"Something I Can't Not Do"I work with college students. I serve as the associate Methodist chaplain at American University, and I love it. I love working with students who are asking big questions about life, about meaning, and about the world.
As you might imagine, one of the big questions that college students have goes something like, “What am I doing with my life?” In Christian terminology, we refer to this as the question of call. A lot of college students are wondering about their call. They are wondering what to study, what sort of groups to be involved with, and what kind of jobs to apply to after graduation; but more than that, they are trying to figure out how to make a difference in the world in a way that is true to their growing self-understanding.
“What am I doing with my life?” It’s a huge question, isn’t it? And I think that a lot of us have been told a big lie about it. The lie goes something like this: By about age 18, you should have a well-developed sense of identity. By the end of college, at age 21 or 22, you should have figured out what you’re doing with your life. By figuring out what you’re doing with your life, you should be able to get a job, which will become a career. Since you now have a job, you can afford to start a family and buy a house, and to work at said job until the age of retirement, at which point you can stop doing whatever it was that you were doing with your life and start fishing or golfing or quilting or whatever it was you’ve been putting off doing while you were doing the thing that you were doing with your life.
In this oversimplified understanding, one proceeds in a linear fashion: figure out what you’re doing with your life; do it for a while; reach peak effectiveness; then retire and relax.
That’s what a lot of us have been told, and I think it’s nonsense.
Here’s why I think it’s nonsense. In the United Methodist Church, we believe that all baptized Christians are called into ministry. Now, I don’t know when you were baptized. Maybe some of you haven’t been baptized yet. But if you haven’t been baptized yet, it’s not because you’re too young! I was baptized about four months after I was born. And, in the United Methodist Church, there’s no undoing that baptism. I was baptized before I could talk; and I’ll be baptized ‘til the day I die. And what our church claims to believe is that from the day I was baptized until the day I die, I’m called into ministry.
Now, there are some reasonable limits to this idea. It’s awfully tough for a four-month old to articulate their own call to ministry. And as we grow and we age, we discover all sorts of other limits. But those are the natural, external limits that come with being human. They don’t cancel out the internal reality of being called. Which means that the question, “What am I doing with my life?” isn’t just for high school students, or college students, or twenty-somethings. It’s a question for all of us, wherever we are in our life journeys. We all have a call.
This morning we heard a passage from one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. Paul is—as Paul so often is—feeling a bit frustrated with the church. They say that they’re following Christ; they say they’ve been baptized; but they’re doing and saying all sorts of un-Christlike stuff. In this particular passage, Paul is rehashing a disagreement about what it means to be free in Christ. Paul is trying to get across to the Corinthian church that the freedom of the Christ-follower isn’t about being able to do whatever you want—to eat whatever you want or wear whatever you want or have sex with whoever you want, all of which are issues causing tension in the Corinthian community. Now, you might think that Paul would just say, “No, you’re wrong, rules is rules.” But actually Paul believes very strongly that, in Christ, we are free. So what Paul does in this part of his letter is to use himself as an example of someone who has certain rights and freedoms but chooses to give them up in order to share the good news about Jesus Christ.
Here’s what Paul says. He says, “Look. I’m an apostle. I’ve been sent by the Lord. And so I have the right to collect some payment from y’all for the work that I’m doing here. But you know what? I won’t collect my pay. Not because I don’t have a right to it. Not because I haven’t earned it. But because I’m not in this for the money; I’m in this for the gospel.” Ok, so Paul can be a bit passive aggressive sometimes. But what I think he’s trying to do is to set an example for the Corinthians that just because they have the right to do certain things, doesn’t mean it’s what’s good for the Christian community.
One way of understanding Paul’s point here is to say that he is trying to talk about the intersection between one’s personal freedom and one’s responsibility to the community, the world, and God. And that intersection, I believe, is where call happens. One commonly shared definition of call comes from the theologian Frederick Buechner, who says: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In similar terms, the great Howard Thurman, dean of chapel at Boston University and mentor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” In other words, calling has to do with you being free—but not free for yourself. Free, at a very deep level, to be who you really are in service to a world that needs your unique gifts and personality and vision.Paul is telling the Corinthians that he has a call. He experiences it as a duty and an obligation—but not an obligation imposed on him by some outside body. It’s an obligation that seems to come from somewhere deep inside himself. Paul says, “Why do I preach the gospel? Because I can’t not preach the gospel!”
The Quaker theologian and educator Parker Palmer describes call like this: “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.”[i]
“Something I can’t not do.” I think that’s how Paul feels about his work with the churches. It’s like an obligation, like a duty, but not one that’s been imposed on him by society or by an employer or by his family. It’s an internal sense that this is who he truly is, this is who he was created and called by God to be.
Paul can’t not preach the gospel. He’s so compelled by his sense of call that he says he’ll associate with non-Jewish people or Jewish people or the weakest and most marginalized people in society or the kid who gets picked last in gym class – whoever! – if it gives him the chance to share the story of God’s love made present in Jesus Christ. He’ll break taboos and societal stigmas if he needs to; he’ll spend time with people who everyone else ignores; he’ll do whatever he has to do, because he’s discovered the thing that he can’t not do.
There’s a lot of power in discovering the thing that we can’t not do.
What is the thing we can’t not do? As a church, the thing we can’t not do is sure to involve associating with people who are hurting, people who are broken, people who are wondering what’s become of their lives. As a church, the thing we can’t not do is sure to reflect our identity as the Body of Christ, the Christ who stands in solidarity with the downtrodden and suffering and those who think they have been abandoned.
But the thing is, we can run around trying to do all of the right things and still find ourselves tired, weary, burnt out, and distracted. You know why? Because we’re not God! We heard from the prophet Isaiah this morning, telling us that God does not faint or grow weary – but we sure do! Telling us that God’s understanding is unsearchable – but ours sure isn’t! We grow tired and weary and our understanding has some painfully obvious limits. We aren’t God, and we can’t do what God wants us to do if we don’t take the time to discover our call.
But how do we do that? How do we figure out what it is that we’re supposed to be doing with our life?
Paul, after all, seems to have had it easy. He was persecuting Christians, and then one day there’s a big flash of light and a voice from the sky and Paul finds himself telling everyone about Jesus.
But what happens if you don’t get a flash of light and the direct voice of God?
Parker Palmer again has some good advice. He says, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and the values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”[ii]
As Christians, we believe that humanity is created in the image of God. And if that’s true, then calling doesn’t have to be an outside voice and a flash of light. Calling is something that comes up out of the deepest layer of our God-created being. But we’ve got to learn to listen for it. We’ve got to spend time, in quiet, listening to the life that God has given us.
Maybe that means spending time at the end of each day looking back over our day and asking, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “Where did I experience deep gladness today? Where did I experience the world’s deep hunger today?” Or asking, in the words of Howard Thurman, “Where did I feel alive today?”
Maybe it means beginning the morning in prayer, asking, “What is one thing that I can do today that reflects my deepest, God-created self?”
Maybe it means seeking out people who are both mentors and mentees for us, people who we can learn from and grow with as we walk this lifelong journey of call together.
Maybe, as a church, it means learning how to talk a bit less and listen a bit more. To make a few less declarative statements and ask a few more open-ended questions.
Maybe it means, like Paul, being a bit less concerned about where our paycheck is coming from, a bit less concerned about who our society says we are supposed to associate with, and a little more concerned about the people that Jesus associated with, the poor and the lonely and those rejected by the powerful of their day.
Whatever it takes for us to quiet down and listen to our God-given lives telling us what we are supposed to get up to with them, I know this:
The question of calling is not one that is answered by the end of college, or the end of your twenties, or the end of your mid-life, or the end of your life. Working with college students reminds me daily that the question of calling must be asked anew as long as we have a life to do something with. Our society is obsessed with age and the things that you are supposed to have done by a certain age. But the words of the prophet Isaiah ring true today: “Youths” – yes, even our folks who are at ROCK this weekend – “will become tired and weary, young people” – yes, even young seminarians – “will certainly stumble; but all of those – all of those – whatever age, whatever race, whatever orientation or gender or level of ability – all of those who hope in God will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.”
Are you tired or weary this morning? Are you wondering, this morning, what it is that you are supposed to do with your life? Are you wondering, this morning, what the church is supposed to do with its life? Let’s spend some time, getting a bit quiet. Listening. Waiting on the voice of calling, emerging from our God-created-depths, to renew our strength. So that we can go and do the thing we can’t not do.