Not Just for Preachers — Living our call in all of life

Our small church was in a time of leadership transition and the overseer was visiting. He asked me if I had a call to serve the church.  I was in my forties and had thought about the question and responded to what I sensed was his question: “I have not identified within myself a leading of the spirit to the pulpit ministry.” He asked no further questions.   He didn’t seem interested in my struggle with how I could best serve God in the church and beyond. Sometime later a young man from the congregation began pastoral leadership in our congregation. We were discussing some issue and he responded that his views should have greater weight because he had been ‘called.’ Later a friend reminded me that Paul’s lists of qualification for ministry do not include having a CALL.

First look at call

You have all been called to follow Christ. Just as Jesus called disciples and the Spirit called Paul at Damascus, everyone hearing the gospel has a call to follow and serve Jesus. Most Christians would agree with these two sentences. [This use of the word call will appear in lower case letters.]   In the Bible there are many ordinary uses of the word “call” such as “request to come” or to give someone a name. Paul uses the word ‘call’ refer to the spirit’s leading or God’s encouraging us to follow Jesus. For example:

For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 1Th 4:7

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours: (1Co 1:2)

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 2Pet.1:10

We are all called to become Christ ‘s followers. Our call includes doing as Jesus’ disciples did, whether it is holding the baskets to collect the leftovers after the feeding of the 5,000 or going to the village for food while Jesus talked to a woman of Samaria or going out like the seventy-two to announce the coming of the kingdom. As Paul was directed to take the gospel to the gentiles, our call also includes making tents while talking about Jesus to shoppers.

CALL as a special experience

At one point the Mennonite Church had a program to address our concern over the lack of candidates for pastoral office. “Culture of CALL” initiative encourages people with pastoral and administrative skills to consider church ministry, usually on a full-time basis. Historical shifts of the past century (status and difficulties of church workers, a shift away from use of the lot, and perhaps opening of the pastorate to women (and probably other factors) have affected the drawing of young people to church work. But if everyone is called, why are we speaking of CALL in the specific sense regarding Christians entering church offices? What is the origin of the use of the word ‘call’ to mean a special leading of the spirit to service and leadership in the church. Almost always people experiencing a CALL in this sense are already Christians. [I will use the CALL to indicate this specific use.]

The word call in the Bible

Gospel writers sometimes use the word ‘call’ in reporting Jesus’ inviting the disciples to follow him. Paul does refer to himself as being called to be an apostle in the salutation of two letters

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (Ro 1:1.) Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, (1Co 1:1)

Are these references to Paul’s Damascus experience? Was that a conversion experience, a vocation change invitation or both? Prior to his ‘call’ was he (were the disciples) a follower(s) of Christ? Paul, in discussing the office of elder/bishop/overseer and deacons, does not list “call” as one of the qualifications. These servants of the church, of course, had a call that led to their salvation. One passage that includes both the word call and speaks of church offices is Eph. 4.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Eph. 4:1

In Acts 13:2 we are told that the Spirit has “called” Barnabas and Paul to a particular task. Does this imply a lifetime leading? When speaking of the leading of the spirit to church office, the Paul does not use the word ‘call’. Is the pattern of use of the word ‘call’ in the New Testament reflected in our use today?

Finally, Paul uses the word church, ecclesia, as the distinctive term for followers of Jesus. This word is defined as the “called out ones”

Uses of the term CALL in the church

The probable origin of the use of the word CALL for full time church workers is the development of a two-tiered spirituality after the establishment of the state church under Constantine. According to this tradition, Jesus had a special spiritual vocation/calling as Messiah. Since it was his ‘vocation’ to suffer and die, the events of his life are not a norm or example for us to follow. Some Christians like Jesus have a ‘spiritual’ rather than a temporal or secular vocation and receive a special “call.”   These are the people who become priests and nuns. The laity did not need to follow Christ closely in spirituality, direction for Christian service or service in the military. Priests, for instance, were expected to be pacifists, but not the average Christian. At the time of the Reformation, some claimed that only the ordained were CALLED and part of the church.   Taking issue with this separation of life into secular and spiritual, Anabaptist sought to recover the sense of following Christ in all of our lives. They insisted that those called were to follow Christ in ‘churchly’ activities, work and all of our daily lives.

The word CALL identifies the leading of the spirit, the thinking of the individual and counseling by other Christians directed toward individuals considering full time work in the church, especially the pastorate. This term is generally not used for those who are considering other careers or occupations.     (Some have worked to extend this sense of a special leading of the Spirit to all work situations.) I wonder if this focus places unnecessary stresses both on those considering church work and on those considering secular jobs?   For those with gifts and skills suitable for the pastorate or full time church work, there is pressure to expect a high intensity and memorable experience (probably datable) of the Spirit’s leading to full time church work. On the other hand, devout followers of Christ seeking the leading of the Spirit for work direction or job change who desire to serve God in their work and in their non-vocational time may wonder how God leads them differently. Does using the impetus of the concept of CALL accomplish in a scripturally sound way (as interpreted above) the important job of encouraging individuals into missionary or pastoral positions? If we used “call” in the scriptural sense for persons entering “secular” work would they better understanding that work as a way of serving Christ?

Living out our call

Let’s find ways of encouraging and aiding people making decisions about their life’s work. Initial career choice or later changes are major life milestones at which fellow Christians should provide support for one another.   Finding a job in which we can honor and glorify God requires the spirit’s leading within us, as well. To cooperate with the spirit’s leading and to work with the spirit in aiding all Christians in career choice, we should affirm that

  1. Serving the church/extend the kingdom is an important responsibility of all Christians.
  2. Serving Christ in one’s vocation is part of every Christian’s calling.
  3. Encouraging fellow Christians to make the best use of their gifts is an important task for the people of God.
  4. Challenging jobs such as the full-time pastorate or outreach in difficult areas may require encouragement from others, and extra prayer and courage by the one making the choice.

God’s call comes to all people. Those who respond are called to salvation and a life of serving God. Let those who answer God’s call live all their life in response to the call.

Singing justice for the poor: Looking for Anabaptist-flavored worship music

I proclaim the power of God: You do marvels for your servants;

Though you scatter the proud-hearted  And destroy the might of princes.

To the hungry you give food,  send the rich away ——empty.

In your mercy you are mindful  Of the people you have chosen.

Refrain: And holy is your name through all generations. (verses 2 & 3 “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. (#13 Sing the Journey). See also, “I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” verses 2 and 3 Hymnal, a worship book #166)

Where can we find similar praise to God for caring for the poor and hungry in contemporary and traditional worship music? The results of the search I’ve done show few examples of helping the marginal and bringing down the powerful in praise and worship music.   Early 2015 the Mountain States Mennonite Conference concluded an Anabaptist songwriting contest. They asked for “New songs with lyrics that espouse Anabaptist/Mennonite values: (e.g. Non-violence, love for enemy, reconciliation, communal life, etc.), musically spanning from traditional forms to non-traditional genres, styles and cultural expressions.” Specific mention of the social justice theme is not made, but perhaps it is implied in “Anabaptist/Mennonite values”. The link below identifies winners and includes their lyrics and music. One of the six mentions attention to the poor. * The 2015 Mennonite World Conference Songbook, Walking with God includes at least three of fifty-six selections that specifically praise God for his attention to the oppressed and poor. January 4, 2016, MennoMedia announced Project 606, intended to produce a new hymnal by 2020. Will this project include work on identifying elements of Anabaptist-flavored, Bible-based worship music?

 What Biblical models warrant placing a strong emphasis on praising God for social justice, especially in praise music? “Social justice” here is short hand for God’s act in delivering an immigrant/slave people from the super power of the day. It is a social act because a group of people, the children of Israel, was rescued. A new people with a new plan for living (the Torah) were established. God’s rescue of an oppressed people was “just” because it showed God’s love and mercy, not because Jacob’s descendants deserved it.

The contest (see above) reminded me of my quest of some years to find references to discipleship in worship music, narrowed here to social justice. Some 40 years ago I had a period of illness that resulted in a significant loss of hearing. Gradually I lost additional hearing until today I am nearly deaf. Hearing aids and now a cochlear implant. Cochlear implants are engineered to help with the hertz range of conversation level, but do not cover high and low notes of music. So, I give my attention to the words of the song. This has led me to ask questions about the theology behind the music used in worship. As a non-musician I make no claim to expertise in evaluating musical quality of any of the songs mentioned. I need a welcome help in identifying the quality of lyrics and music featuring attention to God’s interest in the oppressed.

Worship music in the evangelical churches I am familiar with usually includes what can be categorized loosely as contemporary Christian music (CCM), traditional hymns, and gospel songs. These types of music have some overlap. I will not attempt to fully distinguish between them. Each type has its focus. They are not fully listed here. Contemporary and traditional music praises God for many attributes and deeds, gives many invitations for re-dedication to Christian living, and rejoices in the promise of future life with God, but seldom praises God for concern for the poor and oppressed. My focus on the marginalized in this essay is very narrow.

Christian contemporary music

Several writers have noted the lack of attention to social justice issues in CCM. Jay Howard writes: “There are few [contemporary Christian worship] songs concerned with social justice because there are few songwriters from the Anabaptist tradition.” He analyzes 77 Contemporary Worship Songs –those most frequently requested of the licensing service CCL–and finds only one that gives direct attention to social justice issues. John L. Bell, songwriter argues that CCM is mainly about the birth and death of Jesus and ignores his life. Have I missed some CCM titles that give attention to Jesus’ life, especially to his attention to the poor, the widow, and the outsider?

 Traditional ‘gospel songs’ and hymns

Praise and thanksgiving in traditional hymns and gospel songs (I will not define these here, but look at that category the Mennonite Hymnal for examples) give little attention to social justice. “Gospel songs” are strong in their emphasis on grace, God/Jesus’ companionship and love. I have not found any of these that praise God for his love and care of the “widow and fatherless”. There are a number of hymns in Hymnal, a Worship Book (HWB), that include an interest in the poor and oppressed and justice for them. One that praises God for this attention is “I’ll Praise My Maker”, verses three and four (HWB, #166). Some encourage us to follow Jesus’ example in caring for the marginalized. Did I miss hymns that specifically praise God/Jesus as Miriam and Mary did for God’s championing of the oppressed?

Models and sources:

The preliminary Biblical models I would propose for praise songs are Miriam’s song (Exodus 15) and Mary’s song in Luke 1. The book of Psalms was Israel’s “praise and worship” book. That requires some attention to psalms that praise God for his attention to disadvantaged and those who prey on them.

Miriam’s Song

While God the warrior image usually makes Anabaptist uncomfortable, God is first called holy when he rescued the Israelites from the Egyptian cavalry and foot soldiers.

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you?—majestic in holiness, fearful in praises, working wonders?
 You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them. (Ex. 15:11-12 (New English Translation)

God is praised for delivering the immigrant/slaves God chose to become his covenant people.

 

The Psalms

In his work on the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann says that the things we praise God for shows the way we view the world and our place in it.  Many Psalms praise God (see also Miriam’s Song) for delivering a slave/immigrant people from the Egyptian superpower whose religion favored politically powerful and the rich. We are sometimes tempted to assign God’s action here to a special category, rather than see it as a model of what God does.  Psalmists praise God (and kings) for their concern for the poor and marginalized.  God is praised for being a just judge and for making wars cease.  See the following Psalms: 9, 10, 29, 35, 65, 66, 68, 69, 72, 74, 81, 82, 94, 96, 97, 98, 99, 102, 103, 105,106, 107, 109, 123, 124, 135, 136, 139, 140, 146.

Phrases from Psalms 72 and 146 capture a king’s and God’s attitude and action and are characteristic of the other Psalms:

 

Ps. 72: The King:

— takes pity on the weak and the needy
— saves the needy from death.
rescues them from oppression and violence,
— for precious is their blood in his sight.

Ps. 146. The Lord

–upholds the cause of the oppressed
–gives food to the hungry.
–sets prisoners free,
gives sight to the blind,
— lifts up those who are bowed down,
— loves the righteous.
watches over the foreigner
–sustains the fatherless and the widow,
–frustrates the ways of the wicked

Praise the Lord.

Repeatedly God gives attention to the oppressed and provides security and safety to victims of violence. To what extent should words and phrases like these from the Psalms be present in our worship music?

 Prophets

Attention to the needs of the orphan/widow/poor is identified more with prophets than the Psalms and I was pleased to find significant attention to this topic in the Psalms. Prophetic critiques of worship do not contain comments on purity of sacrifices, social justice content of Psalms or the quality or frequency of Psalm recitation. The prophetic critiques point out that Sabbath worship by the people of the covenant should be reflected in covenant behavior during the week.

Mary, Jesus, Paul

Mary’s prophetic vision of her son’s work is captured in the song “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. (#13, Sing the Journey, verses 2 and 3 above). Jesus inaugural sermon repeats these themes.

The prophetic focus is reflected in Paul’s statement in Romans 12:1-2:  “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering [as your worship]. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” (The Message-my emphasis). Perhaps an important aim of worship music should be to help us connect thanksgiving and praise with covenant living.

Today our world is one of increasing disparity in wealth. God’s rescue of an immigrant/slave people informs us what kind of God he was/is. Jesus affirmed this nature in his work and teaching by giving significant focus to healing, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. Can God’s people today teach and act less like the world and more like our lord? Are there songwriters addressing this need?

 

Miriam’s Song, many Psalms, the prophets’ reminders all tell us that connecting worship and living is crucial.   The New Testament contributions of Mary’s song, Jesus life and teaching, and Paul’s take on worship in Romans 12 all point to the worship-discipleship-concern for poor and marginalized as an essential element in our praise and life. I have found very few songs in CCM and “gospel songs” with this focus and only a few in traditional hymns that praise God as a champion of the down and out. (Perhaps additional research and help from knowledgeable persons will locate songs with a social justice focus.) Eugene Peterson’s (The Message) take on Psalms 65:1 provides an appropriate conclusion:

Silence is praise to you,
Zion-dwelling God,
And also obedience.
You hear the prayer [praise] in it all.

 

*Text and music of six winners can be found at:

http://www.anabaptistsongwritingchallenge.org/

 

Thanks to Julia H. Alleman and Ray E. Horst for sharing their music knowledge with me.

 

 

Favorite hymns

 

“I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” (HWB#166) and “My soul is filled with joy” include praise for God for his lifting up the poor and pulling down the powerful. So, that’s why I list them first, although the rest of this list is not necessarily in order of my sense of their importance.

 

The chair where I sit for morning devotions faces just north of east so that more than half of the mornings during the year I probably could see the sunrise. That feeds my love of sunrises and a preference for the hymns “I owe the Lord a morning song”( HWB#651) and “When morning gilds the skies 1. The latter sticks in my memory from a theme song of a 1960s radio program, a favorite of my mother’s.

 

Since the question of favorite hymns was raised at Thanksgiving and since I spend a lot of time in the garden (or thinking about it), I must list “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground” (HWB#96).   I list this one even though I know my favorites will vary by season. The place I find myself in my spiritual pilgrimage influences my preference for songs. Recently at church we sang “I sought the Lord” (HWB#506) and that provided the help I needed at the time which music has frequently done. (Once during a period of distress I was given words and a tune for my encouragement. I wrote down the words, but the tune I heard in my head required more of a musician to put on paper. Julia suggested that maybe if she put her head close enough to mine she could hear the tune, too.)

 

In addition to looking for songs about God’s justice I have been looking for songs that see grace for the journey as important as grace for the destination. The third verse of “Amazing grace” “Through many dangers toils and snares, I have already gone” 2 does that for me. Finally, I enjoy the sustenance of “My shepherd shall supply my need”HWB#589. In addition I recommend that everyone write their autobiography outlined by the last phrase of this hymn, “no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.” I may have listed less that ten hymns, but my preferences change with seasons of the year and of my life. As I looked up the numbers for the hymns above I saw many that have been my “favorites” at various times. And, I am still searching for more songs praising God for justice.

 

1 http://library.timelesstruths.org/music/When_Morning_Gilds_the_Skies/

 

David Alleman

Nov. 27, 2016