I was never that good at math, at least not since my high school algebra teacher, Mr. Hoskins, accused me of having my father do my homework for me while I was out sick (he just couldn’t believe that a GIRL would come back from a week away with all her equations completed — and why did he think my mother called every day to get the homework assignment…and clearly, he never ever met my father if he thought that HE had done the homework…and clearly I still have unresolved issues about this episode). And so imagine my surprise when I realized that my life and even my journey of faith has been limited and in some ways derailed by a series of equations that I held to be truths.
But as I continue to spend my last few days of quiet considering the meaning and manifestation of God’s call in my life, I am now ready to add a new understanding to my recent acceptance that the equation call does not equal bliss is true. Another new idea for me: God’s call does not relate my response to the divine call in a one-to-one-relationship.That might seem obvious to some, but as I think and pray about it, I realize that it has not been obvious to me. I am the kind of person who takes a psychological test or fills out a spiritual gifts inventory and has a result that is nearly equal in all categories. This has left me tied up in knots, waiting for that one right answer to the intense tug that God exerts on my life, waiting for one gift or ability to shine through the pack and say “This way.” I have continued to wait when perhaps I was ready to move, simply because I was waiting for one, unified response.
As a musician, call and response always meant something very specific to me — it means a type of singing, most often used in spirituals or folk music, where the cantor or leader sings a line followed by the congregation singing a response. This is different from the teaching method often called “lining it out”, where the leader sings a line and then the congregation repeats that line, eventually learning the whole song. In call and response singing, the relationship between call and response is one-to-one. An example that most of us will know is the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot“. In its original form, the line “Comin’ for to carry me home” was most often sung by the assembly, that is, it was the response to the line before. Today we rarely sing it that way.
Silly me, I thought everything operated that way. God sings; I sing in response. As often happens, though, I was totally wrong. That one to one relationship isn’t even true in the musical form of call and response. Yes, of course you can see it as one call and one response, but the truth is that the leader issues the call and then the multitude provides the response. Not a one-to-one relationship after all, really.
Along this journey of discovery, I’ve released a lot of human ideas about a lot of things. I’ve allowed my understanding of the possibilities of what an answer might be to expand, I’ve worked hard to release human limitations and opinions, I’ve sat for months and years in a place of not-knowing and not-planning — just to allow the call to speak clearly and to minimize the manipulation and influence that can come from my human self. And through all that, I have believed that I was waiting to hear with clarity the ONE thing that I was supposed to do in answer to that call.
Now I know that I had another bad equation in my head. That equation: God’s call = single, clear response = wholeness. Much of my life has been a quest for wholeness as I continued the work of repairing the fracturing of spirit that was my youth. But I misunderstood; I misunderstood the equation and I misunderstood the meaning of wholeness. And once again, it took Parker Palmer to make it clear for me. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker stands with Thomas Merton in believing that there is a wholeness hidden in all things and that our intuitive knowledge that such wholeness exists leads many of us to seek places where we can understand that truth (for Parker, it is the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota). And then he adds this reminder:
Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours–need not be a Utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.
Silly me. Oh, so silly me. The real equation looks more like this: many gifts = many responses = one call = wholeness. I had it all wrong. God sings, and I sing in response, but I do not sing just one song. My musical response will be more like that of Bobbie McFerrin — one voice as a lot of different instruments, making one beautiful sound. One voice, many sounds, one symphony in perfect harmony…that is my hope for today, anyway.