One of the beauties of being in seminary is there are so many firsts. Today was another, the first sermon at my internship site. The message is a series of call stories, from a few friends, a few personal stories, and call stories from the people of Holy Spirit Lutheran. Listen or read, whatever suits you. Enjoy!
Good morning! I’m Pastor Ryan, serving as your intern pastor for the next year. A full-time internship is a requirement for graduation, and I’ve been blessed to share this time learning alongside you, the people of Holy Spirit Lutheran. A month into this role it’s time for that first sermon.
Now in my last career I crunched a lot of numbers, and then presented and made recommendations about those numbers. So maybe we could begin there, just to get things started. You have an amazing leader here in Pastor Frank, so I thought a comparison between the two of us would make for a helpful introduction.
First, let’s talk education. I’m halfway through seminary, two years in. Pastor Frank has completed all four years, and in a couple of years I’ll catch up. Ok, that doesn’t look too bad.
How about years in ministry? I’ve worked in a faith community for two years, until last month my title was the Director of Ministry at St. Michael in Wellington. But there’s an asterisk, it was part-time, only 20 hours a week. Pastor Frank has been doing this, full time, a LOT longer, 30 years! Boy, look at the difference between those two numbers, oif. Maybe just one more comparison would be handy.
How about number of sermons? Yikes! I’ve only done eight. Pastor Frank, by my calculations you’ve prepared almost 1,500 sermons, and delivered many of them for three straight services! This is not looking good at all. I can’t compete with that!
Ok, deep breath. Maybe this can be turned into a personal goal. My goal, for this sermon, is to be Two Percent as good as Pastor Frank. Just two percent. That may be reachable. And please, let me know, on the way out, any feedback you may have.
When Pastor Frank asked me to share a personal call story it reminded me of how unique call stories can be. In seminary everyone has a call story, and some of them are just fascinating. I’d like to briefly share a few of them.
Friend Sara describes herself as a middle-aged tattooed lion and tiger keeper. That’s what she used to do. Instead of taming lions and tigers these days she feels called to tame something else: the human soul. She still has those tattoos, that’s also part of her call, and they’re pretty cool.
Ivy first heard her call when she was up front during a children’s sermon at age 7. In that moment she looked into the pulpit and thought, “I am going to be up there someday.” Earlier this summer, at age 40, she was ordained and started her first call at a Lutheran church in North Dakota.
Seminary friend Roger first experienced his call in 1991, as his unit was about to cross into Iraq during the Gulf War. The chaplain for his Battalion held a worship service that day, on the hood of his HUMMV. Roger says there were more people there at worship than he’d ever experienced in 20 years of going to church back home. He learned from this about the power of God to calm very real fears, and says he continues to be guided by this experience to this day.
A common thread I heard from most everyone in seminary is that they fought their call, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades.
The best quote I heard about call, and this is pretty funny, is from a former ELCA Assistant to the Bishop, Mark Nelson. He sums it up by saying that “going to seminary is kind of like throwing up. You can put it off for a while, but if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.”
And on that note I’d like to share with you a few call stories of my own. Yes, that’s stories with an S, plural. We’ll get to why there’s more than one call story a bit later.
This first story is about family. It is not good for man to be alone, Genesis chapter 2 tells us. God felt so strongly about this that God made a partner for Adam, in the form of Eve. This Adam met his Eve – she prefers to be called Kathi most days – during his freshman year of college. We became friends that fateful day twenty-one years ago, tho it took another 18 months for our planets to more closely align. I had to get some college partying out of the system first, and Kathi was still seriously dating her high school boyfriend. When we did start dating I realized fairly early on this was not just another girl. Kathi was special. She was marriage material. But was she the one for me?
God was calling, I picked up the phone and listened as best I could. Are you sure she’s the right one, God? That still, small voice suggested yes, yes she is. I fought that voice for a while, guys just tend to be a little stubborn when it comes to love. After six years of dating during college and attending graduate schools thousands of miles apart we married. That call to marriage for the two of us was almost 15 years ago now. We haven’t looked back.
After several years of married life we felt a new call, to become parents. To be honest Kathi felt this call first. Being the stubborn guy that I am, well, I fought this call too. Kids are expensive. They take a lot of time. And you can’t put them in the kennel when you vacation. At least legally.
But God kept on calling, and the more time went by the louder the ringer became. And really, it did feel like something was missing from life. We were being called for more, and eventually we started trying to conceive. After a few hurdles we were blessed with two children, Hannah, now age five and Graham, who’s almost two.
But way before the call to be a parent there was another call brewing, the call to community. Or perhaps it’s the call to be part of a faith community. While Kathi is a lifelong Lutheran, my path has a taken a few more twists and turns.
My journey with faith communities began as an infant, being baptized in a Methodist church. Shortly after that, my mom and dad joined a large Pentecostal congregation, bringing their six month old along with them. As a kid the church became a center of community for our family; we’d typically be there two to three times a week.
It was also in these Pentecostal churches I first experienced a contemporary worship service. The music was high energy and vibrant, it seemed like people there were really into their faith. This was in the 1980s and the pastors there liked to speak about the current hot-button topics of the day. Sometimes the pastors at this church made God sound kind of angry at certain people for doing certain things. Where was this God of love we are taught about in Sunday School? I couldn’t always see God in that way in this church. Somewhat frustrated by that I began to drift away from church later in high school.
In college I really wasn’t part of a faith community, there were the typical college distractions getting my attention. That changed when Kathi and I got engaged. We decided it was important to find a faith community that worked for both of us, and off church shopping we went. We tried all sorts of settings, Methodist, Baptist, Wesleyan, Mennonite, and Lutheran. I joked to Kathi maybe we should go to a Wiccan gathering. We never quite got there. At some point in our church shopping I fell in love with her Lutheran heritage, from the hymns to the liturgy to the pot luck suppers, I was hooked. It was the Lutheran focus on grace that sealed the deal. That there is nothing we can do to separate us from the love of God, that we are both saint and sinner, at all times, it’s just a beautiful thing.
Since then faith communities have become an important part of our marriage, and our understanding of what it means to be a parent. The time we spent church shopping turned out to be one of the best investments in our marriage we’ve made. In good times and bad it’s given us a shared, solid foundation to build our relationship with something we both believe in and value.
This next story can be a life-long pursuit to if you let it, the call to learn. It took me a while to figure out what exactly it was I wanted to be when I grew up. An assessment from the high school guidance counselor said I’d be good at engineering. I did like Legos, but really had no clue what a career in engineering would look like. Perhaps not quite trusting this potential call I narrowed my college search to schools with three characteristics: 1) a liberal arts school with 2) an engineering program and 3) a school that had some kind of Christian affiliation. It turns out not too many schools have this particular combination of traits. After a couple of visits I settled on a Lutheran college, Valparaiso University in Northwest Indiana.
Going to Valpo for undergrad ended up influencing my future paths in more ways than I ever could have imagined. After three semesters it became fairly clear that the black-and-white world of civil engineering was not my call. It turns out there are a set number of ways to build a bridge correctly. Stray from those ways and the bridge will fall. But a liberal arts education teaches more than just black and white formulas. First it taught me to view the world in various shades of gray. Later I learned to appreciate the world in full color too. It turns out this worldview, of grays and colors, is compatible with the field of psychology. Life isn’t always as precise as the mathematical equations engineering requires. It can be messy, yet colorful, beautiful too. I was drawn to this messy beauty.
Valpo is also where I first studied theology. But not by choice. At Valpo all students are required to take three theology courses. I’ll be honest with you, at the time, taking those theology classes, I hated it. The course on comparative religions was the worst. Why study other religions, why seek to understand, if you are secure in your own beliefs? Those were my thoughts as a freshman in college. The beliefs of my childhood, which, like engineering, were also fairly black-and-white, were being challenged in these theology courses. Over time my understanding of God started to change. Just like with psychology I began to see that God was in the middle of this messy beauty too.
After graduating from Valpo I learned, pretty quickly, that you can’t do much with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. So off to graduate school I went to earn a Master’s degree in Market Research. This field is a mixture of marketing and psychology, there’s plenty of grey and colors, some messy beauty to be had here as well. After graduating I accepted an offer to work at a large market research firm, and stayed with them for 13 years. My time spent working in market research taught me much that relates to this next call. Marketers are trained to understand differences between people objectively – with no judgements – and then to find ways to reach these various groups with messaging they connect with. I learned to love and embrace the differences in people, in all their messy beauty.
At times our sense of call takes us through something, to get us to something. This was the case for me. My through something was a deep personal darkness of depression, and it wasn’t too much fun. This dark episode began in 2011. Ironically it started with a moment most people would consider a positive, a promotion, into management, at work. A couple of months later a good friend passed away at the age of 39, far too young. A few weeks after that my mother-in-law passed away too.
All this change at work and loss of loved ones messed me up pretty good, and led to many sleepless nights. For six weeks I averaged three hours of sleep a night. Over time this took a toll.
Not being able to sleep, I first went to a psychiatrist to get help sleeping. Initially he prescribed sleeping pills. When that didn’t work he prescribed ADHD medication. When that didn’t work I requested anxiety pills for particularly stressful moments of life. When all of that failed, I finally went to a psychologist. She correctly diagnosed me with a major depressive episode and recommended a treatment plan. Within days of treatment the dark fog of depression began to lift. I began to heal. I began to live again.
While all this was going on I also tried another treatment: God. I read scripture, searching for answers in ancient wisdom. I read Christian books, thinking some nugget of Truth would leap off the page. In these depths of despair I was the one calling out to God. At first my calls started as prayer requests. When those requests weren’t met they became more like demands. I yelled at God in the midst of this depression, A LOT, begging God to take this ailment away.
Each attempt I made to call God the answer, as I understood it, was the same. God was silent. I was alone.
Reflecting back on this, with the benefit of time, healing, and a perspective on the Almighty that has evolved some, I see the experience now for what it was.
I know now God had been calling my extension the entire time. God guided me through the depths of depression that included pills, prayers and pain. God was present through the love and patience of my wife, who both supported and challenged me. Most importantly she stayed by my side when times were tough.
God appeared through support from friends and hugs of empathy, from people determined to be present in my pain.
God showed Godself in the wisdom of a psychologist, who within 15 minutes of meeting me spoke with clarity. “I know this problem” she said confidently, “You are clinically depressed. We can do something about that.”
Thinking about all those sleepless nights filled with tears I realize I was not alone at all. God didn’t need my calls. God was already there, fully present, phone in hand. I just didn’t know it at the time. God hadn’t fallen asleep on me. We both had insomnia.
You may be thinking at this point these stories are all well and good, but what led you to pursue ordination? To want to be a Pastor? You know, answer the call from the Big Guy upstairs? It’s these small stories, weaved together, that led to this next call.
A second major depressive episode hit me later that year. This time the depression hit harder, beat me down further, recovery took longer. It was bad enough this time I walked away from my job of 13 years. My wife Kathi stood by me like no other. “Make the most of this fresh start, find something you’re passionate about” she told me. Without her support this call story isn’t complete. The bigger call also includes our children, Hannah and Graham. They continue to teach me about unconditional love, and how to dive into life with both feet. Without them my understanding of a loving God, there with you through the think and the thin, wouldn’t be the same.
Being part of a faith community is also part of the larger call. Faith communities have played a central role in my identity most of my life. Life has made the most sense, and brought the most joy, when I’ve been knee-deep, actively involved in the life of the church. A good faith community draws out the best in people, gives us a shared purpose, and a common mission that is so much larger than our own.
My time spent learning and doing market research is definitely part of this larger call. In marketing you learn to identify differences in people, respect those differences, and then draw on those differences, uniting toward a common purpose. Sounds familiar? Perhaps that’s not too un-like what we strive for in faith communities. While the goals of market research may be different, the approaches we take in uniting in a faith community around common purpose are largely the same.
The personal darkness of depression, as painful as it was, drew me toward this next call. I had to literally walk away from a prior call, to make space for this next one. During this time I also learned important lessons about the nature of God, that God walks with us, and suffers alongside us. And stays with us, no matter what. These lessons continue to move and mold me, day by day.
But enough about that. Call stories go far, far beyond one person. Martin Luther refers to a “priesthood of all believers,” suggesting that everyone has been called. Luther quotes 2nd Peter 2:9 to back up this claim. That verse says “you are a chosen people. You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.”
Our reading from Ephesians 4 this week reflects this theme too. Verses 4 through 6 say “Just as you were called to the one hope of your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Did you notice what two words show up the most in that passage? The first is CALL. The second is ALL.
Looked at in a certain way we could summarize the words of Martin Luther, 2nd Peter and Paul writing to the Ephesians with these five short words: “the Call is for ALL.” Let’s repeat that together, say it with me. THE CALL IS FOR ALL. Yes, all. Everyone. Including you.
To illustrate this I’d like to use a few numbers to talk about these next call stories, your call stories.
Seventeen people were installed today as Stephen Ministers. Their new role is to lend an ear to people that need to know Christ’s love. This group of seventeen spent 50 hours and a summer of Thursday evenings recently to become certified for this ministry. And it’s not just that, they signed on for a two year commitment. Why on earth would anyone make such a time consuming, selfless commitment? Maybe it’s this concept of call. Perhaps these Stephen Ministers know that God’s call, is for all, of them.
Twenty people joined the congregation as new members today, thirteen adults, seven kids. To join, each of them gave up over three hours of a recent Saturday morning to learn more about this community. Why would they do that? Aren’t Saturday mornings made for relaxing after a long week? For turning the alarm clock off and sleeping in? Maybe it’s a desire to be part of something life giving, and bigger than ourselves, that calls all of them.
Forty-Three people showed up six days ago in this room to start a nine week course, “Discovering God’s Vision For Your Life.” These 43 have chosen to invest 14 hours of their time on Monday nights to talk about God, Vision and Life. Why? Because they want to listen deeply for God’s vision, God’s call, for their lives.
Thirty-five. That’s the number of families that felt called away from one faith community to do something new in Juno Beach almost thirty years ago. You can see a list of people involved in this call, right over there on the wall. These people felt called to create the community that became Holy Spirit Lutheran. Without this call story none of these other call stories would even be possible. Or at least they wouldn’t be the same.
Three Hundred. That’s about the number of people that will walk through the door of this sanctuary today. If you’re sitting here you’re in that number. A question, why are you here, in this moment, right now? It isn’t by chance. You could be out golfing. You could be grocery shopping. Heck, you could be sleeping off a doozy of a hangover. I’ve had a few of those. But you aren’t doing any of those things, you’re right here. I’d like close with a request. Take a little time to think about what led you to this very place, and where God may be calling you to from here.