The summer after my freshman year in college, I had the summer job that all my friends coveted – I was a lifeguard at our town pool. The Riverside Swim Club was a very safe environment with two lifeguards on duty at all times in the big pool, and children were not even allowed into that pool until they passed a swimming test and had a patch sewn on their bathing suits to prove it. So, the guards were there primarily to stop kids from running on the deck or to prevent boys from doing stupid things to impress girls (or annoy other boys). Otherwise, I spent my time twirling my whistle on its lanyard, getting a terrific tan, and flirting with the college guys who came to the pool in the evening when they got off work.
I had such a good time that summer that when it came time to apply for the following summer, I made sure to mail my application in right away. But when I returned home after spring semester, I learned that my application had gotten lost in the mail, and so the manager had assumed I was not returning and had given my job to someone else. Since most of the summer jobs in our community had already been snatched up, I was desperate for anything that was available. But when my mother – a teacher in a private school for mentally-handicapped children – suggested that I apply to be a summer counselor for the day-camp her school ran, my reaction was “I’m not that desperate.” After all, I had seen how hard Mom worked, and I had to admit that some of the kids in her school made me uncomfortable. They looked a bit odd and their behavior was often quite odd.
But my mother had confidence in my ability to do the job and promised to help me get started and so, even though I had had absolutely no experience with children with cognitive disabilities, I applied for and got the job. The Helping Hand School took me on for the summer and gave me in-service training, and I discovered that my previous experiences teaching swimming to children, helping in Vacation Bible School, and babysitting kids of all ages had actually prepared me more than I would have thought for working with these special needs children and youth. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed my work at Helping Hand, but I never would have had the courage even to apply for the job if my mother hadn’t believed in me and gently encouraged me to try something that seemed beyond my abilities.
The prophet Jeremiah would have understood my reluctance to take on something I thought was beyond me, because that was exactly how he reacted when the Lord told him he was to become a prophet:
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
Jeremiah’s response isn’t all that surprising since he wasn’t the first person in ancient Israel who tried to wriggle out of a call from God: Moses said he couldn’t lead the Hebrew slaves to freedom because he was a poor public speaker; Jonah set sail in the exact opposite direction when God called him to bring the word of the Lord to the people of Nineveh; and Gideon said he couldn’t possibly lead the people of Israel against an enemy army because he came from the weakest clan in his tribe and he was the weakest member of the clan.
It’s understandable that none of these Biblical characters leaped at the chance to be the Lord’s agent. After all, the task assigned to each one was difficult, and the life of a prophet was a lonely one. Look at Moses: the people wanted him to be their leader and protector, but they also blamed him whenever things went wrong. And while the people of ancient Israel expected their prophets to speak God’s word to them, they were often not happy with what they heard – or with the prophet who said those disturbing things.
So it’s not surprising that Jeremiah tries to make an excuse for why he can’t do what God wants – but the Lord is not accepting any excuses: But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.
The Lord’s promise to help Jeremiah sounds like my mother’s promise to help me when I felt out of my depth. But then the Lord does something that is the exact opposite of my mother’s gentle encouragement: Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth…” Now, we may envision a gentle tap when the Lord touches Jeremiah’s mouth, but we get a different picture if we read this passage in Hebrew – the language in which it was originally written. The Hebrew word that we have translated as “touch” also means “to strike” or “to harm.” In fact, in the book of Job, this same word is used to describe how a great wind “touches” Job’s house and blows it to pieces.
So, when the Lord “touches” Jeremiah’s mouth, it is hardly a caress. Instead, God is acting more like Agent Gibbs in the television program NCIS who, whenever Agent Tony DiNozzo was driving him nuts, would whup Tony upside the back of his head. God is basically giving Jeremiah a “Gibbs slap” to remind him that the Lord will accept no excuses and is fully confident that Jeremiah is up to the task set before him: Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. And Jeremiah went on to become one of Israel’s greatest prophets.
Seven centuries later, a fisherman named Simon (a.k.a. Peter) also found himself needing to be reassured that he was up to the task to which he was being called. Simon is having an ordinary day and then Jesus shows up, wanting Simon to take Jesus onboard and row him out from the shore a bit. A great crowd has gathered to hear Jesus teach, and since sound travels better over water than over land, Jesus wants to use the boat as an off-shore pulpit.
Simon has already met Jesus when he came to Simon’s home and healed his sick mother-in-law, so Simon honors Jesus’ request. But when Jesus finishes instructing the people, instead of asking Simon to row him back to shore, he gives Simon his own instruction: Put down your nets. This suggestion seems pointless to Simon – after all, he has fished all night and caught nothing. But Simon goes ahead and does as Jesus tells him, and then is astonished at the result: so many fish that the nets are ready to break – and even when other fishermen come to help, their boats are almost sinking, they are so full of fish.
And suddenly Simon is terrified, falling to his knees, and begging: Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. It was one thing for Simon to watch Jesus heal his mother-in-law, but now Jesus is meddling with Simon’s own life and this idea is very scary. What could this holy man possibly want with Simon? But Jesus is undeterred by Simon’s reaction and he tells Simon: Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people. And Simon and the other fishermen leave their boats by the shoreline to follow Jesus.
Thinking about these stories of Jeremiah and Simon Peter made me consider the ways in which God calls us to serve as disciples but also the ways in which we – like Jeremiah or Simon – sometimes sell ourselves (and our God) short because we doubt our abilities, or we let fear hold us back. The author Anna Quindlen understands this tendency to back away from challenges and writes about it in her book Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. When Anna tells a friend that it took her two years of hard work to acquire a new skill because she had no natural abilities in that area, her friend responds, “That’s just a little story you tell yourself.”
Oh, those little stories we tell ourselves. They make us what we are, and, too often, what we’re not. They are the ten commandments of incapability, cut to order. I can’t cook. I’m not smart. I’m a bad driver. I’m no jock. Maybe they’re even true. It’s hard to tell at a certain point. The little stories we tell ourselves become mythic, difficult if not impossible to discount or overcome. They get written into our DNA, so that when the plane hits a bump, adrenaline floods our bodies as we say to ourselves, “I am afraid of flying.” Sometimes over time it becomes clear how many of the little stories are fictional or, more particularly, lies.
(Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen, © 2012, Random House, pp. 89-90.)
Oh, those little stories we all tell ourselves – we see it all the time. We express our admiration for someone by saying I could never do that, when often a more honest statement would be, I could probably do that, but I don’t want to and I hope I won’t ever have to. During the five summers I ended up working at Helping Hand, the only thing that really drove me up the wall was when people would say, “You’re such a saint for working with those children. I could never do that.” I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Come off it. I’m no saint, and you are just saying that to put distance between yourself and these children, who apparently scare the heck out of you. But guess what – they scared me too and I got over it. So can you.” (Of course, I never actually said this to anyone, but I sure thought it!)
Those little stories… “I’m too young.” “I’m too old.” “I’m not good at that.” “I don’t have time for that.” “I could never do that.” Those little stories that at times may be true, but can also be nothing more than excuses when we are being called to do something that makes us uncomfortable.
Now, I doubt that any of us will ever have a call as dramatic as those of Jeremiah or Simon Peter. But that doesn’t mean God is not calling us to make the Good News tangible in our daily lives. As a seminary professor named James Calvin Davis puts it, ..the story of Jeremiah’s calling… tempts us to think of vocation as something reserved for great figures of religious history – prophets, evangelists, and missionaries. And yet, Professor Davis points out, … God calls every Christian to live out the radical gospel of Christ through faithful obedience in the world. For some, that faithful obedience may require grand utterance, heroic measures, or world-changing actions. For others of us, it is in fulfilling the tasks of our social, political, and familial roles that we stand as prophets in the cultural wilderness, testifying to God’s intentions for the world in the way we live our lives.
We may not think of ourselves as being a prophet like Jeremiah, but we are all called to be prophetic at times, confronting injustice and standing up for those who are being left out. And we do this by actions such as contacting our elected officials or writing letters to the editor or simply refusing to laugh when a friend or colleague tells a joke that is racist or sexist or homophobic.
And Jesus makes it very clear what we are called to do as his disciples: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
Oh, those little stories of incapability we tell ourselves when we are called to do something that presents a real challenge. And oh, the temptation to come up with reasons why we can’t possibly rise to that challenge. But the good news for us is that beyond the self-limiting stories we tell ourselves, there is another Story: the story of God’s people over the ages learning to overcome their fears and say “Yes” to God; the story of a young man from an obscure village in ancient Israel whose words we are still reading centuries later; the story of an illiterate fisherman who became one of the first followers of Jesus and went on to become a major figure in the early Christian church.
Oh, those little stories – they can be so powerful. But the good news is that we have an even more powerful story – THE Good News – and this story gives us the courage to say “Yes” to the God who calls us to love this world and each other as much as God loves us.