Today we get the calling of Moses to be God’s messenger. God calls to Moses through a burning-bush-that-was-burning-but-not-consumed. An amazing, impossible, can’t-miss-it kind of sign that something’s happening right? The burning bush is not about the burning bush. It’s about God calling. And it’s about Moses answering. Or, maybe it’s about Moses expecting a call. But it’s not about the bush.
See, I hear from folks a lot the question, “how come we don’t see burning bushes anymore?” or “where are all the big miracles that we read about in the Bible now?” or “how come God doesn’t talk to us anymore?” Wrong questions. Moses saw the burning-bush-that-was-burning-but-not-consumed because he was looking for it. Or because he was willing to see it. Exodus says Moses looked at the bush, then decided to turn aside and get a closer look. He chose to see God’s presence there rather than just moving on. We don’t practice seeing God very well and so when God shows up, we often don’t notice, or we attribute it to something else—a natural phenomenon like the gradation of blue in a cloudless sky or rain that keeps us from an appointment (what’s more natural than God?), or thoughts in our brains (since we’re so busy-busy, why wouldn’t God nudge us that way?). And most of us don’t think that we could be called by God because we can’t imagine God wanting to call us. Why me?
But God does call us. All of us, individually and as a group. Paul talks about how all of us are part of the body of Christ, all parts necessary for healthy functioning, no part unnecessary—all of us called to the healthy functioning of the church and the world. God is constantly speaking to us, constantly trying to get us to look at him like a young woman crushing on a boy. “Just look at me…” And the big things we read about in scripture, those are signs that God’s trying to get our attention. They’re not the messages.
Think about it this way:
First, there’s The Story, God’s story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, a portion of which is told us in scripture. The Story which we revere and which describes for us what the world often looks like, which suggests to us how we might make that world function better, more compassionately. The Story which includes big crazy stories like the burning-bush-that-was-burning-but-not-consumed and Elijah speaking to God directly and hearing God the whirlwind, God the thunderstorm, and God the silence. The Story which we love and struggle with but which we don’t often practice connecting with our own stories.
Part the second, is our stories: your life is a story, has a plot you don’t yet know the end of, characters who come and stay for a time, pain and triumph, boring bits and exciting bits. Our stories shed light on where we are now. I have a lot of compassion for folks on the margins—prisoners, the working poor, the gay community—because I was on the margins for much of my life. I was a weird kid—who knew?—and was teased mercilessly in elementary and junior high. I felt…feel like an outcast and so identify with others in a similar category. I am where I am now because of that experience. Our stories show us how we got to where we are and sometimes a bit of where we’re going.
And last, there’s a dynamic, creative space where these two stories connect, where The Story/God’s Story connects with our own stories. The stories of scripture aren’t just a rule book and they aren’t just bizarre stories about miracles. They’re our own stories, our own lives writ large. C. S. Lewis once said, "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see."
The Story of Moses and the burning-bush-that-was-burning-but-not-consumed is about God calling to this guy Moses, this shepherd, this guy who stutters and who, it turns out, can’t keep control of the people he’s been entrusted to care for. He’s just this guy, you know? And God calls to him, and Moses chooses to turn aside and look and listen. And, before you think that’s the end, in this and every call story in the Bible, the person being called objects. Sometimes strenuously. Moses doesn’t think he can do it. Sound familiar? And God says, “yes, you can and I’ll help. Pay attention.”
So, how to tell when God calls? Often, when God calls, it’s not just one time, not just in a single heated moment. A lot of the time, it takes us some time to see and turn aside to look. I am personally rather thick and so I need a lot of prodding. So, at the risk of being self-involved, I thought I’d share a little of my own spiritual autobiography. How did I get here? What signs did I see along the way that suggested God wanted me to do something?
When I was in first grade, around the time my father went to seminary, I was vaguely aware of religion and God, but I didn’t really think about it much. I do remember I was terribly afraid of the dark for years, a fear which I have never truly shaken. I would panic when entering a dark room and fumble wildly for the light switch. I would run up a flight of stairs from a dark hallway to a light one, afraid that a monster was chasing me. It was at Easter each year that I began slowly to lose that fear. At the university, the seminarians and faculty go all out for the Easter vigil, beginning very early on Sunday morning in complete darkness. They light a blazing fire to symbolize the light of Christ which pierces the darkness, but which to me only put up a thin, weak wall between us and the surrounding darkness. Slowly we processed into the chapel and began the vigil. Most of us kids would fall asleep in the chairs, awoken later by the rising sun streaming through the surrounding tall, thin windows when we came to the Resurrection. It was magical. That the service could be timed so well, that the sun was so glorious streaming through the windows, that the music was so jubilant was a real “Wow” moment for me. I was overcome with joy and renewal and felt that something very good had pushed away the literal and figurative dark.
In high school, I sometimes went with my priest father to the local women’s prison. For a while, on Wednesday nights, he would go and celebrate Eucharist for a small group of women. It didn’t occur to me to be afraid of the people we visited until I walked through the first set of metal doors. Their clanging shut sounded so final and I woke up a little. The second set told me I wasn’t getting out of here easily, and neither were these women. Even then, I was not afraid but curious. At the point in the Eucharist after the long, beautiful, boring prayer is over, the priest invites the assembly forward saying something like “These are the gifts of God for the people of God.” My father always added, “holy things for holy people.” That was when I realized what was happening. These women whose pasts I didn’t know and could only guess were indeed holy people. This bread and wine was theirs as God’s beloved. Prisons have struck me as holy ground ever since, rather like the ground Moses removed his shoes to walk on.
Around this time, I also read a book called The Mirror of Her Dreams which, honestly, may not be very good, but it affected me profoundly. One supporting character, one of the daughters of the king who is rather dreamy and idealistic and thought to be weak-willed, says to the main character, “problems should be solved by those who see them.” Later, she finds her courage and risks her life for a wounded stranger. Problems should be solved by those who see them. Yes, they should. If not you, who? If not now, when? Yes, I thought, yes, I felt in my bones. And the fire in my heart began to burn in earnest.
Many years later, after rejecting the feeling that I was called to ordained ministry several times, I ended up in seminary. To make ends meet, my husband and I worked at Barnes and Noble and, at this time, the number one bestseller on every list there was was The Da Vinci Code. To be honest, I didn’t care for it, but many did and I found myself in daily conversations with coworkers and customers about issues the book brought up. And those conversations expanded into more personal ones about folks’ faith and desires. I became the informal chaplain to the store. It was a weird spiritual place, but one which helped explain the burning in my heart to care for those hurt by the church, those seeking, those wandering lost in the wilderness.
All of these experiences were my burning-bush-that-burned-but-was-not-consumed. It wasn’t a sudden moment. And, while I’m still figuring out what it means to be a priest, I have turned off the main path to look at what God is calling me to.
Sometimes the overlap between God’s story and our story is sudden and easily seen like Moses’ story or like Paul on the Damascus Road. More often, it takes time, is a cycle, seems rather ordinary. And that is precisely where God is working all the time. God doesn’t need the big moments to tell us something, to call us into deeper relationship or risky giving or radical forgiveness. God calls to us in every moment of every day.
Let me give you one more example. Steve Jobs has retired recently, but in 2005, he spoke at Stanford’s commencement. He said,
“[My] college at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
This week, I’m giving you homework. And I’ll check back next week. I want you to try to connect the dots.
Take a little time each day this week to consider your life story. What are your strongest memories? What were your favorite books or most influential people? How are they related to who you are now? Do you see any similarities among those stories? Threads which continue through your life but that you hadn’t noticed before?
Then spend some time in prayer—not the intercessory prayer we often do for others, but in silence, asking God to help you see what God’s trying to show you.
Consider what God might be saying to you in the most ordinary moments of your life, in the birthday parties and the deaths, in the Habitat houses you’ve built or the papers you’ve written, the things you’ve gotten excited about and the things you wish you didn’t remember. Ask God to help you see more clearly the thread of the sacred running through your life. Ask God where that thread might be leading.
Write this stuff down if that’s helpful, or talk about it with your family or a trusted friend.
Be honest. Be open to a burning bush-that-is-burning-but-not-consumed, because it’s been burning all your life, off to the side, in the corner of your eye. Turn aside from the path you think you have to be on and look at what God is doing. Choose to see your story connected to God’s story.