Making a Difference

[getty src="851512" width="485" height="354" tld="com"]embedded courtesy of Getty ImagesA week ago Friday, I finally got around to watching the film “First Man,” a retelling of the story of space race to the moon through the eyes of Neil Armstrong.  Armstrong was one of my childhood heroes, and I have a distinct memory of visiting the Air and Space Museum in his hometown of Wapokoneta, Ohio. If you’d asked my ten-year-old self what he wanted to be when he grew up, then he would have said, “An astronaut!” Not only did I enjoy math and science, I also knew something about my family tree, and in my childlike reasoning I thought there was a reasonable chance that I would not exceed NASA’s height requirement, and would be just short enough to qualify.But after watching this recent film, with its more realistic portrayal, I’m glad all the childhood dreams never went anywhere. Seeing the astronauts packed into that little command module for a weeklong road trip made me feel claustrophobic. Watching them them shake violently while riding at the tip of a rocket loaded with millions of pounds of fuel was enough to set my teeth grinding. Today, some people say they’d gladly volunteer to go a mission to Mars, but I’m not one of them.When I think about my vocational journey, and how its direction changed from a call to space to a call to ministry, I remember wonderful people who influenced me, and wonderful experiences that shaped me.  Many of the people and experiences came to be symbolized for me in a poster I cherished for along time. The poster presented a photo of the earth – the kind I would have taken had I actually been an astronaut – and it advertised a student Christian conference.  Emblazoned on the poster in large letters was the invitation, “Come help change the world.” That invitation spoke to me.My journey and my feelings are not unusual. One of my favorite preachers Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Call me a romantic, but I think most people want to be good for something. I think they want to do something that matters, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to give themselves to something that is meaningful instead of meaningless.”[1]Many of us can remember what it was like, at a key moment in life, to choose a path of service that seemed especially meaningful.  Some of you are at an age when you are approaching these choices for the first time.When we turn to scripture, we see that recognizing and embracing one’s vocation isn’t always smooth and easy. Moses meets God in a burning bush, but resists the call to be God’s spokesman in Egypt. Jonah hears God’s call to Nineveh, but runs away. Paul reflects back upon the radical difference in his approach to religion BEFORE he met Christ and AFTER he met Christ.  That key moment around which the two halves of his life hinged is (portrayed beautifully in our “Paul’s Call” window) is struck blind by Christ on the road to Damascus. It’s one of the Bible’s most radical course corrections, when he follows God’s call to be apostle to the Gentiles.Today’s first scripture reading reacquaints us with the story of the Prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah doesn’t have much self-confidence; he seems seized by terror. What? Don’t send me! I don’t know what to say! I am only a boy!The general pattern often is just like this: at first hearing, the call of God can be a terrifying thing. A call to college or graduate school: What? I’m supposed to study for years and earn good grades? A call to be a medical professional: What? I’m supposed to heal people? A call to be an engineer: What? I’m supposed to build structures, and systems, and machines for the people whose lives depend on them? A call to work in the field of education: What? I’m supposed to nurture and shape the minds of children so that they become productive and responsible adults?One of the most common misconceptions about following God’s call is that it always will be fun and financially rewarding. If we take the Bible as our guide, then we see that the focus is different.  As Craig Barnes puts it, “When a life is changed by the grace of God, it is for a purpose – to participate in God’s ongoing blessing in the world. Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. Moses was taken out of the waters as a baby to grow up and lead the people through the waters of the Red Sea. David was converted from a shepherd to a king with a heart for the flock of God …. The Apostle Paul’s actual job description was to be a tentmaker, but his calling was to bring the name of the Lord before everyone he met …. I have a strong hunch that God is not nearly as worried about how we earn an income as what we do with the name of the Lord along the way. In other words, the real issue is this: Are we being the blessing of God to those around us?”[2]I’m no longer surprised when someone feels anxious about God’s call, or turns away from hearing it. It can be difficult to trust God’s guidance and goodness, and take a new step of faith. If you asked me why I chose ministry, why, for 30 years, I’ve stepped toward places distant from family and friends who are dear to me, then I just might answer with a different kind of astronaut story, one that involves two of my favorite science-fiction characters.In the seventh Star Trek film “Generations,” Captain Jean Luc Picard meets his predecessor Captain James T. Kirk in a nexus in which time stands still. In this strange alternative reality, Kirk has the opportunity to focus on his personal life rather than service to others: he plays with a family dog that knows must have died a long time ago, he proposes to the girlfriend he lost when he accepted a new assignment, he rides the horse he loved. But he has the haunting feeling that something is missing.Picard convinces Kirk that his help is desperately needed out in the real world to defeat a powerful enemy named Sorin. In a climactic battle, Sorin is defeated, and Kirk is mortally wounded. As he lies dying, Kirk asks Picard a final question, “Did we make a difference?” “Oh, yes,” Picard replies. “We made a difference.”It’s a neat little parable. If you ever watch it, you’ll see it’s about a call and resistance to a call. It includes a slow and growing realization that life is missing something essential without a compelling purpose, and that giving ourselves to something meaningful is to be fully human in the way God intended. It reminds me that the end of life will come, and that when it does I hope I’ve lived it as well as possible, that I’ve done something to help change the world. Maybe I won’t be conscious or able to think straight,   but if I am, I won’t be worrying about how much money I earned, or what status I achieved. I’ll think about the people I love, and pray for God to bless them, and look forward in hope to the future in which we’ll be together. As I think about them and the life we lived, I’ll wonder – as I often do – “Did we make a difference?”When that moment comes, may God say to me, to you, to all of us: “Oh, yes. We made a difference.”NOTES[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Practice of Living with Purpose,” in An Altar in the World, New York: Harper Collins, 2009, p. 113.[2] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans Co., 2009, pp. 101-102.