Monday, July 30, 2012

The First Shall Be Last, and the Servant of All

Marcia Moston, Call of A Coward: The God of Moses and the Middle-Class Housewife

Many of us blithely sing “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back,” on a Sunday morning with no regard for what that actually means. But Christ didn’t hedge when he said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” If we believe God is great, and God has a path for us, we must accept that God’s path far exceeds the small plans we make for ourselves.

New Jersey housewife Marcia Moston found this out the hard way when her husband came back from a church trip to Guatemala and informed her that he had been called to take over a shelter for widows and orphans, in a Mayan village so isolated that it didn’t have phone service. That makes no sense, Moston said. She was a church volunteer, a loving witness, a model of good American Christianity. What more did the Lord want?

As it turns out, everything. Moston found herself at what Bonhoeffer would have called the choice between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” If we believe Christ has redeemed us, we must ask what we’ve been redeemed for. Do we bestow God’s blessings on ourselves and keep living as we always have, or do we trust the Lord to have a plan for our lives, even if we cannot see it at the moment? Too few Christians ask themselves that question.

Moston had to give up the comforts we associate with American living, and venture into a country so underdeveloped that she had to get cooking water from a cistern in the ground. But as she recounts in this memoir full of touching poignancy and unexpected humor, God coached her to discover resilience she didn’t know she had. She learned to love with a depth and commitment she never would have discovered in her suburban life.

She also learned the importance of giving up control. We humans have this pathological need to believe we can control our circumstances, but something always sidelines us, such as recognizing our debts to others in need. But we can also make an idol of the very goals we believe God gave us. So just as Moston got comfy in Guatemala, her whole family came down with rolling hepatitis, cutting her mission short.

The idea of calling is not unique to Christianity. Secular psychologists have a similar concept, under the heading of “disposition.” Joseph Campbell explained that we all have something we are meant to do in this life, and until we start doing that thing, everything else will make us unhappy. I suspect that many Christians in the pews can relate to this feeling.

Moston believed, not unreasonably, that God meant for her to work with the disadvantaged in Central America. So when illness forced her family to return to America, and a sudden call turned her urban New Jersey electrician husband into a rural Vermont minister, she thought she’d lost everything her life was supposed to be about. You’d think, after two hard lessons, she’d come to recognize God’s purpose in her strange circumstances.

As it turns out, she found a new calling, connecting New Englanders eager to put their Christian calling to work, with needy Central Americans ready to see what Christianity looks like in action. She also learned that, despite her desire to cede control to others, she has a remarkable gift for leadership. Her ministry has helped link two groups of people, each known for their insularity, in a relationship of Christian reciprocity and unbounded love.

The life Moston describes is one of constant learning and discovery: the life of a Back East woman who thought she knew more than her churchy parents, so she left everything behind, only to find that the promises of this earth aren’t worth much. The life of a born-again housewife who learned that God has a way of turning us out of our complacency. The life of a wayfaring stranger who learned that wherever God plants us, will be our soul’s real home.

This is the book I wanted when I read Joe Loconte’s The Searchers. Where Loconte dances around the idea of Christianity as a journey we must undertake with our God, Moston recounts what it’s like to go through such a real and arduous journey. In her case, it involved literally moving from place to place. But the more important journey took place inside her soul, as she learned the difference between her culture and her faith.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for thoughtful review. Some people don't have to go far to absorb God's lessons, but some of us have to go periodically to the "stripping place"--where all things comfortable and familiar aren't, in order to see and hear and depend on God. Last Sunday some missionaries spoke about their school for African pastors. I saw the gleam in my husband's eye and got nervous. We'll see what the Lord thinks!