Tuesday, March 26, 2013

the call of the sea

We recently celebrated an anniversary.  Ten years ago this month, we left the U.S. to begin our journey to live and work among the Makua people of Mozambique.  God has been amazingly faithful through all the ups and downs of this adventure. Passing this mile marker has made me reflective and I've been thinking a lot about what got us started on this road to begin with.

I've been thinking a lot about the idea of 'calling'.

 A.S. Peterson's books, Fiddler's Gun, and its sequel, Fiddler's Green, have been a big help in getting my mind wrapped around this concept.  They tell the story of Fin Button, a young orphan who is forced by tragedy to leave her home and stow away on a ship. On land she floundered to find her place in society, but on board the ship she flourishes, eventually becoming a leader of a very motley crew.  At the beginning of the second book, Fiddler's Green (p. 4-5), Fin contemplates the call of the sea on her life while enjoying some respite on a small island. 

They spent a week in Hank's company and though the crew was cheerful and content in their leisure, Fin was lonely for Tan's company, and for home.  Her nights were fitful and long. She awoke often in the dark, startled by the solidity of the ground.  Without the ocean to rock her, she felt out of place and set apart from the life that the sea was calling her to.  But answering that call meant giving away her claim to any place of earth. Some men could sail the ocean and never really give themselves to it.  But others, real sailors, men of salt and timber - they were different.  Fin could spot it in a man almost instantly.  It wasn't the leathery skin and deep lined face; it wasn't the sun-bleached hair or the smell of rum and salted meat.  It wasn't the calloused hands and curse-ready tongue.  It was something inside, something elemental and rooted deep in the marrow.  Such men belonged to the wind and built no landward home.  Their foundations were of wave and storm, running fluid and deep, deeper than any mine or grave.  Any true man of the sea could tell you when he gave himself over to it.  It's the moment when men are divided one from another, sailors of a season on one hand, and true men of the wind and wave on the other. It's when one man looks toward home and the other comforts himself in knowing his home is his berth.

It is impossible to think about pirates and/or sailors without thinking about the sea.  They are truly defined by their calling to the waves and they have a lot to teach us about the nature of 'calling.'

Few things have involved as much confusion and head-scratching in my life as the idea of 'calling' and ministry.  In different seasons, I have struggled with the intersection of my passion and my vocation. Though I would not have called it a 'calling,' I've had a sense that God was calling me to ministry my whole life (in Kindergarten when told to draw pictures of what I wanted to be as a grown up... I drew myself as a preacher!). 

My church heritage has tended to emphasize the fact that ALL of God's people have been called to ministry.  And while this is a true and beautiful thing, it does seem clear that an individual's sense of calling to ministry can have a powerful impact on one's life and the lives of those around him or her.

A 'calling' is a renewable energy source.

Living and ministering out of a calling is ultimately more empowering and life-sustaining.  Reggie McNeal says that, "A leader with a clear sense of call represents a formidable force.  The sense of destiny emboldens, energizes and empowers the leader as well as those who are part of a leader's coterie of followers.  Leaders convinced of their call do not easily succumb to disappointments and discouragements.  Nor do they calculate odds in the same way as those who are not operating from a call basis.  Leaders secure in their call will charge hell with a water pistol.  A divine unction fuels their determination." (A Work of Heart, 96).  Without a clear sense of calling, we can easily run out of steam.

A 'calling' is different than a career.  

The earlier quote from Peterson's book highlights the difference between a calling and a career.  Fin sees two different types of people in her line of work, the one who keeps looking over his shoulder towards home, and the person who finds comfort in knowing that "his home is his berth." Those who are following a career keep one eye on a landward home, while those who are following a calling have accepted the wildness and unpredictability of a home on the sea.

Accepting the calling of the sea is not easy though - when the waves are especially rough, it is easy to look longingly back at the rock-solid shore.  There is a cost involved in following a calling verses following a career.  I appreciate the way that Fin wrestles honestly with the ways that answering the call of the sea will shape her life. 

Giving oneself like that means being cast away, set adrift on the world and beholden to nothing -  no man, no country, no law but the sea.  But the trade of it, the joy of it, is that home is what a man carries with him; when he pours his blood into a ship and cherishes and knows her like a lover, his home carries him far and safe across all oceans and vasty deeps.  Topper was such a man; his joy was the spray off the bow and the breeze off on his sunburnt pate.  Jack was certainly, as Tan had been, and Armand also, though joy wasn't often in him as a virtue.  Fin suspected that Armand was a man not only given to the sea, but lost to it, adrift in monstrous waters. As she lay awake, aware of the unmovable certainty of the world beneath her, Fin felt her own call to that weathered citizenship.  She'd felt it for a long time.  She'd longed to give herself to the deeps the first day she stood in the tops of the Rattlesnake and saw the ocean poured out before her.  It was this that frightened her when she thought of Peter.  Her heart and soul wanted only two things: Peter and the sea.  The anchor and the unknown.  The knowledge that she might one day have to choose between them chilled her and she longed for the numbness of sleep.
As Fin struggles with her calling and what it means for her own life, she calls to mind the examples of sailors that she knows well.  There are good models, men like Tan, Topper and Jack who came alive by accepting the call of the sea.  But she has also seen those who have not answered the call well.  Like Armand, they have become lost on the sea. The calling is a blessing, but answering it in unhealthy ways leads to a real danger of being swallowed by something sinister.

The example of others can help us successfully answer our 'calling.'  

In the struggle to understand my calling, it has been an enormous help to look to the experiences of others.  There is the warning of the 'Armand's, those shipwrecked sailors who have lost their way in following the call to ministry.  And, positively, I have benefited from the example of mentors and leaders who have given me an example of what living out that 'weathered citizenship' could look like in healthy and life-giving ways. 

The blessing... and the challenge of 'the call' is that it draws us into a reality greater than ourselves.

Fin realizes that giving her heart to the adventure out on the waves means giving up an anchor she dearly loves. The sea calls her to something greater, but she struggles with the cost that comes when accepting the call.  Drawn to the majesty and power of the sea, she senses that in it there exists a larger, more expansive reality. 

I love the way McNeil puts it: "Those called to be spiritual leaders feel connected to the big picture of God's movement, his kingdom agenda.  They feel personally responsible for partnering with God in his mission.  They may work in very obscure places, but changing the world is their aim.  This concern is not fitted in around the edges of life; it is the preoccupation of the called." (p. 98)  So, by answering the call of the sea we risk its depths and dangers because we sense there is something greater than ourselves.  The call challenges us to leave behind our self-centered narratives and step into a grander story.  The call may even ask us to give up good things, anchors that held us fast for a time.  And the call promises treasures: both along the journey and one that awaits us at the end of our voyage.  

I imagine that I will continue to wrestle with this idea of 'calling' - trying to understand my place between the anchor and the sea.  But, at this stage at least, I'm confident that the better adventure, the better story, will come by answering the call.    

May those of us who hear it, answer the call of the sea.  And may we follow the Master of the wind and the waves as he walks before us.

Grace and Peace,

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