You know, it’s usually a fact of normal life: You smile at someone; they smile back. You call a friend on the phone and they answer (or you leave a message and they call you back shortly). You call your spouse’s name from the living room; he says, “What?” wherever he is.
Call and response is one of the most a basic and fundamental signs of our connectedness.
We rely on the mechanism of call and response all the time. Our entire system of commerce is built on it. I give you a few dollars, you give me gallon of milk. Our medical system is built on it. I have a worrisome symptom and ask for help; a medical professional responds from experience and training (and then of course the commerce follow; I pay for the expertise I have received.) Our way of caring for one another, showing love, providing for daily needs, balancing a just society—it all depends on our capacity for compassion and empathy, our ability to care for and respond to one another.
Call and response is used not just at this deep interpersonal level but also as a way to turn the many into one. In the classroom, call-and-response techniques enable teachers to let their students know it’s time to focus . A teacher might say, “SpongeBob!” and the students answer, “Squarepants!” understanding they are now expected to pay attention to what’s going on at the front of the room. And I’m sure you’ve heard…or maybe said, “See you later, Alligator!” which called forth someone’s answer, “After while, Crocodile!” A popular and time-worn call and response.
A call-and-response cadence gathers and unifies the attention of recruits as they march or work together during training. At sporting events, chants echo and sweep through the crowd as the large group of fans gets caught up in the enthusiasm. From the many, one.
In music, a call-and-response pattern is two distinct phrases, usually in different voices or instruments, where the second pattern answers the first. Think of “Shave and a haircut…two bits!” If you’re paying attention, you can hear call-and-response styles in jazz, classical, and popular music and also in music from many cultures from around the world.
Call-and-response is also a common part of worship in many traditions, a liturgical action designed to bring together of the family of God. Several years ago I spent time down at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, and when I went to mass at the monastery, the monks offered a kind of call-and-response chanting of the psalms during the service.
Think of how central call-and-response is to our experience as human beings. When we were tiny—long outside our conscious memories now—our security, our well-being, our very lives depended on having a caregiver who was responsive when we called. When we were hungry, or lonely, or tired, when we needed something, we called out. And the person answering that call helped us create our earliest beliefs about whether our needs would be answered in life, whether it’s a warm and caring world or a cold and unfriendly one; and who we are—and whether our needs matter–in the scheme of things. Later, those same deep ideas would be applied to our ideas about God…whether God responds, whether God cares, whether we—each of us, imperfect children of God that we are—are actually seen and wanted and loved by God, day by day by day.
Seen in a certain light, the entire Bible—and perhaps this is true for other sacred texts as well—is a book about call-and-response. In the book of Genesis, when God calls out to Adam and Eve, saying “Where are you?” after they’ve eaten the apple and hidden themselves away. And Adam cannot help but answer, even though he wanted to hide his failing from God. “I heard Your voice in the garden,” he says, “and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” Adam’s response, of course, spills the beans. God immediately knows that something monumental has changed.
There are so many stories in the Bible about God reaching out to us—through Abraham and Moses and Jacob and Joseph and David and the prophets. Time and again, God reaches out, trying to call us back to himself, attempting to bring us into harmony with the divine nature we have misunderstood since our own failing so long ago.
In Isaiah 65, verse 1, God says, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.”
God continually reaches out to us, whispering through our circumstances, sending kind people, helpful answers, and encouraging moments as the loving and generous backdrop for our days.
Just this week I had a sweet exchange with a friend who works at the hospital. I’ve served on a number of committees with her; she is fun and creative and great at facilitating groups. This week she sent me an email and asked whether she could come see me. I said, “Of course!” and wondered whether she—like so many of us—just wanted to talk through some of the accumulating heartache and worry and stress of this time we’re living through.
But when she arrived in the doorway to my office she was smiling and had a bag in her hand. She came in and sat down and set the bag on my desk. “You’ve been on my mind lately,” she said, “And I wondered whether you’d like to have one of these.”
Inside the bag were beautiful handmade glass crosses, with stripes of contrasting glass inside and strategically placed bumps on the outside, perfect for holding in the palm of your hand and praying with through the day. I was stunned, they were so beautiful. As I marveled at the lovely way the light shone through each of the dozen crosses on my desk, I felt the tender warmth of gratitude spreading through my chest. She had thought of me? And felt inspired to bring me such a beautiful gift? I felt that God was in this moment in a big way, stirring her heart to share this beauty and love and talent with me in the middle of what had been a difficult and emotional week.
There was one cross in particular that captured my attention—it was the color of my mom’s eyes—and once I picked it up, I knew I couldn’t put it down again. Laura told me the story of how she’d gotten involved in working with glass, how it had started with a little table-top kiln a friend had loaned her and grew into her taking classes and going to seminars and eventually turning her garage into a studio complete with a professional grade kiln. We talked about the surprising nature of creativity, how there is a feeling of “going away” of “flow” a complete relaxation when we’re being creative that almost makes it feel as though something else is creating through us. And perhaps our part of the journey is to be the way the creative work moves outward into the world, the way God drew her from a glimmer of creative interest out into a river so wide that her creativity is central to all she does—and now flows into the hospital and blesses me. Touched and warmed by her generosity and the beauty of her gift, I kept hearing one word over and over in my head: “Treasure.”
That night, at home, I was still feeling it. My heart felt inspired and I felt the inner nudge to do something in response. What came was a poem called Treasure. I shared it with Laura the next morning:
A stick, a stone
a shard of glass
A glint of light
the time goes fast
The spirit moves
we flow along–
a work of art
a bit of song
The blessing’s clear
the moment precious
this life we live
The call-and-response of our creative exchange has stayed with me all week, not simply because it was kind and uplifting, but more deeply, because it was God. What was happening was so much more than a surface exchange—it turned the two into one. God’s creative spirit invited us into a moment of call-and-response and when we accepted, we felt greatly blessed.
This is one of the reasons I have always loved group work—in fact the very first class I took in seminary (even though it was supposed to be a third-year class) was Pastoral Care to Family Systems, because for me, God’s spirit is evident both in each of us but even more unmistakably in all of us. When we move toward one another—from many into one–we heal the gaps between us. And when we, collectively, forgive and release and stand up and speak out, we are altogether the kingdom of God emerging in the world, here and now.
When Jesus walked among us, he was heaven personified, bringing light and love and truth into a confused and bitter and power-hungry realm. When Moses opened the Red Sea for the children of Israel, he was using God’s energy, following God’s direction, trusting in a creative impulse to lift his staff and see what happened. Yes the humanity of these children of God matters—Jesus and Moses, Abraham and David, Mary and Martha, you and me—but it is God’s love, God’s light, God’s ocean of goodness we are sharing day by day.
When a family member looks in on you, when a stranger does something kind, when your dog comes and nuzzles you after a particularly hard day, that’s all God’s inspiration, stirring up the care and kindness in another being that brings it into your experience, Love’s response to your call for care.
It reminds me of one of my favorite stories, about a six-year-old girl who had developed a bad habit of getting out of bed after her mom tucked her in lasseach night. Her mom had tried tco stop the behavior by scolding her or by promising her a reward if she stayed in bed—but nothing had worked. Then she had a new idea. “Let’s say a prayer and ask God to be with you and give you sweet dreams,” the mom suggested. So they prayed together, and then she kissed the little girl goodnight and went out to the living room. About 20 minutes later, here comes the little girl again. The mom, exasperated, says “Why are you up again? We said a prayer asking God to stay with you–you’re fine!”
“I know, mommy—“ the little girl said, “But sometimes I need God with skin on.” We all, as we’re living through this difficult time, need God with skin on, and if look with eyes of spirit, that is who we’ll find. God in the kindness, the creativity, the generosity and care; God in the beauty, the peace, the warm sunlight, the blooming spring flowers. God in the moments our spirits lift and peace arrives, God in the quiet sorrow we share with grieving others. We are all together in the life of this one infinitely loving God, who cannot help but respond to our many calls for care with the perfect and eternal response for the knitting together of the kingdom of God: out of the many, One.