Merton and Vocation

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John 12:20-33

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‘If anyone serve me, he must follow me, and where I am there my servant shall be also’. (John 12: 26)

Graham

One’s sense of calling develops over a lifetime.  Vocation can emerge apart from religious distinctions, often outside inherited personal or spiritual boundaries.  In that way, as Thomas Merton reminds us, vocation is the essential and quintessential ecumenical gift, or charism, or grace.  This Lent reminds us of courage, gratitude, spirit and gladness—the nourishment you will need to survive and prevail into the next decade.

To begin, though, this season of March, not Marsh, madness recalls that in 1987 our Rotary Club in Syracuse, which doubled as a cheering section for the college basketball squad, was in misery.  By just a single point, a last second basket, Syracuse had lost the NCAA championship to Indiana, a day that will live in infamy.  We began the next Monday’s Rotary meeting as usual with a prayer, memorably offered that day by Judge Schultz: We know Lord that we learn most from our troubles, and from our defeats.  We accept this and will try to hold fast to your presence, even in the face of (now here the prayer began to turn sideways—it happens in sermons too!) of unfairness, in the face of bad officiating, in the face of the unspeakable behavior of a chair throwing coach of the opposite team whom I will not mention Lord in prayer by name, in short, we bow before you and accept what has happened.  We don’t always have to win…BUY WE DO DEMAND JUSTICE. Oh, and, uh, AMEN.

A couple of springs later, in 1989, the Rev. Billy Graham spoke at our club, its fiftieth anniversary, following a Graham revival in the Carrier Dome.  I offered the prayer that day, and he said (and I should have noted this in my journal to save this memory for preaching at Marsh Chapel in March of 2018), ‘that was a fine prayer, Rev.Hill.’  He was about 3 or 4 inches taller than I, quiet, gracious and a kindly presence.  And he sure knew what he was talking about regarding prayer.  Of course, in that club we had a well-established tradition of pious and heartfelt prayer already, as Judge Schultz’s prayer did attest: WE DO DEMAND JUSTICE.  My sister, then Vice President and Corporation Counsel at Oneida Silver, gave him a beautiful silver tea tray (which unfortunately was overshadowed by the wife of the owner of Stickley Furniture who gave him a sofa).  These will BOTH go nicely in our home, he graciously responded.

The congregation was of two minds about whether to support the Graham crusade.   I still see the hurt in the eyes of those who felt deeply and strongly that doing so validated Graham’s support of the war in Vietnam, his support of Richard Nixon, his particular form of Calvinism (his conservatism, his audio-taped anti-Semitic remarks (for which he did apologize) and his Unitarianism of the second person of the Trinity.  A few left that vibrant growing church when we decided to support the cause.

Anyway, we chose to participate.  As a theological liberal and a Methodist, to me Graham’s theology made little sense.  But right down the street, right across from the parsonage, on a cold winter night, 80,000 people would be singing hymns, some of our favorites:  In the Garden; Just as I am; Great is Thy Faithfulness; How Great Thou Art.  Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant and Free Church people would work together to bring a little revival, a little salt, to the salt city of Syracuse.  There would be a call to decision to lead a Christian life.  Some would respond visibly and some not, some invisibly and some not, and some would regret the one and some the other, and some not.  And there would be a 500-voice choir (I comment not at all on the notes sung).  It was right in our neighborhood.  Walking distance.  You know what?  It was great and great fun.  I would sooner work with that organization than with most of the denominational boards and agencies I have known.  The Graham people were honest and kind.  They said a thousand times:  go to church on Sunday.  Plus, as much as I love basketball, a Dome full of simple hymns sung from the heart by 80,000 (and a 500-voice choir) made me really smile.

So, when the Boston Globe called last month to ask for a Billy Graham memory, I told them this:  In 1989 the Graham committee promised city pastors that the names of those people who came forward in the crusade, would be given, for follow up and follow through, to the churches in the city, neighborhood by neighborhood.  I am not sure I fully trusted this.  But a week later a big box of names came to the church office.  They were not from the campus and faculty side of our neighborhood, in the main; they were not from the student and bohemian side of our neighborhood, in the main; they were not from the corporate and civic leadership side of our neighborhood, in the main.  They were from down the hill, in the projects, the 1960’s urban housing that we had tried for five years in vain to engage.  And now we had name after name, and an expected standing invitation, and a way to visit on the sixth floor, and an entrée for meals on wheels, and an invitation list for Vacation Bible School, and a way to set up midnight basketball, and get to know some new friends, some of whom joined in for worship, because, on that cold winter night in the full Carrier Dome, they heard the word:  Go to church on Sunday.  (And I couldn’t help add: About his son I make no comment(:).

That is.  We listen and learn with a Roman Catholic monk named Thomas Merton, during Lent 2018.  Why?  Because.  You can learn a great deal from other traditions. Love your ecumenical neighbor as yourself. There are many ways of keeping faith.  Love your religious neighbor as yourself.  You may learn something in with and under the teaching of a neighboring denomination or pastor or congregation.  In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.  If you want a friend, be one; if you want ecumenicity, live it.  You may be ready for the soteriology next door.  Especially students, and young adults.  As this morning’s (how is that for timing!) New York Times, in an article on a Trappist Monastery, did put it:  Young adults may be drawn to (their) culture of mindfulness, stillness, and inward experience. Here is the way, in brief, Thomas Merton spoke of vocation:

Merton

Saints…(are) sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner. 62

Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them. 92

The quietness and hiddenness and placidity of the truly good people in the world all proclaim the glory of God.  142.

The only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and the reality of God. 208.

That happiness which makes upper New York state seem in my memory to be so beautiful. 219

Virtue—without which there can be no happiness. 223.

The intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. 225

While we were sitting there on the floor playing records and eating this breakfast the idea came to me: ‘I am going to be a priest’. 277 (But: I had a kind of conviction:  I was going to be a Trappist).  366.

What was the difference between one place and another, one habit and another, if your life belonged to God, and if you placed yourself completely in his hands? 406

Thomas Merton this Lent has given us courage for the wilderness, gratitude for the Sacrament, the Spirit for contemplation, and, today, at the last, a gladness in vocation.

North Country

That same courage, gratitude, spirit and gladness we knew for decades in rural, agricultural, small town, country living, the people and voices and communion of which we cherish by heart.  Some of our graduates this May will themselves go and live for a while in the woods.  As did Thoreau.  Those fine seminarians with us this morning, finishing their three years of study, and about to be assigned to a pulpit on July 1, take with them our heartfelt love and encouragement, and our reminder that all vocational searching, and all astute theological reflection, is not confined to urban schools of theology.  We left our friend, last week, remember, riding her horse away from church in August of 1982.  She left a letter, acutely and rightly critical of the Methodism she was learning.  She was a premier wood carver, making light beautiful wood crosses for all families who suffered a loss.  Her spiritual, vocational, and theological reflection—out in the woods—compares her love of wood carving with her difficulty with religion.  The corrects, here, a mistaken, though well-intentioned, overemphasis in Methodism.  All the celebration in my own tradition of experience of God’s presence, if not tended, drown out the genuine and regular experience of God’s absence: doubt and faith are twin daughters of the divine.  Listen to this wood carving Native American lay woman, and astute theologian in her own right, from years ago, comparing wood carving and religion:

And as I was thus discovering why I liked working with wood, I thought why I do not like working with religion.  I would gladly give it up if it were not for this bothersome and rather uncontrollable compulsion to try jus at little longer, just one more time, just one more approach.  I have found with most things, given the proper tools, I can, with dogged patience and perseverance, attain a state near enough to perfection to be at least satisfying.

But religion, worst of all, because I cannot determine where to lay the blame.  Worst of all, because I do not know if I am striving for something that is unattainable for me, because of basic lack or insufficiency or incompleteness.  Or is my technique wrong—my approach—my tools—my plans—my information? As I work on a piece of wood, progress is made, I can see it, I can feel it, taking shape, and if I must begin again, I do, because I know in the end that piece of would will become what I want it to become—I will be satisfied, even with the nick of shame it will surely carry—it will be good enough.

But religion—unattainable faith—unfathomable understanding—untouchable God.  Even if he knocks, I feel, I have come to wonder if it is that my door has not been furnished with the normal and necessary attachment—a door knob.  For if I try—really try—it should get better—but it doesn’t.  If I begin again, determination will see it take shape, but it doesn’t.

I read just last week something in the small book, “Understanding the United Methodist Church” which I found disheartening.  But it said, in reference to ‘The Witness of the Spirit’:

“It means that the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer and does give him a first-hand assurance that he is a child of God”…and again…”United Methodists rejoice in the knowledge that God does certify unmistakably to each believer when his salvation is sure”…

Not hope.  Or think.  But know.  That is the perfection.  And I am not satisfied with less, nor am I able to make any progress toward that goal.  Nor can I throw it all away like a chunk of wood.  For it worries me like a dog worries a bare and useless bone, unwilling to spit it out and let it go.  Perhaps there is yet some marrow in it worth digging out.

I would, had I the choice, stick with the wood.

All of our traditions, including the perfectionism of Methodism, have some things that need, as this carpenter saw, to be sanded away. Paul Tillich had her answer:  doubt is a part of faith, and faith with no doubt is no faith at all but false faith.  I hope I was able to preach or teach or say that, so many years ago.   Seminarians will take their first pulpits July 1 of this year.  Maybe they think that real, true, hard, theological work, interpretative work, will not be needed or required in those small, rural, poor, less formally educated, agricultural, multiple appointments.  Maybe they think for all that they will need an urban pulpit, or a college community, or a smooth suburban lawn-scape, or an advanced degree.  Maybe they think there is no real ammunition in the verbal and spiritual rifles of first appointments or second appointments or poor churches that cannot pay their apportionments.  Maybe they think it won’t matter whether they read their Tillich or not, read their Ecclesiastes or not, read their Galatians or not, read their Merton or not.  It will.  Big league.  In the rough and tumble of pastoral life, the sturdiest vocation will be tested.  And should be.

Coda

This is a sermon with a question for you.  What is the color of your parachute, the shape of your sail, the grain of your wood, the you that is not what another says of you, the self at your own most self?  What is your vocation, your calling, your life as it most fully can become?  A little Lenten reflection, alongside a bright young Roman Catholic fellow who had to climb up a seven storey mountain to find his answer, may be a bit of help to each and all of us.

‘If anyone serve me, he must follow me, and where I am there my servant shall be also’. (John 12: 26)

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