Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” – Ezekiel 37:11-14
I had a moment today.
I was sitting in class, like I normally do. I was trying my best to pay attention to what was developing into an astoundingly nuanced conversation. I thought the best possible outcome of that fifty-minute period would be that I might be able to distinguish the differences between semi-Pelagianism and the church’s doctrine [don’t ask… I’m not sure I could even do it justice at this point]. However, little did I know that understanding was the very least of what I would gain from class this morning.
As some of you may know, I am in the middle of the candidacy process for ordination in the United Methodist Church. Since beginning this journey in college, I have been asked about my calling more times than I can remember. I receive that question with equal parts excitement and dread.
Of course, it is exciting to believe that God is somehow involved in my life. God. GOD. Yahweh, Jehovah, LORD. Creator, sustainer, redeemer. Whatever words you would use, even if you’re not sure who God is or if God even exists, you have to admit that the mere idea of God’s work in our lives is astounding.
At the same time, it is incredibly daunting to attempt to put words to such an experience. I am a creature, so limited, so broken. This calling that I am trying to describe is from the creator, unlimited, perfect. My attempts to articulate can barely even brush the surface of what this calling is like.
I’ve heard some pastors talk about calling by giving amazing testimony to the work of God in their lives. These are women and men who were taken by the scruffs of their necks and wrenched from the deepest, darkest of pits by the God for whom no pit is too deep or too dark. Their stories are incredible accounts of God’s calling in the unlikeliest of places.
I’ve heard other pastors cite incredible intellectual and spiritual journeys. These are women and men who have encountered scripture and the Holy Spirit of God at a level few can hope to experience – through both the power and grace of the God who has infinite knowledge. Their brains and souls are incredible testaments to God’s calling in the most incomprehensible of ways.
I’m not sure yet what kind of pastor I am going to be, or what kind of call story I am going to have. The beauty of seminary is that I am constantly being formed and re-formed. I am indeed clay in the hands of the potter.
In some ways, I resonate with those who have been called out of the pit. I have been in some deep and dark places. I made it here only because I too was pulled out of the pit by this God who does the best kind of work there. In other ways, I feel on a deep level the intellectual and spiritual calling of God in my life. I too have been wooed by the beauty of the Word of God, and enchanted by theology.
However, I’ve also heard many pastors of all different kinds describe a moment. These are women and men who may have already experienced calling to ministry in some way. They, perhaps, were pulled from the pit, or drawn in by the knowledge of God. Given the infinite nature of God, there are endless other ways people are called to be God’s ministers, too. Perhaps their calling defies any category.
Regardless of the nature of their initial call, these pastors are able to put their finger on one single moment in which they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were called to be pastors. I’ve heard it all: funerals, weddings, accidents, miracles, grocery store encounters. These are women and men who have, in one incredible moment, seen the spaces where their God-given gifts and talents overlap with the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Friends, I had my moment today, sitting in an overly-warm classroom, surrounded by fellow students, engaged in a conversation I could barely keep up with.
We were deep in the text of St. Augustine’s On the Predestination of the Saints, in which he details his doctrine of predestination. The short and overly-simplified version of it is that he believed with all his heart that God offered goodness to humanity, that humanity (AKA Adam and Eve) rejected this goodness and passed that rejection on to all people (AKA original sin), and that God then offered grace for salvation BUT – here’s the kicker – this salvation was only offered to some (AKA the elect).
Many sisters and brothers in Christ whom I love and respect hold this view. For all I know (which is not very much, by the way), this could be the way it is. God is certainly entitled to choose only a few lucky humans to be saved, just as God is entitled as creator to destroy the earth completely if God chose to do so.
Maybe it is just that my “bleeding heart” is too big, or that my reading of scripture is upside down, but I can’t seem to fit all of God into the “predestination” box.
One of many reasons that Augustine held this view was to maintain the sovereignty of God. Other writers at the time (John Cassian, for one) were gently suggesting that human beings could reject the offered salvation of God through their free will. Augustine saw this to mean that God attempted something and failed, that God attempted to save someone and couldn’t do it. This sort of God wasn’t comprehensible to Augustine, and so he wrote.
Now, I realize we are getting technical here, but please bear with me. It gets better.
All this time in class, the conversation was continuing. I was just trying to keep my head above water and take notes as quickly as I could. Then, my professor said something I’m sure he intended to be just another clarifying point in an otherwise extraordinarily dense conversation.
“In Augustine’s view,” he explained, “when a person dies without being saved, it is simply because God never even tried to save them.”
He continued, but time slowed to a crawl. My pen stopped furiously scribbling. Something like a vision filled my mind.
Freshly dug earth, piled on the left side of an unnaturally symmetrical hole in the ground. A blank tombstone, no name and no epitaph. A casket, plain and black, slowly lowered into the darkness.
My eyes began to water. I resumed taking notes, only halfway listening, blinking back tears.
This cannot be God, I thought. In fact, this is not the God I know.
The God I know is there even in the unnaturally symmetrical graves, in the blank tombstones, in the black caskets. The God I know descends into the deepest and darkest of pits. The God I know took on the form of a helpless infant, grew up, got sick, hungry, tired, and tempted. The God I know submitted to a death of the worst kind, and inhabited a literal tomb for three days.
But the God I know also doesn’t stay there. The God I know grips us tight and pulls us – heart, soul, mind, body – back into the land of the living with him. For the God I know, death is certainly not the final word.
This is the very simple message of the Gospel that all Christians are called to live out, and this is the very simple message of the Gospel that I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt I am called to preach.
This was my moment. I too realize where my God-given gifts and talents overlap with the coming of the Kingdom of God. As with any part of a calling, it is challenging to articulate. While we can try our best to do so, there is always going to be an element of mystery to the Holy Spirit of God.
Still, we have to try. Putting words to the indescribable God we experience is the very task of the Christian.
If this sounds like a frighteningly unattainable task, that’s only because it is. But, Christian, don’t worry; we serve the God who can be found in the graves, tombs, and caskets, and for whom nothing is impossible.
Grace and peace,