Moving On

“I have heard you calling in the night”.  is the second line of the chorus of the hymn ‘Here I Am, Lord’

That is inspired by two biblical passages. Isaiah 6:8, Then I heard the voice of Yahweh saying ‘whom shall I send, and who will go for us’.  The other is 1 Samuel chapter 3 which is the story of the boy Samuel hearing the divine voice calling to him in the night.

But is that the way call comes to all of us.  My call to be a photographer of people came from my experience growing up in a photographer’s household and the high regard I had for my father’s photography.

There certainly was a moment of call.  Late one night, totally frustrated by my complete lack of understanding I threw my physics textbook across the room and vowed that I would be a photographer.  However, the seeds of that call had been germinating in my mind for a number of years despite my mother’s efforts to encourage me to attend university which I eventually did after an entirely different call.

Continuing the theme of things completely different I began working on this sermon immediately I finished preparing a funeral service for a photography colleague whose call to migrate to New Zealand came because it rained on Wednesday.

He was in the merchant navy at the time and had just come home from working on an oil tanker on a trip to the Middle East.  He was looking forward to spending some time swimming and sunbathing on the beach.  However, this was in Swansea, and the day he came home it was raining.  It rained again the next day and the day after, which is when he said to himself. ‘If it rains on Wednesday I am out of here.

It rained on Wednesday.  So he grabbed his kitbag, yelled ‘Bye Mum’ as he went out the front door, down to the docks and signed on to a ship heading to New Zealand.

He came back to visit his Mum and the rest of his family with his wife and four children some considerable time later.  I understand his ashes are going to be returned to Swansea.

At the age of 16 my grandfather began his migration because of frustration with his stepmother.  He told his father that he was never washing that woman’s dishes again and went to Canada.  Unlike my friend he did return via South Africa even though his father had told him never to darken his door again.  I think I am here because four years in France with people constantly trying to kill him well and truly inspired him to bring his family including my mother to New Zealand.  Not so much a gentle calling in the night the constant roar of thunder, both distant and too close for comfort.

My Perry ancestors came from Cornwall which prompted my mother to regularly suggest that they were smugglers who had fled the gallows.

History however suggests they were a large family of boys at a time of high unemployment, so they were economic refugees.  They had skills as iron smelters and were lured by the Taranaki iron sands but the technology to exploit that resource had not been discovered.  Of course, they were not alone at being seduced by the unreachable dreams being planted minds of Britain’s adventurous and desperate. An extract from the Labourers Union Chronicle of the 22nd of November 1862 illustrates how the call came to many of our ancestors.

The exiled labourers will be requited for their ages of suffering as a class in the Eden of New Zealand by taking themselves off as fast as ships and steamers will take them to the land of promise;—a good land of oil, olives and honey;—a land wherein they mayest eat bread without scarceness; thou shalt not lack anything in it… Away, then, farm labourers, away!  New Zealand is the Promised Land for you; and the Moses that will lead you is ready. [2]

But we have no idea what brought the Pacific’s hunter gardeners to these forested islands.  We have however learned that the great Polynesian navigators mastered the oscillation of the Pacific’s prevailing winds and were even able to travel to and from South America.

So, even without a Labourers Union Chronicle I can imagine those Pacific explorers telling idealised tales of the great forest islands caped with moisture laden clouds and teaming with easily hunted wildlife.  We can therefore speculate based on the stories from our own past that in times of increasing populations and limited land, it would be inevitable that the night visions would call out families of the most adventurous, or the most desperate, to fill ocean going canoes with taro, gourds, kumara, rats and dogs and head south to the islands of promise.

We can also speculate about the way the call to migration came to Abram and see our own stories as a spiritual response to call that may well open our minds to further inspiration.

At the end of the chapter, prior to our reading from Genesis, we are told that Terah took his son Abram and his wife Sarai along with his grandson Lot from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

So, one of the things we need to remember when we look at Abram’s journey is that he was called to a migration his father had already begun.  This story is one of the classic biblical stories of call and we tend to associate such calls with night visions and voices in our head.

But if we need to remember that beginning a journey because it rained on Wednesday was stimulated by prior knowledge and experience.  My photography friend was a member of the merchant navy and had been enchanted by photographer Brian Brake’s book New Zealand Gift of The Sea. 

Likewise, Abram’s father had moved from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan but settled in Haran.  Therefore, Abram had probably lived with the idea of migration to Canaan ever since.  We don’t know what motivated Abram’s father to leave Ur or to settle in Haran although we could perhaps imagine that the death of Lot’s father might have had something to do with it.  We can certainly imagine from our own experience that over the years Abram would have heard a lot about his father’s idealised vision of Canaan.

Genesis 12: 1-4
This section of Genesis begins with a migration that is one of the first of three promises which are made to a migratory people.  Maurice Andrew quotes Colin Gibson’s hymn based on the Abraham saga where the God of Abraham sends us on our way.  He also quotes Haare Williams who says ‘My Maori Side is intimately written in stories of canoes’.

Andrew goes on to say that the families of the earth are not just any peoples, they are God’s peoples and God making promises to one people automatically has implications for other people.  A divine promise cannot be kept for one group and must be shared with all people.[1]

Many, many people have that vision of the mythical magical ‘Someday Isle’ that circumstances seem to forever prevent them from reaching.   Furthermore, it is not unusual for their children to reach out and grasp the dream and bring it to reality.

Our Judo-Christian heritage and the history of our nation tells us that humanity is a migratory species–we are all people of the journey.

Ever since primitive humans began to develop language and form groups, they have shared dreams and set out towards lands of promise.  Diverse peoples have been called by however they understood the divine and, like us, their call was probably better understood in hindsight.

However, at the time the call was probably absorbed from parents’ unfulfilled ambitions, from chance remarks or unexpected opportunity and that is how calls, both spiritual and secular, come to us.  Ideas are collected stored and processed in the mind until they become the classic ‘calling in the night’.

All our lives have journeys big and small along with callings recognised or unrecognised.

As Christians we are the second strand that flows from Abram’s call and his wilderness journey has become an ongoing faith journey for three of the world’s great faiths.

The challenge the Gospel reading brings us as Christians is to recognise that, having journeyed to the light of Christ, we should avoid following Nicodemus back out into the darkness.  As Jesus’ sermon points out staying with the light of Christ involves far more than being impressed by signs and miracles.

John 3: 1-17
Nicodemus comes in the night to see Jesus and, although this creates a number of intriguing possibilities, we are interested in Jesus’ sermon that results from this evening encounter. 

We are told that Nicodemus comes in the night but once Jesus begins to speak Nicodemus simply fades back into the night.  Nicodemus comes from darkness to the light of Christ, but he returns to Darkness.  Jesus meanwhile speaks to us about his all important relationship with God and we are challenged to seek to understand and move into the light rather than fade back into darkness. 

The journeys we have looked at are hard journeys.  Journeys with moments of excitement and enthusiasm, of fear and lost opportunity but also journeys of calls received and accepted.  Calls that may be hard to discern in their everyday ordinariness but crystal clear with the twenty-twenty vision of hindsight.

But hindsight is absolutely no use when facing the hard choices of relocation, migration or even the hard choice of a new incite or opportunity to stay put.

Those are also the hard choices of the faith journey as we move on from mountaintop experiences, or emotion charged youth rallies, to the day to day world where we often struggle to keep faith alive.  That is the issue that Jesus’ sermon to Nicodemus addresses.  Nicodemus’ opening statement says that he knows Jesus comes from God because of the miracles he performs.  The sermon Jesus gives responds to that by saying that we need more than miracles for a lifetime faith journey, we need a complete rebirth, a complete reframing of our world view—we need to be born again!

Bill Loader says that Nicodemus is a believer in Jesus who believes the wrong way and so does not see what Jesus is on about.  Therefore, Nicodemus serves as a stereotype of people who remain stuck with one level of thinking and can’t see beyond it. Nicodemus needs to become a different kind of person to be able to see’.[3]

The journeys we have reflected upon all have moments of illumination, moments of doubt and times of call and decision.  The journeys also have times of routine and hard work and that is also true of our faith journeys.  But it is that change of world view, of living our life in a faith perspective rather than simply moving through life that makes us Christ filled people.  Miracles and high points in our spiritual journey have their place just as high points and unexpected incidents prompt our life journeys.  Something must have motivated Abram to take up his father’s challenge.

But the ongoing challenge of being born again, born of water and of Spirit, commitment and inspiration is to live a life that is itself a miracle.

We as Christians are called to a faith journey that does not fade into the darkness as Nicodemus faded. We are called to continue, to not only live in the light, but also to be the light of Christ to our part of our world.

[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.60, 61.

[2] Labourers Union Chronicle for 22nd of November 1862 Quoted in Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.60, 61.