Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Into the Wild

I will attempt to, in addition to entries chronicling weekly life in Ambridge, post one theologically-oriented post per week. The following is adapted from the final paper I wrote for the "Discerning a Call to Ministry" class I took this summer.

"The crime you see now its hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die even to do this job. But I don’t want to put my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, 'OK, I’ll be part of this world.'"
~from No Country for Old Men, as adapted for the screen by Ethan and Joel Coen

"Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."
~Isaiah 43:18, 19

I have suffered little in my life, yet still I identify with the nomads of ancient Israel. Easy platitudes cannot sustain the life of faith; those wanderers learned as much standing between an obtuse and untamable deity and the hard reality of a desolate wilderness. Only one maxim counted: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart.”1 In the hardscrabble wastelands of Sinai and Arabia they had but loving trust in Yahweh as their currency of survival:

"Inexplicably, this God speaks his powerful word directly into a situation of barrenness.That is the ground of the good news… The speech of God presumes nothing from the one addressed but carries in itself all that is necessary to begin a new people in history. The power of this summoning word is without analogy. It is a word about the future spoken to this family without any hope of a future. The juxtaposition of the barrenness of Israel and the speech of God is definitional for Israel. “Barrenness” marks the deep futility of Israel. “Speech of God” asserts the freedom and power of God to work his will among the hopeless."2

This discontinuity between earth and heaven underlines the irreducible, undeniable glory of the creator god who has called us out; by corollary, trust in him is the only option.

Abraham’s example is paradigmatic for my understanding of God’s individual calling. The creator god came to the man and commanded him to leave home for an undisclosed land. He obeys. The rest of his story plays out not based on his great courage, faithfulness or morality, but rather on the basis of God’s faithfulness to the promises and covenant he makes with Abraham. The man places his wife in sexual jeopardy almost immediately after responding to God’s command. Then he is blessed by a mysterious priest; he attempts to fulfill God’s promise for a son by his own means rather than God’s; he barters with God for the fate of a wicked city; he obediently attempts to sacrifice the son provided by God. Abraham’s story is not a clear-cut narrative of virtuous God-following, but a the story of a weak-kneed wanderer encountering the leadership of a god who inspires fear and obedience rather than ritual homage. As Paul would later understand it, Abraham lived “not by works but by his call.”3

My life has been marked both by several times when I sensed or heard God’s call and myriad seasons where I failed his standards or wandered confusedly through various schools, jobs and Christian communities. I might well say that the “barrenness of Mike” and the “speech of God” are definitional for me. I very well know that no direction I take of my own volition, no task I take of my own choosing bears fruit that lasts. The one thing I most desire, and most fear, to do; the one thing I would never embrace without God actively calling me and prodding to do so, is that which I now undertake. It was John Wesley or someone equally reputable that once said, “No one who can imagine themselves satisfied doing anything else should go into the ministry.” Alternatively, to paraphrase St. Augustine, my heart will never be at home until I find my work in him.

As tame as Ambridge, Pennsylvania may be vis-à-vis the wildernesses Israel tread, leaving for Trinity constitutes the first time I have “put my chips forward.” Though far from the riskiest step ever ventured, it feels to be the least secure thing I have ever done. The first time I have asked God what to do, heard a call to follow him coupled with real risk, and obeyed. I’ve reached a place where I can’t do anything else. Either I dream of a life more than the sum of its parts, or I settle for survival in the wilderness of this world. The good news is that by the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the dream is more real than the wilderness. One is not “awake” by resigning themselves to the zero-sum games of economics and Darwinian ecology, but rather “asleep” to the waking reality of the god whose word sustains the fabric of existence. One maxim counts: “Hear… love.” Awake to him, I can with fear and trembling say, “OK, I’ll be part of this world.”

1 Deuteronomy 8:4, 5
2 Walter Brueggeman, Genesis (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 117. Emphases original to the text.
3 Romans 9:12

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