The Epiphany Call

Originally posted at The Beatitudes Society's forum Be@ts 2.0.

The Epiphany Call: A Journey of Joyful Desperation

How did you find yourself doing what you're doing, being who you are? How did God's call come to you, and how did you respond to it?

Many years ago when I was still in elementary school, I didn't have any choice but to go to Vacation Bible School at Johnson Memorial Methodist Church in Huntington, W.Va., because my father was the pastor. But I enjoyed it anyway. One of the projects we worked on one summer under the guidance of dear Mrs. Robinette was to create a newspaper that would have been published during the time of the Apostle Paul. I jumped at the opportunity to create my own little tabloid with pencil on paper, complete with headlines, ads, and even comic strips circa 1st century CE. The news stories reported on this wacky traveling preacher who was creating a ruckus in Jesus' name.

That exercise had such an impact on me that, by the time I got to college, I decided to major in journalism, and for several years after graduating I worked for two newspapers in West Virginia. But my faith tugged at me during that time, and I wanted to move beyond merely reporting on secular events to writing from my heart and mind about my faith.

In pursuit of this calling I went to seminary. Though I always felt my calling involved writing or communications rather than preaching and pastoring, I decided to be very intentional about the 13-week pastoral internship my seminary required. As the son of an ordained minister, I wanted to make sure in my own spirit that God wasn't calling me to the pastorate after all. So I found a notice on a bulletin board at my seminary about a little United Church of Christ in a storefront in South Dallas that wanted a student to help out. I was the only seminarian to answer that ad.

I ended up spending a whole year as an unpaid student assistant pastor at that church. I was Pastor Gerry's shadow at just about every meeting, hospital visit, and church service. I preached once a month and taught junior high Sunday school each week (three kids, if they all showed up). I worked with the Bible study class on Wednesday evenings and helped parishioners stuff the newsletters. I even helped bury a sweet old woman who, with her mother and sister, virtually adopted me. It was an amazing experience-and one that clarified for me that my calling wasn't to a pastorate, but to some other ministry-in my case, communications. Since 2001 that has manifested itself in my involvement as producer and host of the national Day1 radio program and author of some devotional books.

I look back and marvel about how my own calling has unfolded over the years-often surprising, but never doubted. It appears to be a meandering path, with a variety of expressions of the call, but the call is clear.

So I ask you again, how did God's call come to you? And how are you responding to it?

These past several weeks at Be@titudes 2.0 we've been treated to some thought-provoking insights and robust discussions about the meaning of the season of Epiphany, which (as you know by now!) starts with our remembering the visit of the Magi to Jesus after his birth. Epiphany, we've seen, celebrates the manifestation of Christ beyond the Israelites to the whole world-as represented by the Wise Ones who sought him with a joyful desperation.

In the Epiphany, God is revealed in the flesh to the whole world. We often focus on the fact that the Magi diligently followed the star in the skies and traveled great distances from mysterious lands in their efforts to see this unique manifestation of the holy. But in focusing on their star trek, we miss the fact that God just as diligently seeks us all. God desires relationship. God calls us to come close, brings us into God's very presence, and then sends us back out into the world to serve others, to seek justice and make peace, to love mercy, and to let others know that God is seeking them as well.

In the lectionary texts for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 7) we see these themes of calling and sending reverberating through each passage.

In Isaiah 6:1-8, Isaiah finds himself in the presence of the Lord of hosts and shrinks back in woeful humiliation. But his guilt and sin are removed and he is cleansed, enabling him to respond to God's call to go into the world as a message-bearer.

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 the Apostle Paul reviews the message shared by those who are sent by God. He too felt unworthy, unfit, "the least of the apostles," but "by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain" (v. 10).

And in the gospel, Luke 5:1-11, we see Jesus calling Peter, James and John to follow him, to fish for people and catch them for God's sake. By filling their boats unexpectedly with fish, Jesus revealed himself, made himself manifest to these gnarly fishermen. Jesus' self-revelation has an impact on Peter who, like Isaiah and Paul, turns away, reacting with feelings of fundamental unworthiness. But, again, Jesus will have none of that. He welcomes Peter and his fishing buddies. He calls them to be with him-and not just to be with him, but to catch others and welcome them into the family as well.

The season of Epiphany is all about God revealing Godself to us all, to the whole world-unworthy as we may consider ourselves-calling us as we are ("I am what I am"), and sending us out as followers of Christ to seek justice for all.

When it comes to the Christian faith, this is basic stuff. And yet it's something we must continually wrestle with in our faith communities, working collectively to fit all the pieces of it together:

-       trying to understand the meaning of God's enfleshment in Christ

-       yielding to God's grace in working out our feelings of unworthiness and sinfulness

-       figuring out how to respond to God's call to go forth and catch people

-       living faithfully every day as seekers of justice and sharers of mercy.

It's basic, but it's something we must, together, work on continually and encourage each other in.

It's a constant process because our circumstances change. The people around us change. The world's needs change. Our abilities change. So we must persistently, in every moment, be aware of the meaning of God's revelation in Christ to the whole world, be awake to God's call to us to go out and live and serve in justice, mercy, and peace in this hurting world.

Does it get easier? I don't think so. Sometimes it feels like it's getting more difficult-the needs seem to grow exponentially, the resistance to justice and peace becomes more entrenched, our willingness to respond fades with exhaustion.

And yet, every time I try to answer God's Epiphany call, even in the smallest way, even when I feel the most unworthy, I am always amazed at how God can work through that act. So like the Magi's relentless search for Jesus, this too becomes for me-for all of us-a journey of joyful desperation.

As I was thinking about all this I came across a quote from the noted 19th century preacher, author, and Episcopal bishop, Phillips Brooks. He wrote that he pitied his youthful friends who died young, because they were missing an amazing phenomenon of a lifelong relationship with God. I thought it was a fitting expression for this Epiphany season. When we think of the common use of the word, as in "I had an epiphany," we think of a flash of insight, a sudden revelation. And that meaning is evident in the visit of the Magi--it was an amazing encounter, certainly brief, but world--shaking with an impact that still echoes. And this week's texts remind us that the work of Epiphany is ongoing-always, always current.

So take a moment to read carefully what Phillips Brooks wrote about this phenomenon:

All experience comes to be but more and more of pressure of [Christ's] life on ours. It cannot come by one flash of light, or one great convulsive event. It comes without haste and without rest in this perpetual living of our life with him. And all the history, of outer or inner life, of the changes of circumstances, or the changes of thought, gets its meaning and value from this constantly growing relation to Christ.

I cannot tell you how personal this grows to me. He is here. He knows me and I know him. It is no figure of speech. It is the realest thing in the world. And every day makes it realer. And one wonders with delight what it will grow to as the years go on.

Less and less, I think, grows the consciousness of seeking God. Greater and greater grows the certainty that he is seeking us and giving himself to us to the complete measure of our present capacity. That is Love-not that we loved him, but that he lived us.

--Phillips Brooks, bishop of Massachusetts, 1893, from Life and Letters of Phillips Brooks by Alexander V. G. Allen (London, 1900), quoted in Speaking to the Soul: Daily Readings for the Christian Year,ed. By Vicki K. Black (Morehouse Publishing, 2009), p. 18.

Now think and pray about how you will answer your Epiphany call...