purpose and calling, which can guide us through all manner of circumstances—never making us defensive, but always leading us forward.