I have a friend who I have been close to ever since 4th grade. She was the first friend I had who had a bible next to her bed – one of those great big huge pretty white ones that a little girl might like. She memorized one line each night. She and her mom and other folks from her church would go out “canvassing” every weekend. I'm not sure if she was going door to door, or passing out leaflets or actually talking to people. I didn't understand whether she wanted people to come to her church or find Jesus or what the goal was. In 5th grade we both left our same 5th grade classroom to have a flute lesson with the regional band director. We have been pretty tight ever since then. Our approaches to Christianity have been very different. I have learned a lot from her over the years.
For example, one year many years ago when I went to visit her I and her family were going to church one Sunday morning during my visit. My only contact with church during those years was as a paid musician for weddings, memorials, and Sunday services. I had been to many different churches representing different religions and denominations. I loved them all but I didn't understand what they did in the services. Each religion and denomination had different atmospheres, different rituals, and different levels of fancy. As we were driving to church my friend explained what I would experience there. I was going to see a big theater space, I would experience an enacted scene about a bible lesson, a speaker, lots and lots of music, and people would be waving their arms a lot, and there might be speaking in tongues. And her two kids would be in the nursery and the parent that dropped them off would get a pager so that if they needed to come and get their child, they will get paged.
I hadn't experienced any of this before and I was pretty overwhelmed. I felt like I was in a small airport. People directing traffic, food courts, bookstores, coffee shops all inside the building. Most of that was because I am an introvert and don't really like big crowds, and a lot of course was because everything was new, and it was all within the realm of a subject that was unfamiliar to me. Just like when I was hired for a service, I was a happy respectful but ignorant observer.
After church we talked about the experience. It was a good experience overall but I was so unfamiliar with what was going on that I was uncomfortable knowing whether I should do what everyone else was doing or just sit still. It's hard enough in a church to know whether to stand or sit and why, but this was so much more confusing. Is it okay to clap after the band plays, do I really have to lift my arms, there are words on a screen but I don't know the melody, what do I do after the theater bit, can I laugh, should I shake someone's hand?
Our conversation especially about speaking in tongues was the most intriguing. I can't say that I understand all of what is happening then, but I have a lot of respect for it when it is authentic. I was most interested to know that what is spoken is gibberish to others, and the person speaking doesn't know the meaning of what they are saying. Speaking in tongues requires hearing as well – anything spoken requires interpretation. You can easily see how this could be a method of scamming folks when abused. As could many things any church does. To the outsider – whether it is from unbelief, disbelief, or living a different life – lack of understanding and respect for the other leads to making fun of, hurtful comments or harm and naïve take-aways.
Speaking in tongues is seen as a gift from God. You don't just decide to have it and work on it like a skill. The gift of interpretation is another gift. And beyond that, the meaning has to be affirmed and confirmed by others.
It is difficult to discern the difference between feelings that come from ourselves and feelings that come from God. I mean the kind of feelings we have that may confirm our own messages. I found it interesting that one commentator, Trisha Lyons Senterfitt points out that Mary's song isn't until and right after she visits Elizabeth.
In Luke's gospel we read that the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah first to tell him about the coming birth of John the Baptist even though Elizabeth was barren. The angel Gabriel also made another visit, this time to Mary, to tell her about her upcoming pregnancy even though she had never slept with a man. It seems as though the angel Gabriel has a particular message for these folks. Even though each woman was told separately, each family had the same reaction. How can this be? Mary was confused and pondered, Gabriel told her not to be afraid, and then she said, “Ok then,”
Imagine Mary's pondering at first. Not this Magnificat that we read today, but her first thoughts. Why me? How me? What will I tell Joseph, what will my family think? My neighbors will talk. Even still, she said finally, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” So far the events are only between Mary and the angel, but she now knows about Elizabeth. Maybe she goes to visit her cousin to see for herself if the angel was being truthful. Or to say to Elizabeth, “Do you know what just happened to me?! It's so great that you are going to have a baby too!” Seeing the miracle of Elizabeth's pregnancy first hand, must have been reassuring to Mary and confirmed what the angel told her. To top that off, the baby in Elizabeth's womb leapt when Mary was speaking to her. Elizabeth told Mary about it and blessed Mary further by saying “5 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Trisha Lyons Senterfitt writes, “God's call to Mary was for a specific purpose, which her cousin Elizabeth affirmed.” “We need one another's affirmation, just as Mary needed Elizabeth's, to live into God's plan for the world.”1
Mary had an interaction with an angel – some people speak in tongues. They both sound pretty outside the norm, and both claim to be from God. It both situations the person receiving the message and either from excitement or doubt, seeks confirmation. Am I crazy? Imagine telling someone you had an interaction with an angel and something impossible was going to come from it? Imagine the first time you realized you had received the gift of speaking in tongues? You might have thought you were experiencing a stroke! The first question a trusted friend might ask you might be, “How do you know?”
This whole experience of the unexpected followed by confirmation and assurance is a model used throughout the bible. Not just faith groups that recognize and celebrate speaking in tongues and the gift of interpretation have confirmation as part of their process.
The PC(USA) has a call system for work in the church. As a pastor I could do a job search just like anyone else – where do I want to live, where are there good schools, what's the weather like, am I close to family, etc. – but there are some important steps built into the process for confirmation of a church pastor and some other jobs that our church denomination puts in the category of a call.
Just like most employers the church gets a big say in who they choose. Some denominations place pastors themselves, using different criteria for why or when they might move someone. I also get a say in where I go, unlike those other denominations.
Feeling a sense of call is not the same as when we just want something, regardless of how badly we want to do something. Referring to our activities as a called activity comes in all things, not just church work. In the PC(USA) if a member feels pulled toward ministry usually they tell someone. If you tell anyone in an official capacity you will get thrown into the famous Presbyterian committee world and not escape for some time. Each of those committees help move an initial feeling forward to its conclusion, which may or not be in the church. The tasks required and meetings and presentations are designed to be loving and affirming and they are much of the time. They test one's sense of call, one's knowledge, etc. Getting an entire Masters of Divinity degree and all that entails is only one of 18 steps one takes in order to be ordained in our denomination. This process can be abused as well as the process of speaking and interpreting tongues, lest we think we are not in the same position as other different denominations. One pastor remained in the final candidate stage for 26 years, fighting for the right to be ordained despite her open and affirming status as a gay person. When she came before our committee in San Francisco, the press was there, there were two minute time limits on each question, and she stood for two hours answering questions. Votes were taken by hand, people not in the meeting from the beginning would not be seated late, strict instructions were given for the press to remain silent, and strict instructions were given to not have outbursts after the vote results were announced. She stood for two hours participating in a process that for me, when I went through it, got one question, from a friendly face. Our Presbytery voted to advance her status and allow her to be ordained. Good for us I guess, but it was almost irrelevant since she had been doing God's work for many years already. Why had we taken so long, what was loving about that, and why would she want to be ordained by a body that would treat her that way? After that vote some churches in our presbytery left our denomination. And now, she has since moved out of state and has left ordained ministry. Leaving ordained ministry in our denomination though does not mean she has not moved into another call.
If I were to have an interaction with an angel, I would stay silent for a long time – I would probably ponder for a long time, keeping it to myself. But when I was ready I would tell a trusted friend. As soon as a feeling spreads beyond ourselves we put ourselves in a vulnerable position. With our friends, our neighbors, our families, and in the world of the PC(USA) world our future colleagues.
The justice that we are called to in the Magnificat is an example of what it takes to hear from God, discern and make choices, and live into our role in God's mission. Whatever we do, whomever we love, whomever we vote for, however we make our living, whatever we read, whatever we eat, we are first children of God. We all have a call to hear, understand and act on. As much as we are empowered as individuals, it is as communities that we will thrive. Like Mary, recognition and acceptance of the joy God gives might just lead us to sing.
Let us pray...
1 Feasting on the Word preaching series, Year B, Vol. 1; Trisha Lyons Senterfitt, p. 80-81
God's Call Confirmed
Reverend Debra McGuire
December 20, 2020