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Answering the Call – 11/11/2012

There’s going to be a new Pope next Sunday. Not the Pope you’re probably thinking of: I’m talking about the leader of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt. Their leader died several months ago, and his successor was chosen last Sunday. The leaders of the church narrowed the field of possible new patriarchs down to three, and then placed each of those names into a crystal chalice. A child wearing a blindfold picked one of those names out – and that’s going to be their new Pope.[i] When I read about that ceremony, it made me wonder what might have been going through the minds of those three candidates as they stood at the threshold of such tremendous possibility. Coptic Christians are a religious minority in Egypt, and they have a long history of mistreatment at the hands of the government and the general population there. Tensions are particularly high just at the moment, as the appalling YouTube video designed to offend Muslims and defame their religion that gained such infamy a few months ago, seems to have originated from a Copt living in the US. The high religious office to which one of them was about to be called would be a heavy mantle to take up. So perhaps their thoughts might have been along the same lines that the filmmaker Nanni Moretti imagined in a fictional scene of Roman Catholic cardinals meeting to elect a new Pope in the Vatican. As the camera pans over the crowd, the soundtrack allows the audience to hear that each man is praying basically the same thing: “Don’t choose me!”[ii]

Most of us do not receive our callings in quite so dramatic a fashion as having our names plucked from a crystal goblet, or earning 332 votes in the electoral college, to point to another of the past week’s events. There may be no particular laurels or rays of light, no heavenly choirs or revelatory visions. But all of us are called, nonetheless. We are called because we live in a world which is imperfect and which requires the work and struggle of human beings in order to move from the way it is, to the way it ought to be. Your calling is whatever way you find to accomplish this. It is your part of the larger project of human history.

The work to which we are called is rarely easy. It is very hard just to listen for that call, the place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”, as Frederick Buechner put it. Answering can be a far greater challenge. Earlier we read the words of the Rev. Olympia Brown, one of our Universalist ancestors who lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Rev. Brown is sometimes remembered as the first woman minister ordained in America, which is not quite right, but close to it. Today, more than half of Unitarian Universalist ministers are women, including the last two ministers called by this congregation before my arrival. That doesn’t make choosing a career that men held a total monopoly on for centuries an easy thing, but being the first person in any category obviously comes with special challenges.

Olympia came from a family that valued learning. When there was no school to serve the area where her family lived in rural Vermont, Olympia’s father built one on his farm, and convinced neighboring families to share the cost of a teacher for all their children. In an age when it was nearly unheard of for a woman to do so, Olympia attended college, gaining her BA from Antioch college in Ohio.[iii] Somewhere in there, she began to feel her call to the ministry. It was catalyzed when she met Antoinette Brown, who really was the first woman ordained in America. Antoinette came to speak at Antioch on Olympia’s invitation and years later, Olympia said of that meeting, “It was the first time I had heard a woman preach and the sense of victory lifted me up. I felt as though the Kingdom of Heaven were at hand.”

Antoinette Brown was a liberal Congregationalist, and was ordained by the congregation that called her, but never fully accepted or recognized by her denomination. Yet she became a preacher and an activist despite the numerous barriers to the pursuit of her vocation. When she was in theological school, Antoinette had to obtain special permission to speak in class, and an article she wrote defending the right of women to speak in church was only deemed fit for publication once it was accompanied by a rebuttal from one of her professors.[iv] Gnawing theological misgivings eventually caused Antoinette to leave the Congregationalist ministry. And after many years she eventually found her way to – where else? – the Unitarians.

Antoinette Brown was the first woman we know to have been ordained by a congregation, but Olympia Brown was the first woman to become a fully endorsed and ordained minister of any denomination. Her path came with barriers similar to Antoinette’s. Every theological school in the country then, and indeed in the world, banned the admission of women. Nevertheless, she wrote to several seminaries seeking permission to gain a theological education. Some rejected her outright. One agreed to accept her, but only with the understanding that she would not be permitted to attend classes with the male students. The only school that would allow her to enroll and attend classes sent a letter from the president of the school saying that he “did not believe women were called to the ministry.” Olympia later explained, “I had supposed his discouragement was my encouragement.” She gladly accepted the reluctant offer of a place at the school, even when she arrived and found that no one expected her: the president declared she would never actually arrive, assuming that his letter would be enough to discourage her. Nonetheless, she persisted.

It is a powerful thing, when we know for ourselves what the most worthwhile task we can undertake is, whether it requires a moment or a lifetime to complete. But following that knowing, answering that call takes confidence in it. This is not the same as blind certainty. In certain political circles it has become common for candidates for public office to declare that they are running because God told them to, or more explicitly because God wants them to win. I’m not sure if anyone has conducted a study of how often candidates who make these claims go on to lose their races, but I would guess that the rate is not much different from that of all candidates taken together. The belief that your ambitions are divinely sanctioned not only are sets a person up for disappointment, it robs them of the creative power of risk: knowing that you are taking a chance, that you very well could fail, pushes you to try new strategies and seek new ways to reach your goals. Confidence based on delusion is a poor substitute for courage born of hopeful principles.

To succeed, the belief that what you know about yourself and the world around you is worth acting on, must be able to endure a chorus of voices trying to turn you around. Those voices don’t have to be literal hecklers and naysayers. Common sense, is often our chief impediment: in our self-interested and cynical society, we are taught to be skeptical and dismissive of grand hopes and any deep sense of purpose. Writing about some of the lofty purpose that guided her life and career as a minister, Olympia Brown said, “You may say this is impracticable, far away, can never be accomplished, but it is the work we are appointed to do.”[v] And sometimes the greatest obstacle between us and following the counsel of our hearts is our own inertia. The call of the world’s need can come at any time, in many different forms, and most of the time answering it means stepping out of our daily habits and patterns of behavior.

Now I want to turn to the other side of the coin for a moment. Some of us have jobs we’re not crazy about, or otherwise spend our days doing work that we like alright, but don’t love. Some of us are out of work, or just never found that perfect match between what we do and who we are. And some of us might feel that what we do is necessary, and important, but it doesn’t free us from doubt, and it certainly does not immunize us against fatigue. We all may have that still, small voice inside of us, but as a dear friend said to me recently, it does seem to be louder for some of us than for others. So let me say clearly that there is no necessary link between answering a call from the universe, and a sense of job satisfaction. Some of us find a purpose that wears the same name throughout our lives: as parents or partners or professionals or volunteers. And some of us don’t have that plum line running through our identities. But that does not change the fact that all of us are called, and that there is an opportunity in each moment to change the world for the better.

The voice on the phone sounded desperate and tired. Here and there, it cracked, with that ring that told you she was holding back tears. The woman leaving the message was calling, on the day before Thanksgiving, to tell her daughter that she was going to send her some money to buy groceries for her children. She was just going to have to miss her next mortgage payment in order to do it. She said her goodbyes, and hung up the phone; the message ended. When Virginia Saenz listened to that recording on her answering machine, she felt the raw emotion in that voice wash over her. Her heart broke, and it broke even though she had no idea who the woman on the other end of that phone call was.

Lisa Crutchfield was trying to reach her daughter living states away, but she had dialed the wrong number. It would have been so easy for Virginia Saenz, whose phone she had reached accidentally, to delete her message and return to the regular course of her day. But then that is the hallmark of something we are called to do: when the soul resonates with the repair our world needs, the easy answers become more difficult, and the difficult choices get easier. So Virginia picked up the phone, and she called Lisa back. She told her she had the wrong number, she told her not to worry, and she told her to make that mortgage payment. And then Virginia went to the store, and she bought a whole mess of groceries, and she took them to Lisa’s daughter and her family. [vi] The call of the world can come from many, many different places. And it may be drawing us into a lifetime’s work, or into a simple, single errand. But it is always there. There is no wasted time. There are times when we are tired, times when we are distracted, times when we really have to focus on ourselves right now. Times when we are afraid, times when we are discouraged and times when we don’t know how to begin, but still, in every moment, there is a call for each of us. A challenge and an invitation to work that is needed and real.

Both Olympia and Antoinette Brown devoted themselves to the cause of securing women’s right to vote. In the late 1800s, that was a very good way for a woman to get yourself labeled a troublemaker and a malcontent. The bumper-stickers remind us that well-behaved women rarely make history, and this, in fact, is true much more generally: history is never made through good manners, polite conduct and doing what is expected. In one obituary, it was said of Olympia that nothing “exemplified her vitality and intellectual independence,” so well as, “the mental discomfort she succeeded in arousing…among the conservatively minded.”

This week, folks across the country took to the polls in an election year when much has been done in many states to try to make voting more difficult and more inconvenient. Yet despite the barriers to participation, both intentional and accidental, the story of this election was how hard folks are willing to work to exercise their duty as citizens. Like the people in New York and New Jersey voting in the dark at polling stations that lacked power. Or Alfie Fernandez in Florida, who stood in line for six hours to cast her vote, still waiting long after the polls had closed, and after the presidential election had already been called, waiting so long that it was Wednesday before she was able to hand in her ballot. “I felt my vote was important,” she said.[vii]

That, is what it means to answer a call: large or small, long or short, the work, the mission, the purpose we take up must feel important. It might be surrounded by elaborate ritual, as a blindfolded child draws our name from a cup. It might come in the unexpected revelation of seeing something we’ve never seen before, that lets us imagine the world in a different way. It might come in the random serendipity of a stranger’s phone call. But trust that it comes: the world is calling each of us. So our work is to listen, and to answer.


[ii] From his 2011 film Habemus Papum (We Have a Pope)



[v] Singing the Living Tradition, #578




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