It was in the year King Uzziah died that I saw the Lord. He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the train of his robe filled the Temple. Attending him were mighty seraphim, each having six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. They were calling out to each other,People often ask me how I got into ministry. How did I know? The question usually comes from new encounters at dinner parties. When guests find out I’m a minister, they start trying to figure it out – at least those who don’t avoid me. Being a minister is a familiar but uncommon occupation, after all. You’d think I’d have a pat answer by now, but the question still makes me stumble. How did I know? Well . . . I just knew. I’ve known since I was 12 years old. Picture a serious, 12-year old boy who hears the voice of God and begins ordering the complete set of John Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible so that he can get an early start on his clerical studies; a boy staying up late and reading theology by flashlight long after his parents have told him to turn out the lights and go to sleep; a boy so caught up in the bliss of biblical studies, he cannot focus on world geography and mathematics. Got the picture? Well, that wasn’t me. I was loud-mouthed, 12-year-old who teased others relentlessly, watched Three’s Company and the Love Boat faithfully, listened to Toto sing Africa endlessly, and did not have much interest in reading anything. I was an average kid and an average student living in an average American household. That’s the kid God called into ministry. As I grew, I tried on different ideas for occupations. By my college years, I talked myself into training to be a High School English teacher. But I could not shake the call to be a pastor.
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Heaven’s Armies!
The whole earth is filled with his glory!”
Their voices shook the Temple to its foundations, and the entire building was filled with smoke.
Then I said, “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.”
Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?”
I said, “Here I am. Send me.” Isaiah 6:1-8
I was ordained to ministry in 1997. It was a big worship service, concluding with me kneeling in front of the sanctuary as 15 or so ministers gathered around me. They were liberal and conservative; Black, White and Asian; male and female; younger and older. The ministers touched me head and shoulders, and prayed, and conferred the time-honored tradition of ordained ministry through the laying on of hands. Since then, I have enjoyed privileges and challenges that many others do not – I have baptized my children. I’ve been at bedsides as people take their final breaths. I have presided over funerals that have broken the heart of the community. I have more crazy wedding stories than I should. I have received death threats. I get to listen to people’s greatest joys and fears. Being a minister comes with a lot of enjoyment and a lot of heartache. It comes with the territory of partnering with people as we learn to become more compassionate, just, and peaceful. For me, it all began that first time I sensed God saying, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people?” – the first time I said, “Here am I. Send me”?
Do you remember the first time you sensed God calling you? Because you are a minister too! In the United Church of Christ, we believe God calls each and every one of us to build a more compassionate, just, and peaceful world. It doesn’t take a seminary degree or an ordination service. Everyone gets to build God’s world. One of the responsibilities of a church member is to listen to and reflect on life's journeys in ways that help us understand how God prods us in a certain directions. Sometimes that process seems very clear and understandable. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to understand what God wants from us. But make no mistake, in some way or another, God calls each of us: “Whom shall I send?” When have you said, “Here am I. Send me.”
Those words of response actually come from the Hebrew Scriptures. In Hebrew it’s just one word: Hineni. We hear it a few times in the Bible. Like in the book of Genesis when God gets the attention of someone by calling out his name: “Abraham.” And Abraham says, “Hineni. I’m here. I’m ready.” On Abraham’s part, there is no surprise, no hesitation. God speaks, and Abraham responds as if the two of them were just sitting side by side, each fully present to the other.
We also hear the same phrase in the book Exodus. Remember the story of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush? The bush calls out, “Moses, Moses.” And Moses says “Hineni. I’m here. I’m ready.” Just imagine what it must be like to hear God calling your name, and to be so familiar with God that it would not be unexpected. Imagine what it must feel like to be so open to the moment that not only are you assured that God exists, but that God knows you by name. Imagine what it must be like to be so at peace that when God’s calls you by name, your calm and comfortable response is, “Hineni. I’m here. I’m ready.”
Hineni. Each time this word is used, it is a pivotal moment. It’s as if God says. “Listen! Pay attention! Something important is about to happen! Something is about to change, but only if you can open yourself up.” If we are here in the moment, if we are open and receptive, then we can begin to see the hand of the Eternal all about us. “Hineni. Yes. God, I am here.” Our response opens us to the power of a sacred, imminent encounter with a new reality.
Hineni. We hear it in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah. We sometimes refer to this story as Isaiah’s commission. Isaiah is probably in the Jewish temple at prayer. In a mystical moment, the heavenly realm penetrates the earthy realm. The Temple is filled with God’s presence, complete with a retinue of angelic creatures who flank God and sing praises. Isaiah falls apart. He knows he is not holy or wholesome enough to see God in all of God’s glory and live to tell about it. One of the angelic creatures takes a hot coal off the Temple incense altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips as a kind of cleansing ritual. Then God speaks. “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?”
Isaiah has an instant response. Hineni. “Here I am. Send me.” In other words, “I’m fully present for you. I’m focused on you. I’m ready and willing to hear you, to receive you, to be present with you and for you, and to do your work in the world”
That’s really what it’s all about. Hineni means the ability to be present and receptive to the other. To say, “Here I am,” is one of the most important things we can say to God. It’s also one of the most important things we can say to each other. Too many of us are not really here for each other. I think we are losing the ability to be present and receptive to others. It’s getting worse in our society because of our electronic distractions—our smart phones, our tablets, our laptops, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. These things have us so plugged in that we are paradoxically tuning out. We are not there in the moment like we need to be. This is hard for me to admit, but I’ve noticed it in myself. Just one more e-mail and I’ll listen. Let me answer this text while we talk. I even find it hard to watch television without having some other device by my side. You know what I’m not doing as much? I’m not playing games with my kids to taking out my guitar and singing. I’m not talking to my wife about how our days went as much as I need to be. It is not what I hope for and expect from myself. I’m not as hineni as I need to be – not as fully present and receptive to others.
I can’t be alone in this. I know that far too many of us are telling ourselves we are multi-tasking, when the fact of the matter is, we are distracted, not paying enough attention to anything. We are becoming less present for others; less hineni.
Here is another problem. If we are less present for others, if we are not as ready to receive God, then we are probably less present to the Self as well. Remember, I said each of us has a call – each of us is a minister? We must listen to that which calls us to create a world in which each of us is secure enough to be unafraid to love and be loved. The world will not give us love. It will frighten, tease, confuse, seduce and dominate us. Hineni means we look at the condition of our personal lives and say, “Here am I. I am ready to love fully and be fully loved. I am focused, willing, receptive, and open.”
So how about it? What can you say "yes" to? Can you say Yes to God? To others? To your self? When have you be able to answer God's call with "Hineni. Here am I. I am ready. I am open. Send me”?
Listen closely, because God calls us by name. Listen, because it may be a still small voice. It may be a soft, steady heartbeat in the turmoil of daily events. It is there. When you hear it , know that you are experiencing a moment of grace. It may be God commissioning you to be part of our commitment to justice, freedom and love. God knows you. God knows us. God calls us. Our response? Well, that’s our chance to be hineni – fully present to God and one another. Here we are. Send us.