At South Church this morning, our seminarian Emely Goodnow preached about the “glowing Jesus” of the transfiguration story and her experience — or lack of experience with — a call narrative. A “call narrative” is a story if how a person realized they were “called” to ministry — usually including a wham-bam-I-saw-Jesus-come-out-of- the-sky-glowing experience. Everybody in seminary is supposed to have one and they spend a lot of time discussing and sharing them.
But what if you don’t have one? Or one like that?
This morning, as balloons showered down from the balcony of the church in celebration of our confirmation class — an idea from the kids, brought into reality by my wife (in the process of ordination herself, either with or without one of those narratives) the balloons, while beautiful, got really chaotic in the sanctuary. I thought “how appropriate”. The Spirit, which the multi-colored balloons represented, is chaotic.
One of the places where I think the church errs is when they expect God to do things in a certain way. God often does things a certain way, but we — children of free will — have a God who also has free will. In short, God can do anything God wants to, even if it seems “messy” or unorthodox. God can choose people for ministry without a call narrative, or with a call narrative and everything in between. God is not particularly fond of boxes, no matter much we like them.
In this particular case, Emely glows. As I thought about writing this blog, I heard our pastor say to a woman I know as “Patty’s girlfriend” that he could “see the glow” in her as she attends classes at Hartford Seminary. He was kidding-but-not. She and I talked about it and you could see the glow come out. What I didn’t tell her was that a few years ago, George met with the Church and Ministry Committee and — after a cursory visit — the committee said, almost in unison, “Wow!”. George had, in a few words and a brief visit, said what we needed to know — he had The Glow. Char Corbett has The Glow. Carroll Cyr’s belief in herself — because it’s palpable — is like The Glow.
The indwelling of the Spirit (aka “the Glow”) is interesting because of — among other things — who can see it. Among others, dogs, children and “crazy” people, and sometimes other ministers, can see it. A few years ago, my wife said about me, “dogs and children like him”. I take that as the highest form of compliment. (As I write this, my cat is stroking my hand with her head). When I visit clients’ homes, dogs act like we’re old friends. In bus stops and emergency rooms, kids come up and talk to me out of the blue. I assume that other ministry types have the same experience.
And about “crazy” people — when I work at the Institute of Living (the building for psych patients at the Hartford Hospital), I don’t have to show my credentials, I don’t have to explain why I was ordained, I don’t have to wear a robe, I don’t have to explain that I have the right to be there. The folks there seem to know — which is different than it was in seminary, which was full of intellectuals wanting to know which book I read that proved that I was smart enough, cool enough, or politically correct enough to be there.
Why is this possible? What’s with animals, children and supposedly “crazy” folks? . Years ago, Julian Jaynes wrote a book called “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” which says that before people’s brains developed they were able to talk to God or Gods directly. As we “evolved”, human beings lost that ability. I’m sure that there’s some brain piece involved in all of this. I once saw a “Ted” lecture as part of a conference. A woman who had been brain injured in some way, but had only one half of her brain available felt all of the glow-y connections of the universe, without all the “reality” behind it. I don’t know what it all means except that we are all on a continuum between very controlled and more impulsive, more primitive and less primitive, more in touch with our emotions and less so. Animals and children can see something or sense something that we can’t… unless we train ourselves to. People with mental illness may have less brain regulation and therefore be able to sense the presence of the Holy within people. Who knows? That’s my guess.
So that, I think, explains the glow in Emily and others in the field. But what about a “call narrative”? How come she — and others — don’t get one? Why don’t they get the big “Wham!” experience of God? Because they don’t need it. I believe that if God doesn’t have to yell at us, God doesn’t. It’s when things are really amiss that God has to make a showing. In the text this morning, the story has a couple of interesting details. Some commentators say that, while Peter is stumbling around for words, God basically yells, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased. Shut Up!”. Further, as Emily pointed out, the gospel records the disciples as never quite getting it and — as Jesus’ time on earth draws to a close, God wants to make sure the disciples get it. When we’re going the wrong way, God brings us prophets who yell at us. Our best friend whom we can talk to at any time seldom feels the need to yell at us. I suppose “the Glow” in Emily (and others who have no Big Experience) has come quietly and over time, in drops as a steady stream over the years of her lifetime, rather than as a big bucket of SPIRIT. We don’t have to see the light, we have to be the light.
This brings me to my last point. The thing is that people who have “the glow” don’t generally notice it in themselves. It’s not for them to see. It’s not there for them. It’s for all the people they minister to, to notice and be attracted to, so that, whenever wisdom comes from the Spirit, they are around to hear it. And wisdom is uttered, even when the person themselves doesn’t even know it. As Carroll and I have talked over the past few year, it became clear that people she had touched lives without even knowing it. Adults suddenly came up and said that she has said something or taught something or done something that changed their lives. That’s what ministers do. They say or do or teach something that God wants people to be touched by.
This is why we have Committees on Ministry and Ordination Papers and such — because the community of believers confirms what has been written and said. After meeting with the intellectual crowd, the people determine if the person is called to ministry. That’s as it should be. You can’t lead without people to lead. You can’t just say you’re a minister. You have to do ministry — for someone, at some time. People had to have been attracted to the Spirit within you and you or the Spirit has to have done something with it. We’re not given a call to talk to ourselves, so we don’t need to know if we have it. We just figure it out, with God’s help and our own sense, and with the changing of lives in some way or another. Today, during church, it was announced that Emily is going to do a second year at South Church. A spontaneous round of applause arose from the congregation. George said, “what a coup that was”. People talked to her after worship and told her how excited they were. As I’ve said, she’s got that glow.
This post is called, “Answers to Emilys” for a reason. There are lots of people out there like Emily, doing ministry without a call narrative, I suspect. As I said, God doesn’t much like boxes. If you are one of those people that dogs like and children are attracted to, if you are one of the people that have been told you have touched lives (even if you didn’t mean to), if people are thrilled to see you, and want to share their secrets for no particularly good reason, if people say you’re a good person and really mean it, if they say that there’s something palpable different about you, you don’t need no stinkin’ call narrative. Heck, you don’t even need to be ordained. You’ve got a call.