20th Century mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about what he termed the “monomyth.” The monomyth was not just one myth but a type of myth that can be found around the world and in different historical periods, and examples of the monomyth all have similar structures and themes. The monomyth, according to Campbell, is always about The Hero’s Journey: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on [the whole community].”
Campbell’s Hero’s Journey structure has been applied to world mythologies, Star Wars, and the Bible. But the place I think Campbell most wants us to use the Hero’s Journey as a tool is in our own lives. Campbell wrote in the opening chapter of his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces that the prime function of mythology and religious rites has been to supply people with the symbols that carry our human spirits forward to counterbalance all the forces in the world which try to hold us back.
So, I’d like to talk a little bit about the Hero’s Journey as it applies to Isaiah, and Simon Peter, and all of us. And the question is, “What is holding us back?”
We begin in what Campbell calls The Ordinary World. We know what that is. It’s the world we live in when we’re not on an adventure. It’s Bilbo Baggins sitting in his house on Bag End in the safe and isolated Shire. Soon, a wizard and a bunch of dwarves will show up at his door and drag him down the road and halfway across Middle-Earth in a tale called, “The Hobbit,” but first comes the ordinary world:the cozy, sometimes maybe even stuffy Hobbit hole—not too exciting, but comfortable.
Or on the dystopian end of things there’s Katniss Everdeen living in poverty in District 12, trying to keep her family from starving by hunting illegally, dreading the day when her name will be put into a lottery for a contest to the death called “The Hunger Games.” She doesn’t have a comfy life, but it’s everything Katniss knows, and she’s stuck in it.
Isaiah was living in the ordinary world of Judah during the reign of King Uzziah. Simon Peter was washing the fishing nets by the Sea of Galilee. Whether your life is as picturesque as the Shire or as difficult as District 12, we all know what it feels like to start somewhere—the place we are before God speaks or strikes, as the case may be.
Into the everyday life of the ordinary world comes the next part of the Hero’s Journey: the Call to Adventure. The idyllic island home of Diana of the Amazons (who will later become known as Wonder Woman) is invaded by German soldiers and she learns that “The Great War” is being fought in the world beyond her protective borders. Harry Potter, locked in a cupboard under the stairs, receives an invitation by owl to join Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Isaiah is caught up in a vision of God almighty upon a throne. Simon Peter is told to go fishing in the deep water.
I think we’ve all experienced the Call to Adventure. Maybe it even felt like God’s call. Though, probably, it wasn’t all wizards and orcs and magic. But all of us have faced change. And that’s really what the Call to Adventure boils down to. Good or bad, change is disruptive. Which leads us to an important realization, I think: Even disastrous change can be answered as a Call to Adventure.
Brooklyn writer Julie Yip-Williams died about a year ago of colon cancer. When she received the stage 4 diagnosis, she committed herself to the journey ahead of her. And in the last entry of her blog, which will be published as a memoir later this year, she wrote:
Cancer is completing my life, making it whole. It’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it? ...I have found the meaning and purpose I have desperately sought my entire life. And that is an incredible, beautiful, glorious thing to be able to say. No one, and certainly not I, could ask for more than that in one lifetime, as brief as it may be.
Julie Yip-Willaims leaned into the change of her cancer and the change of the end of her life, and she stepped out into the adventure that this change was heralding. She wasn’t cured, but she won the decisive victory that Campbell says is a part of the Hero’s Journey all the same. And in her blog, she brought the lessons of that victory back to all of us. Good or bad, the call to adventure is the call into a bigger kind of life, a life in which we push at the boundaries of the Ordinary World, in which we scramble up the DNA of the Ordinary World to try to make a new world, a better life for ourselves and for others. But it starts right here. It starts with ourselves.
And, so, before we can get to this victory, before we can accept the call to adventure, here comes what I think is the most important part of the First Act of the Hero’s Journey. It’s the place where we get stuck—physically, emotionally, spiritually:
After the magic or excitement or horror of that initial call has worn off, we can get stuck in between the ordinary world and the world of new possibilities. In the Hero’s Journey, that stuckness is termed “The Refusal of the Call.” Refusal. Well, that sounds a little judgy, doesn’t it? I mean, aren’t there sometimes outside forces—forces that we have no control over—that hold us back?
But this is the way that Campbell understands mythology. Campbell doesn’t believe that a myth describes the world as it is, he believes it describes human psychology and spirituality, or the human condition, as it is. A myth, or a piece of scripture, Campbell would say, is a sort of spiritual blueprint for human flourishing under any circumstances.
The outside forces are real, but the blueprint focuses on the power and control that we do have. According to this spiritual medicine, no matter the external circumstances, we each have the ability to answer a call to grow and to make the world a better place. And an important part of accepting our calling is a time of doubt where, perhaps overcome by obstacles, we refuse the call. In other words, doubt and the acceptance of doubt are built in to the very beginning of every spiritual journey.
Luke Skywalker tells Obi-Won Kenobe he can’t leave with him for Alderan, he has to get back to the moisture farm, to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Often, it’s considerations of the farm, the harvest, the family, responsibility, practicality, the difficulty of the journey, and on and on, that leads us to refuse the call. And when we’ve finally burned through every external excuse for not moving forward, we come down eventually to the real, fundamental, core issue: “I’m just not good enough.” Our initial doubts may be external, but our final doubts are internal.
Harry Potter says, “I can’t be a wizard; I’m just Harry.” Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Simon Peter nails it: He falls down on his knees in the boat and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Have you ever felt like you just weren’t good enough? Has that attitude ever gotten you stuck in a place that had become too small for you? Has it ever prevented you from answering God’s call to personal growth and to heal the world in some way? Have you ever shouted at God, when she came whispering into your heart, “Go away! Leave me alone! I can’t! I’m no perfect hero. I’m not a Jedi, not a wizard, not a superman, not a prophet, not a pope. I’m just no good!”
I would say that this attitude, more than anything else in my life, is the excuse I have used to push God away from me the most. Find another boat, pal. Don’t show me that throne. If you get too close to me, you’ll see just how rotten I am. And if you see it, and I see you seeing it, then I’ll have to see it too. When we stand in the presence of God, we become very self-aware. I don’t want to turn that light on. Better to stay in the dark.
For me it started at a young age. And when I was in elementary school, I had a recurring nightmare that I would wake up buried in my coffin. And while I was down there trying to scratch my way out and panicking over my fate, I would think that God had punished me in this way because I was so bad that God wanted to put me in a place where no one, including God, would ever have to look at me again.
And let’s face it. We’re not perfect people. We mess up. We do selfish things sometimes. And we do stupid things on occasion. In 2011, when I was searching for a church job, I got an exciting email from the search committee of a church that I was very interested in. It was their first response to the application I had sent in and the email was glowing with praise and excitement—they were really interested in getting to know me better. I was so excited that I forwarded the email to a friend of mine who had told me that she had a good feeling that I’d get a response from this church and now here it was. I added a little colorful commentary to the forwarded message I was sending my friend—just three words:
The first word was the word “Holy.” And let’s just say, Beloved, that the next two words were anything but holy. Holy Blankity Blank. OK, you get the idea, right? Boy, was I excited. Like Isaiah, I was a man of unclean lips! And as I hit send, I realized that in my excitement I had not forwarded the email. No, I had hit REPLY.
Now, can you imagine being on that search committee? And sending a glowing, professional, faithful email to a potential pastor and getting a response like that? Holy Blankin’ Blank! I had really blown it. And, man, did I ever let myself have it. That night I hated myself more than I’ve ever hated anyone in my life. I said things to myself that were so cruel that I would never have allowed myself to say them to another person, no matter their mistake or the damage it caused. And as I lay sleepless in my bed, I would have been happy to bury myself alive. I knew that I was not good enough for my calling. Same as Isaiah knew, same as Simon Peter. Get away from me!
That’s the way we often think of it—callings are for the good ones, the perfect ones. We’re not worthy of growth, we’re not worthy of significance, we’re not worthy to make any difference in the world. But what if God sees it another way?
In the myths of the Hero’s Journey the hero is judged based upon their heroic return to the ordinary world to give back to the people what they have stolen from the gods or whatever. You’re not a hero not because you receive the call. You receive the call precisely because something is lacking. And maybe the Hero’s Journey is precisely about finding what is missing.
So, the Refusal of the Call is a necessary part of the hero’s journey because after all the other excuses are cleared away, we are left standing in the presence of God, looking into the mirror and realizing, “There’s something missing!” The person who doesn’t have that experience, might think that they were chosen because they’re perfect and that they’re expected to be perfect in everything they do. The person who doesn’t have that experience might go out into the world without a feeling that they are actually being called to grow.
Instead of burying myself alive after that long night without rest (after I sent the Holy Blankity Blank email), I decided that I had to keep trying. I knew that I was not perfect. I knew I had blown it with that church. But I knew I was called and that I had to keep doing my best to answer my calling. So, I wrote an apology email to the search committee and explained what had happened. Then I followed the instructions in the email and answered some follow up questions. Incredibly, they liked my answers to their questions and they even offered me an interview. I thought, maybe they just want to see what total doofus looks like in person.
When I sat down with them for the interview in their church, the chair of the search committee did indeed poke fun at me for my potty mouth email and the whole search committee laughed at me. Not in a mean way though, in a joyful way. They were laughing with me. And to my incredible surprise, a few months later, they had offered me—me: a totally inadequate, imperfect doofus—the job. They wanted me to be their imperfect pastor.
Just before I started the job, I would still have moments of disbelief sometimes. God, I would ask, are you sure I’m good enough to be a pastor? And God would laugh and say, “Haven’t you learned anything? You’re not good enough if you want to be perfect! But if you’re ready for an adventure, and you’re willing to grow, I’ve got good work here for you to do.”
Beloved, if you have realized that you’re imperfect, then the time for procrastination is over! It’s time to step out into our calling. One step into an uncertain calling will help us to grow more than endless preparations for the thing we’re perfect for. We’re not perfect. But we’ve got work to do anyway. What’s holding us back? Amen.