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A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dropping all for the call

A friend gave me a novel to read a couple weeks ago called, Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo. The narrator, Otto Ringling, is a happily married husband and father of two. Despite his good life, he is troubled by doubts. He wonders if this is all there is to life and his wealth and good fortune prick at his conscience. After his parents are unexpectedly killed in a car crash near their farm in North Dakota, he and his sister must make a trip west from their homes in New York City, to settle the estate. Since his sister dislikes flying, they decide to make a road trip together. But when Otto shows up at his sister’s house, he gets hoodwinked and instead finds himself driving cross country with his sister’s new friend, Volya Rinpoche.

Rinpoche is a title of honor bestowed upon great teachers in Tibetan Buddhism. Throughout most of the drive, Otto engages in a fierce battle with himself. He is highly resistant to quack religions, to mumbo jumbo spirituality, to easy answers. And yet, he has this hunger for more, an innate desire to understand the point of life and with each passing day, he lets his guard down a little more as he is irresistibly drawn to this odd stranger next to him who is fast becoming his friend and his teacher. It’s a good read, full of humor and really relatable ideas and feelings.

The lectionary passages yesterday featured two individuals who gave up everything to follow their calling. Ruth gave up her homeland, her family, her security to follow Naomi back to Judah. And again, later in the story, Ruth risked her virtue and made herself ultimately vulnerable at Naomi’s behest, in order to try and obtain security for herself and her mother-in-law. How easy it would have been for Boaz to turn Ruth away and reveal her inappropriate presence there on the threshing floor at night. Ruth was willing to sacrifice the only thing she had left to her name - her reputation.

Then there was the gospel story from Mark (12:38-44). I really like this story and it’s one that often comes to mind when I’m fuming over the ways in which our political and financial systems favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor…..with the widespread endorsement of the North American church. Mark’s story assumes the wealthiest people contribute the largest sums to the treasury. However, Jesus points out the widow who put in just two pennies actually put in more than anyone else, because she put in everything she had. Giving generously from your abundance is very different than giving from scarcity.

We have a similar state of affairs today. According to data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the worst states (top 4 offenders - Washington, Florida, South Dakota and Nevada) require the poorest 20% of the population to pay 5 to 6 times the rate the wealthiest 1% do. Kansas does a little better. In Kansas the poorest 20% pay a tax rate of 9.2% of their income while the wealthiest 1% pay 5.9% of their income. In this country we have an awful lot of people giving out of their scarcity and too many of those with great wealth working hard to give as little as possible from their abundance.

This is where my thoughts always take me when I read this gospel story. But this last week I was struck by something else as well. Like Ruth, this anonymous woman from Mark’s gospel gave everything she had to follow her sense of call. A life of faithful obedience led this woman to sacrifice all the money she possessed.
And there are other examples of people in the Bible who also responded to the call and gave up everything to follow. Think of Isaiah’s bold proclamation in chapter 6 - “Here I am. Send me!” Or the willingness of the Jesus followers to dramatically alter their lives and become nomads, locating their home not in a place but in a person.

In the book, Breakfast with Buddha, Otto’s sister is like this. She has decided in a very short amount of time, to not only follow Volya Rinpoche, but to give him her entire inheritance. Unlike her brother, this is a woman with very little to her name. She is vulnerable and lives on the margins of society. So her ability to give everything up to follow her call, scares Otto, frustrates him. He is angry at his sister and impatient with her tendency towards gullibility. And yet he is also uncomfortably aware that she understands something about this life that eludes him.

Of course there are also plenty of examples from the Bible of people who respond in just the opposite way. They choose not to follow. Ruth accompanied Naomi back to Judah. Orpah did not. Jonah actually takes off running in the other direction when God calls on him. The rich young man turns away sadly when Jesus asks him to give up his wealth in order to follow. And Matthew writes about would-be-followers who, for various reasons, were unable to respond to Jesus’ call.

I very often try to find myself in Biblical characters. It’s easier to identify with some than with others. This week I had a hard time seeing myself in Ruth or the disciples. I don’t know that I would be ready to give up everything to go and follow as they did. It’s easier for me to see myself in Jonah or the rich young man. I too can be highly resistant to certain calls in my life.

But I most readily identify with characters in a third category. Not those who dropped everything to follow. Nor those who turned their back on the call. But rather I find myself in company with those who first had to be persuaded. Abram and Sarah believed they were too old to be parents. Moses didn’t feel like he was prepared to be God’s ambassador because he was a poor speaker. Jeremiah thought he was too young to be a prophet. Nicodemus and Saul, in their own unique ways, had a hard time connecting the dots. They let doubts get in their way. Each of these people had an excuse that stood between God’s call and their lives. But unlike those who used their excuse to turn away, these individuals hold their ground, hiding behind their excuses while thinking things over, looking for God to persuade them. And God does. This implies they each had an openness to possibilities they could intuitively sense, but couldn’t yet grasp.

What makes Breakfast with Buddha so appealing is the way in which the reader relates to the narrator. Because if you read this book, odds are you are in the “waiting and hoping to be persuaded” camp. In the first few pages Otto offers this disclaimer, “So, in the spirit of full disclosure let me say this: Before the drive to North Dakota, like a lot of people I know, I suffered now and again from a nagging puzzlement about the deeper meaning of things. I functioned well, as the saying goes. My wife and children and I had a comfortable life, really a superbly satisfying life: nice house, two cars, restaurant meals, love, peace, mutual support. And yet, from time to time a gust of uneasiness would blow through the back rooms of my mind, as if a window had been left open there and a storm had come through and my neatly stacked pages of notes on being human had blown off the desk.”

Halfway through the book, Otto is contemplating religion. More specifically what his religion is exactly. “What I came up with, to my own surprise, was love. It was the only answer that held up. Love--of Jeannie and the kids, of Jasper, our wonderful mutt, of work, of eating. There was my next career. I would be the national radio voice of the Love Party, somewhere left of the Democrats and right of the Republicans, far out in space.”

In the book, Rinpoche likes to tell Otto what a good man Otto is. In a similar way, I think most of us are good people who have made mostly good and decent decisions in our lives. These decisions have introduced us to the possibility of truth that lies beyond our present abilities to comprehend and so we spend a little or a lot of the time scratching at the surface of our existence, curious about what lies deeper.

And on some level, when we stop to really think about things, we know it all has to do with love. That God and love are somehow one and the same. But most of us don’t necessarily open ourselves to the full force of this love. Because it’s overwhelming and scary. Because jumping into this force field of love would totally upend our lives. And so we build our religions which allow us to brush up against love but at a safe distance.
Then we have people like Rinpoche, or Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, or the Dalai Lama as well as lots and lots of unnamed and anonymous individuals, like Otto’s sister, who freely dive below the entire structure of religion in order to fully immerse themselves in love. And they seem less attached to all the stuff in this life that we attribute such importance to - wealth, possessions, fashion, sporting loyalties. And they are gentler, less hurried, less preoccupied, more grace filled. Because this completely different mindset and heartset threaten our carefully cultivated cynicisms, we call these people na├»ve and deluded, out of touch with reality. We say this, and yet we dally there at the edge of disbelief and belief, longing to be persuaded. Pleading for the courage to jump in and experience God, experience love more fully in this life, in this time, in this age.

Yesterday, in my church, we sang the hymn, “Will you come and follow me” as our response to the sermon. These lyrics encapsulate the message.

"Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

"Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

"Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?"

I also gave a word of warning before singing this hymn, pointing out the final verse takes a lot of guts to sing because this is the voice of someone who is being persuaded, someone who is finally ready to put it all on the line to answer the call.

"Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me."*

Are we persuaded?

*Text: John L. Bell and Graham Maule Music: Scottish traditional; arranged by John L. Bell

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