“Here I am, Lord,
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me,
I will hold your people in my heart.”
Music has the ability to transfer us in time, just as smells do. The words above are the chorus of a hymn we often sang during many chapels when I was in seminary; when I hear them, I return in my mind to those heady, confusing days. They were appropriate for a group of people who had heard God’s call to pastor churches—and to the rest of us, the non-Master of Divinity majors, wondering if we’d heard some kind of call, too, and where it might lead.
The lyrics conflate two Bible stories of call. The first is of the child Samuel in the temple, the priest Eli’s servant, the boy who would become the last of Israel’s great judge-rulers. He hears God literally calling his name, waking him in the night (I Samuel 3). The second story concerns the vision that Isaiah the prophet saw in the temple centuries later—God, high and lifted up, asking, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here am I, send me.” (Isaiah 6)
I can recall being terribly upset with God for not calling me, as my friends in seminary were called, to some obvious great work. After two decades of “career Christian service,” as we called it, I began toying with the idea that I was simply an ordinary Christian. I wasn’t going to be called upon to become a professional Christian and do a mighty work. The child who had been fed tales of modern missionary miracles and martyrdoms was simply going to grow up, get a job and be part of the middle class. Not for me a call to martyrdom in the jungles of Ecuador or the pastorates of Wyoming. I was apparently being called to cubicle life in corporate America, and I resented it deeply.
And then I got cancer. Twice. When I hear the song now, I think of God’s people as those I’ve met and come to love through cancer. I’ve told my priest that they are my people, the ones I hold in my heart, the ones for whom I pray during our Wednesday healing service. They are not the people I would have chosen; I’m sure that some pastors are assigned by their bishops to congregations and places they wouldn’t have chosen. Sometimes, at a gathering of cancer patients, the only common ground I can find is our disease. Still, they are my people, as surely as if I’d known them from grade school and loved them ever since. I am privileged to hold them in my heart, to do what I can to help, to weep at their deaths as I anticipate my own at some point. For now, here I am.