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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Participation in The Holy: Eugene Peterson on Calling

Eugene Peterson should be writing this blog. The first chance I have to meet him, I'll suggest it. But until then, you're stuck with me - or, on better days, me quoting Eugene Peterson. I found myself re-reading The Jesus Way this past weekend. It's probably my favorite of his spiritual theology series. He writes two chapters on the book of Isaiah, which is an unfamiliar book for most of us. The One Year Bible took me back to Isaiah recently, and I'm loving it. It's a book full of imagery and forces a confrontation with God's holiness.

I went back to The Jesus Way, wanting to revisit Peterson's reflections on this prophet and prophecy. And what do you know? I also found some really appropriate quotes on calling, especially as Peterson reflects on Isaiah 6, which pictures Isaiah transfixed in a vision of God. Isaiah encounters God seated on a throne. The angels' chorus overhead sounds, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" The foundations of the temple shake, and Isaiah is undone by a sense of guilt. "Woe is me! I am lost ; I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!" The angel purifies his lips with a coal taken from the altar of burnt offering, and God then asks, "Whom shall we send? Who will go for us?" Immediately, Isaiah answers: "Here I am: send me."

There may be no better passage to examine the nature of calling.

First, Peterson notes the characteristic of God's calling: "God speaks vocationally; there is work to be done." I've tried to say many times here that we have to root our calling in the finished work of Christ. We add nothing to this. But certainly, it is also true that calling is an obedient response to God and an expressed willingness to be used by God. There is work involved in our calling. God does not need us, true. But God has chosen to use us, the church. We are the hands and feet of Christ. And I think that's what Peterson is saying here. We have a certainty that God speaks when we are moved into service.

Several paragraphs later, Peterson continues:

"Participation in The Holy is complex business; but these elements in various orders and proportions, seem to be normative (and here, he excerpts from Isaiah's vision in chapter 6):

The abolition of self-sufficiency ("Woe to me, for I am lost")

The experience of merciful forgiveness (The live coal: "Your guilt is taken away")

God's invitation to servant work ("Whom shall I send?")

The human response of becoming present to God in faith and obedience ("Here am I, send me!").

I can think of no exceptions in Scripture or church in which these elements are not present, whether explicitly or implicitly."

Peterson is formulating the typical architecture of God's call. And while I (and he, I'm sure) would grant that God uniquely speaks to each individual person, the stories of divine encounter share common materials. And you notice how the whole house would topple if one element were eliminated.

If, for example, we were volunteering for service to God without the abolition of self-sufficiency,  we would learn soon enough that every job God gives is too big and we are too inadequate. When that happens later rather than sooner in calling, it can be a source of despair. When it happens at the outset, it casts us upon God's grace to work in and through us.

If, for example, we did not continually live mindful of God's mercies granted to us, we would suffer from the perpetual shame and self-recrimination that our inadequacies force upon us. But if, however, we remember that in Christ, sin is forgiven and guilt abolished, we have new courage for calling. It does not root itself in our performance but in Christ's.

If we never hear God's invitation to servant work, we can easily be lulled into believing that God means to give us the good life. There's certainly no reason then for shouldering any responsibility for the brokenness of the present world.

And if we have a sense of inadequacy, if we have received forgiveness, even if we have heard God calling for volunteers but have never signed up for service, we are sitting on the sidelines when we should be in the game.

As always, I'm grateful for Eugene Peterson's faithfulness to Scripture and clear thinking. And here are four questions we might ask ourselves in reflecting on the four dimensions of calling:

1. Have I confronted the reality of my own personal sinfulness and inadequacy?

2. Do I continually receive the forgiveness of God offered to me freely through Christ?

3. Am I aware of God's invitation to join Him in His work?

4. Have I expressed willingness to participate in the kingdom?