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Sunday, 15 January 2012

Voices in the night?


Readings:     1 Samuel 3.1-10
                      Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18
                     1 Corinthians 6.12-20
                      John 1.43-51

Amongst the caricatures levelled at Christianity is one commonly directed at the experience of ‘call’. By and large this is because we take a literal approach to passages in our scripture that were originally designed to be a stylised narrative, a representative story intended to describe in general terms the ways in which God might touch and direct fallible human lives. In most of what might be the ‘call narratives’ there is an unexpected and often unmerited approach from God, a demurrer from the one whose life is about to be changed, and a final reluctant acceptance of the task ahead. It might be described as an ‘Oi … Who me? Yes you ... Couldn't be me … Yes you … Oh, okay then, with your help’ story. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to caricatures of our faith and practice, but both the caricaturists and those who use the terminology blindly are misusing the scriptures.

Which is not to say God might not conceivably reveal divine purpose and divine will through what we might call supernatural means: that’s up to God, but it is far from my experience, and should be treated as a rare exception, not a rule. On the whole we are better off looking for the signs and directives of God in the overall patterns of our lives, rather than in the unnecessary celestial dramatics. The expectation that we will experience voices in the night like that of the Old Testament prophetic call scenes is an expectation that fuels the conversation of many in our psych wards: there are enough mental illness issues in our community without our adding fuel to dangerous fires.

A call of any sort is likely to be neither more nor less than accumulated shared conversations with others within the body of Christ, discerning and ascertaining where our gifts and strengths might lead us. A person with a Dylanesque voice like a truckload of gravel or the musical ear of a newt is unlikely to be invited by God to lead the singing ministry of a church. A person who is unable to be a critical and compassionate listener, or who is devoid of people skills or public-speaking skills, is unlikely to be experiencing a call to the liturgical and pastoral ministries of priesthood. A person who is numerologically incompetent or dysnumeric like myself is unlikely to be called to the role of treasurer in the body of Christ or indeed in any other organization. God may be a God of surprises but not of idiocies.

What the ‘call narratives’ of our scriptures present is a stylized presentation of the impact of God’s working on a human life. But these are human lives attuned to the possibilities of God. This kind of a statement gives some Protestant interpreters the screaming heebies: is the grace of God dependant on human labour? No – but ‘no’ only in the context of the saving action of Christ on the Cross. The assumption that we can sit on human backsides or dance around having a frivolous time for Jesus, as is the practice in some quarters, and then expect to be useful in the purposes and plans of God is a spiritual obscenity. Each of the call narratives of Old and New Testament is the narrative of God’s approach to a person familiar and disciplined in practicing the presence of God. Each is a story of God’s extra-ordinary encounter with a person who has attuned their life to such an extent that God can lead them into new futures of service.

When Paul turns to questions of sexuality he raises the ire particularly of liberal Christianity in the twenty-first century (though I don’t think there are any even of the most libertine commentators who would condone the sorts of practices being undertaken by some of the Corinthian Christians). But in so-called ‘liberal’ circles it is as unpopular to draw a line in the sand with regards to sexual practice and morality as it is to suggest in evangelical circles that there may be many outside the community of Christ who are amongst the eternally blesséd, or in Americo-fundamentalist circles that there may be a dimension of social responsibility attached to the gospel. The fact is that there is a call to personal holiness and integrity in the call to follow Jesus, and that, while many of us may fall short, there is no room for a laissez faire approach to what we do with our male or female bodies when we are bearers of Christ. In the Corinthian context, in the Nimbin of the first century, this was particularly apparent, but it is a timeless truth: we cannot be attuned to the will and purposes of God if we are not attuned to the integrity of our own lives and our own sexual mores.

There is – of course – a call to compassionate social action, too. We cannot claim to be Christ-bearers of integrity if we close our eyes to the brutal disparities between the global rich and the global poor, or even the Australian rich and Australian poor. We cannot claim to be Christ-bearers of integrity if we close our eyes to the fact that there are obscene structures in place that ensure the richest on the earth minimize their taxes and live long while the poorest on the earth are condemned to die abysmally young without even earning enough to pay taxes. Jesus challenges us to address these issues as much as he challenges us to address the issues of our own private integrity. We must do both if we are to live lives of readiness to hear the voice of God.

For most of us the stage on which we live out our faith will be a small one. But the principle remains: do we live a life of sufficient integrity to hear the challenges and directions of the God of Samuel, Nathanael, Andrew, James and John, Mary, Peter or Paul?

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