Follow the fire

As my particular tradition is not given to celebrating feast days and saints’ days, with the notable exception of Easter and Christmas (and of course, for those of us with some green blood, 17th March), I had completely overlooked the fact that today, Monday 27th January, is the feast day of St. Angela Merici. You might find that you have overlooked this feast day as well.

St. Angela’s claim to fame is that she said “No” to her spiritual leader, Pope Clement VII.

The story goes that Angela had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and became ill on the way. The illness resulted in blindness, but she still completed the pilgrimage and returned home. On her way back she recovered her sight. When she returned home, the Pope asked her to take over the leadership of an order of nurses. It was at that point that she famously declined the Pope’s offer.

It wasn’t just that she didn’t fancy the job, or didn’t like the Pope. Angela had been troubled for years by the lack of educational provision for girls, girls who were neither rich nor had entered religious orders. Having returned from pilgrimage she was now determined to do something about it. Perhaps the Pope’s request helped her to sharpen her sense of calling. Or perhaps in the darkness of her temporary blindness the light of revelation and vocation became more intense. Who knows? Her determination resulted in her bringing together a team of women to teach uneducated girls in their own homes.

Angela was not the first and won’t be the last Christian to have felt the inner drive of God’s purpose and calling. Nehemiah refused on four occasions to meet with the enemies of God’s people. His reason? ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’ (Nehemiah 6.3)

Paul, described his calling to Agrippa as follows  ‘So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.’ (Acts 26.19) Another calling that emerged after a period of temporary blindness.

You don’t have to be a Paul or a Nehemiah or even an Angela to feel the fire in your heart. And because the fire in your heart isn’t compelling you to national prominence, doesn’t mean that it is any less the fire of God. The heavenly vision for you might be a compulsion to volunteer in a local social action project. Or help out at an Alpha course. Or teach Sunday School. Or begin to reconnect with friends and family members with whom you have lost contact. No two fires are the same, just as no two hearts are the same.

But two things are sure. The fire within you demands a “Yes” to God. And sometimes it requires a “No” to other possibilities or people, even to people whom you might love and respect.

As an African preacher once said “Follow the fire!”. If you do, you never know, you might just turn a dull and wet January day into one that has lasting significance.

Happy St. Angela’s day.

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What do you say about yourself?

We have probably all experienced those moments where we have been in some kind of group or on some kind of training exercise and the group leader or trainer asks you to introduce yourself. For some reason, I still feel a bit self-conscious sharing the details about my life that are about as revealing as reading about me in a telephone directory or on the electoral roll! I hope that doesn’t mean that in some sort of strange Freudian way I am battling deep identity issues!

John the Baptist was asked that very question. He’d already told the priests and Levites who he wasn’t. He was quite certain about that. I think most people are. We know who we’re not – or at least we know who or what we don’t want to be.

But who do we think we are we? What do we say about ourselves?

John the Baptist’s answer was expressed in biblical and prophetic terms:

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (John 1.23)

John understood himself and what he was doing in terms of his place in God’s unfolding revelation. This understanding was rooted both in his own personal experience, and, more importantly in the scriptures.

We don’t really begin to grasp who we are and what we are meant to be about until we see ourselves in the light of God’s revelation set out in the scriptures. That’s just as important for the church as it is for individual Christians. Peter says we’re a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2.9)

Admittedly, John had the advantage of having a godly family who had inside information about the calling on their son’s life. John’s insight and confidence didn’t just come about through a flash of revelation or a surge of spiritual confidence. Underlying these few words from Isaiah spoken in self-explanation lies a whole spiritual matrix of instruction, encouragement, affirmation and godly example.

One wonders what would have happened had John’s parents never told him about his dad’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. You might think that is just speculation, but we have at least one possible instance of this very thing happening in the Bible. Rebekah was told that the elder of her twins would serve the younger, but it seems that Jacob and Esau never really understood or perhaps even heard about that revelation. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss, but in their case it tore the family apart (Genesis 25.23-26).

We might not have had the godly input into our lives from our earliest years in the way that John the Baptist did. We do need to be affirmed and encouraged frequently in our identity in Christ and our purpose as His followers. That’s why we need church. And that’s why we as the church – God’s people – need to encourage one another in our identity and calling as followers of Jesus.

What do you say about yourself?

Knowing who you’re not

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” (John 1.19-21)

I heard a story a while ago about a writer called Parker Palmer. Palmer was a writer whose influence was growing in educational circles. At one point he was offered the presidency of a college. Palmer was a Quaker. The Quakers have a practice of gathering together what they call a clearness committee when they are faced with a major decision. So the clearness committee got together and began to ask Palmer some searching questions about taking on the role of college president. One major question was “What would you like about being college president?” Palmer could only think of things he wouldn’t like about being president. The committee kept pressing him to say what he would like about the role. Finally, he said “Having my picture in the paper with the words “College President” underneath” Needless to say, he realised the role of college president wasn’t meant for him!

When it comes to serving God effectively, knowing who or what we’re not, is an important aspect of fulfilling our calling, perhaps as important as knowing who we are.

John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry had to define who he wasn’t (John 1.19-28). He wasn’t Messiah. He wasn’t Elijah. He wasn’t the prophet. The labels that people tried to put on him clearly did not fit. Certainly, who he was and what he did were intimately related to the coming of Messiah. And yes, his ministry did bear more than a passing resemblance to that of Elijah and to the “prophet”. But neither of these designations could define the uniqueness of what John was called to do. He was a voice of one calling in the desert. He was a voice for his generation, not an echo of a previous generation. He had a message the purpose of which was to challenge and reshape the faith and culture of Israel. He was never meant to try to conform himself to that culture or fit his message into the limited thinking of the religion of his day.

To ensure that message was clear, he had to ensure that he didn’t allow himself or his ministry to be defined by the labels those around him were only to willing to impose upon him. His parents had fought and won that battle when they named him (Luke 1.57-66). He now had to fight it and win it for himself as a grown man.

Resisting the labels – sometimes bad ones and sometimes attractive ones – that people so easily foist upon us is critical for us in our calling to be God’s people proclaiming God’s message to God’s world. We are called to be a voice to a needy world. We are called to partner with God in reshaping an out of shape world. And if we are to partner effectively we need to know who we’re not. We’re not a throwback to a former era or an echo of contemporary culture. Like John the Baptist we are a voice crying in the desert, in our case the desert of the 21st century world.