Call, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Curiosity, Community, Confidence

Curiosity is step one in many call stories, to all forms of discipleship. My journey to discerning a call to ministry began with a 1987 visit to a Congregational (UCC) church. It amazed me that one of the pastors leading worship that day was a woman. As soon as the service ended, I found a church brochure that included her bio. Like me, she had grown up Southern Baptist. She wasn’t the first clergywoman I had met, and this experience wasn’t the first that pointed me toward ministry, but it was the first time I had seen a women serving as a pastor in a local church. 

Was this something I could do, too? I wanted to know more, so I came back the next Sunday. 

John 1 introduces us to John the Baptist and his disciples. Imagine standing around talking with people you know well and suddenly hearing your most trusted teacher say, “Look, it’s the savior we’ve been waiting for!” This vignette feels both odd and touching to me. Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus, and he asks what they are looking for, and – maybe not knowing how to ask what they really want to know – they ask where he is staying. They’re about as suave as a group of ninth-graders standing outside the high school on the first day, not sure of the right time to go inside. They want to know more, so they follow him.

Our call into Community, which I understand to mean both context and relationships, is step two. The disciples who followed Jesus that day were the first, and we are among the latest to join that mystic sweet communion beyond time and space. The greeting from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth stresses the foundation for community laid down by God: grace, and testimony, and spiritual gifts, and strength. We can find joy in the gathered voices of a worshipping community, and comfort in the sharing of mutual burdens, and power in the collective will to serve and bring glory to God. In those seasons when the world burns and we can’t quite believe it all, there are others to carry us along. 

Although the church is flawed — it’s full of people, so of course it is! — I have confidence that the call to community comes from God.

That Confidence is step three on the path of discipleship. It’s not a belief in ourselves or our abilities. It comes with time and experience and cannot be shaken by circumstances. It opens the possibility of asking questions, and working things out, and growing through our misunderstandings, fears, and mistakes. Peter’s place in the gospel lesson reminds us that even the original disciples would get it wrong, then come back and get it right after all.

Whoever we are, wherever we are, whenever in history we live, God calls us beloved and calls us into relationship with each other and service to the world in Christ’s name. Holy Confidence is a trust in God so deep that we can say these words with the Psalmist, 

Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.

Psalm 40:7-8

If I were preaching this week, I might unfold these three steps, or I might simply focus on Curiosity. What does God call each of us to do? How are the spiritual gifts of people in our faith community compatible or complementary? What is the work God has for us in the world? Whatever it is, God invites us to “Come and see.”


Do you want reflections and images like this one in your inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers. This is the last day to be entered in a special drawing for new subscribers, for a copy of my book, Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith).

Baptism, Baptism of Christ, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Baptized Beloved

At the corner where the transept met the nave of Faith United Church of Christ sat an armchair with an embroidered pillow and an afghan draped neatly over the back. Just before my first service as their Interim pastor started on an early September Sunday, I caught a flurry of activity out of the corner of my eye. A delicate elderly woman sat there, with the afghan over her lap, while whoever had helped her get settled had quickly disappeared out a side door. I made sure to greet her during the Passing of the Peace, and over the next few months I learned her story. Maisie was 93, and her husband had died the year before. The mystery helper was a son faithful in making sure she got to worship. I learned about her childhood in Scotland and the death of a beloved daughter. I met the married son who lived in another town. She trusted me with the committal of her husband’s ashes in a country cemetery. Maisie, both fragile and strong, held her family together. 

In the New Year, I decided to mark Baptism of Christ Sunday with a remembrance of our own baptisms. It surprised me that the idea was new to the congregation, but the elders agreed we could make the ritual part of the service that week. I brought a large glass bowl from home, so we could see the water. Everyone who could came forward; their faces held a tender curiosity that moved me. Then, with an elder’s help, I carried the bowl to Maisie’s armchair. I remember the expression of surprise and delight on her kind face as I offered a blessing and laid a handful of water on her head. 

Eight days later, I spoke the words of that blessing again at her hospital bedside, as death approached: “Maisie, beloved child of God, remember your baptism.” 

Remember your baptism, we say, relying on memory beyond reason.

For the practical members of that historically German Reformed UCC congregation, the notion seemed almost funny. “I was six weeks old,” one said, “how could I remember that?” A few had stories about being baptized as older children. “My mother called the pastor, I think he was Lutheran, and he came to our house and baptized all five of us in a row,” an older lady told me, and the story sounded like one she had heard over and over from her mother, rather than a material memory of her own. 

The passage from Isaiah this week is a “servant song,” and as Susan Ackerman writes in the notes of the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “The identity of the servant, chosen by God to bring justice to the nations, is debated.”* We can cast back to Jacob as a representation of Israel, or to Moses, or forward to Jesus, but rather than going down the road of supersessionism, I think we can make the case that all the baptized are chosen for and called to a servant identity, to work for God’s kingdom that will establish justice, bring release to prisoners, and offer a light to all nations.

Sometimes it’s hard enough to offer that light in our own small circles of influence, a congregation, a workplace, a home, and that’s why we look to the ones who do it so well. Maisie’s sons told me she was the light at the window for their family. Even in seasons of deep loss, she held onto her faith and helped them hold onto theirs. If I could go back to that Sunday and stand by her armchair, I would speak those words of blessing differently, I think, as a benediction on her faithful life. 

“Remember that you are baptized, and you are a beloved child of God.”

Baptized Beloved, chosen servants, I hope you remember it, too. 


*New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003), my favorite one volume go-to, p. 1012. 


Do you want reflections and images like this one in your inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers. All new subscribers between now and Wednesday, January 15, 2020, will be entered in a drawing for a copy of my book, Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith).

Epiphany, Reflectionary

By Another Road

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

matthew 2:12 (Epiphany of the lord)

When I was 14, my family took a driving vacation through North Carolina. Every morning we filled the car up at an Esso station, and we picked up maps. At the end of the day, when we checked into our motel, my dad would have my brother and me draw the route we had taken so far. We spread the maps across the floor and used the black felt tip pens Dad brought home from his office. The next day, we would get new maps, and trace the entire route we had taken, without looking back at the previous day’s map. By the end of the trip, I understood how a map works and how to plot a route to get somewhere, anywhere. I took that skill with me whenever I visited or moved to a new place, studying and considering where I needed to go and what I wanted to see.

My dad never liked to go the same way twice, and he wanted to be sure my brother and I were equipped to find our way home, wherever we went, by another road. 

Now I recognize that the rise of GPS has influenced me to type my destination in and drive with the direction of the Google Maps voice. It took me much longer to learn my way around South Central Pennsylvania after moving here in 2013 than it did to learn Portland, Maine, after my last big move in 1987. 

If we only follow an automated lead from one point to another point – a point we have determined ourselves – how can we be open to God’s direction?

It’s worth considering that the magi were well-prepared to respond to their heavenly messenger and find a different route because they knew how to read the sky the way I know how to read a map. When told to go a different way, these learned wise ones knew how to resource themselves. 

I think the spiritual life is much the same. We don’t need to know everything all at once, but faith practices are the spiritual navigation techniques that prepare us for the times when God indicates we need to do something different. Our gospel lesson this week tells the story of the capital “E” Epiphany, the moment when Christ is manifested to the Gentiles. Small “e” epiphanies can come to us at any time, usually when we do not expect them, but only when we are ready. Realizations are seldom based in nothing. They spring from a sense developed over time, grow out of practices in which we persist, root themselves in the work we have already done. 

They come because we have learned how to unfold the map, recognize the available routes, and let God lead the way. 


Do you want reflections and images like this one in your inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers. All new subscribers between now and January 15, 2020, will be entered in a drawing for a copy of my book, Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith).