Whom Shall I Send?
Richard R. Crocker
October 20, 2010
Last week Kurt explored the questions: Who am I, and who shall I become?
This week: “Whom Shall I send?” It is a similar question, and you may notice some overlap in our remarks.
Whom shall I send? The question occurs in this passage from Isaiah, which describes an ecstatic, mystical experience that occurred, apparently, in the temple in Jerusalem, where Isaiah had a vision of the holiness of God and of his own sinfulness, and where he heard the voice of God asking, “Whom shall I send?” One might well ask, send where? To do what? But Isaiah was so caught up in the moment that he did not ask; he simply responded,” send me.” Only afterwards did he find out what he was sent to do.
Would that all of us had such a powerful experience to bring us to a sense of vocation. But most of us settle for a job. A job is an activity for which someone will pay us. It is a way of trading labor for money. It is a way of making a living. We worry about getting jobs, since they are scarce. But a job is different from a vocation. A vocation is a calling. It is something that cries out to us to be done, that engages our energies and emotions and skills and interests, that we will do not simply to make a living, not chiefly to make money, but to make a life.
Almost any job can become a vocation if it somehow has a transcendent dimension – if it feeds your soul. Any work that is done chiefly for the common good, for the glory of God, rather than for private gain, can become a vocation.
The novelist/minister Frederich Buechner, whom Kurt quoted last week, once said that your vocation is where your deep joy and the world’s great need meet. He explained that things that bring us no joy cannot be our vocation, but things that do not meet the world’s need also cannot be a vocation. The two must coincide. Thus, we have many joyless lawyers, even though there may be a need for good lawyers. There may also be joyful investment bankers, but I confess that I can’t see that the world needs any more investment bankers. I may be wrong. But I think Buechner is right. Our vocation must both bring us joy and meet a deep need in the world.
In the case of Isaiah, however, it’s hard to know what joy he got. Being a prophet – really a prophet – is a singularly dangerous and unrewarding job. A prophet, as Jesus said, is very likely to be stoned. The prophet speaks a message that the world needs to hear, but that almost no one wants to hear it. My divinity school at Vanderbilt had an inscription over the door “The school of the Prophets.” Needless to say, enrollment was always low. Prophets are unusual. Almost all of them have the experience that God predicted when Isaiah said, “Send me.” God said: “Go and say to this people: keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand. Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes….” This is a hard task: to speak words to people so offensive that they will shut their eyes and stick fingers in their ears. But, for the love of God, and the love of the world, sometimes this is what must be done. While I would not necessarily call Al Gore a prophet, certainly his message of an inconvenient truth, has met with steadfast resistance. Gandhi’s message of nonviolence and Martin Luther King’s, both, echoing, of course, Jesus – what currency do they command?
But there are also people who call themselves prophets, who counsel us to store up weapons and supplies, who tell us that our nation is being subject to an Isalmofascist take over, who counsel us not to pay taxes – these people sometimes consider themselves prophets. When I hear them, I close my ears.
So what do we do when we hear so-called prophets telling us different, contradictory things? I think that we must trust what we know about God. And what we know, ultimately, about God, is a call to compassion.
Please allow me to be personal. The defining moment for me, and for my generation, was the Vietnam War. You were either for it, or against it. I was against it, as were many of my peers. Many of our parents were for it. They had a trust in our nation’s goodness, and in its leaders, that we thought unjustified. My advocacy of non-violence, my opposition to war, is rooted in the experience of a country going to war for the wrong reasons and causing immense damage. This coming Monday, Karl Marlantes will be speaking here at Dartmouth. Karl is the author of an acclaimed new novel about the Vietnam War, called Matterhorn. Karl and I were classmates at Oxford. He came there after serving for three years as a Marine officer in Vietnam. He and I, almost forty years ago, were on the opposite side of a conflict. We talked about it, both of us anguished over it, extensively. Karl is a person of great integrity. He wrote this novel, he says, to help heal the gulf that still infects our nation.
Karl responded to a call from his nation and his conscience, when it asked, “Whom shall I send?” He answered; “Here I am, send me.” I also responded to a call from the depths of my being to oppose that war. The call came from what I understood to be God, saying, “Whom shall I send?” to oppose the war. And, with fear and trembling, I answered it, feebly.
That was the defining moment of my generation. Now, you who are students, are finding yours. And for far too many, the defining moment of this decade has not been the call of greater good, but the call of greater greed.
The challenge of every life is to find love and work. When the two coincide, we are blessed to be able to say, even feebly and frightfully, “Here I am. Send me.” Amen.