Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who Am I and Who Ought I Become?

 Kurt Nelson
Who Am I and Who Ought I Become?
October 13, 2010.  Exodus 2

I suspect every college graduate,
past, present or future,
has faced the question:
"What are your plans for after graduation?”
Dozens.  Perhaps hundreds of times.

Professors ask.  And administrators, and family members.
classmates, casual acquaintances, people on the street.
Early in one’s education,
it seems innocent enough.
But later in one’s career,
as choice and expectation team up,
it tends to become burdensome and perhaps even annoying.

But I admit, I've asked.
And I’ll continue to ask,
because it’s still far more polite and effective,
than asking directly the question behind the question:
who are you, and who you think you ought to become?

We've ventured boldly outside the biblical corpus,
for this week’s Big Question.

 “Who am I and who ought I become?”
has been attributed variously to the great and illustrious President
William Jewett Tucker,
and to the great and current Assistant Chaplain,
Kurt Nelson.
But at least its immediate origins,
it stems from the inaugural speech,
of the Tucker Foundation's first Dean, Fred Berthold.
Fred -
like President Tucker before him,
sought to find a way to honor the broad, Christian work to which he was called,
while keeping in mind the challenge of the missionary zeal
upon which Dartmouth was founded.
And this question was his answer.

This question was, and I hope is,
at the heart of not only the Tucker Foundation,
but the entirety of our liberal arts education.

It is a question which for me,
brings up the idea of a calling.
Or a vocation.
These are words which to some, may refer only to the ministry,
and to others may simply mean “job” or “career.”
But I think a calling is more than that.

For those proactive seekers of who they ought become,
there are, of course, countless online personality surveys that you can take.
Oprah is quite happy to help you discover in 10 minutes or less,
who you are,
and what careers might be suitable for you.
But I think a vocation is more than that too.
Because I think,
at their best,
these are questions which are imbued with the depth of honest, spiritual reflection,
though not limited to a particular creed.

Fredrick Buechner spoke of God's calling
as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”

It’s a question about the convergence of eternal truth,
and daily choices.
It’s a question of work and career,
and a question of purpose,
and a question of what we believe in enough,
to put it into action.

A question both deeply human,
and profoundly moral,
as Fred Berthold said.
Who am I and who ought I become?

Now our scriptures are full of stories of dramatic stories of calling.
Moses had his burning bush.
Paul was struck blind, and knocked down.
Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel.

From time to time,
in moments of my own confused, silent reflection on who I am,
and who I might become,
I’ve wondered if life would be easier,
if my sense of calling were more like the stuff of burning bushes,
or lighting strikes,
and less like quiet pondering and wondering.

But then I'm reminded,
that a direct call from God does not always yield easy and positive results.

Jonah, as you might recall,
was told explicitly to venture to Nineveh.
And hopped on the first boat the other way.

Jeremiah likened his call to speak truth to power,
to a lamb being led to the slaughter.

And even Moses, the archetype of prophets and leaders,
questions his appointment by God as the leader of the Exodus.
Four times Moses objects.
asking first, “who am I to lead these people?”
then for God’s name, and for signs and reassurance of the divine presence.
And in a final, last-ditch attempt, he reminds God that he’s simply not much of a talker.
God relents, and angrily recommends his brother Aaron,
suggesting, of course, that Moses may be quite an effective arguer after all.

Indeed, some of us may come to understand our call,
and not particularly like it.
For fear of too great a risk.
Too little prestige,
not enough money,
Or, like Moses,
seeming lack of skills, confidence or experience.

But more of us,
I expect, are left to wonder,
longing for such clarity.
Even if it's challenging, or unappealing.
Instead of burning bushes, or flashes of lighting,
we hope, at best, for what Hildegard of Bingen called,
“Tastes of Understanding.”
Brief, fleeting visions of who we really are,
and where we might go next.

But I think we can take heart in three, simple ideas:
First, we are imperfect.
And we will always be imperfect.
This is meant not to be an excuse,
but does, at least for me,
offer some freedom from the burden of expectation.
We are called to serve and to lead,
to use our talents as best we can for the good of our neighbors.
But when we fall short,
and we all do and will from time to time,
we will be loved and forgiven still.

Second, we must recognize this as a life-long process.
Certainly for those students among us,
the question of calling is particularly important.
But for all of us,
the question of work,
but also of family and friends,
and hobbies and service to the community,
is something we can and must live each day.

And finally,
I hope we know that we are not alone in this task.
For we have not only God with us,
But also a community.
Though we may not always fee like it,
we are called to be a light to all nations,
and a city on a hill.
But not alone.
This question of who we are,
and who we ought become,
How we might best use our gifts and talents for the world,
is a question we ask not only of each other,
but together as a community of saintly sinners.
Loved, flawed, and forgiven.

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