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I was explaining to my “Ministry of Writing” class that the best devotional thoughts and sermon illustrations come from our personal experience, and most often deal with common experiences with which everyone can relate.

As a class exercise, I threw out the first thing that came to mind — a persistent telemarketing company that had been using a robo-caller to dial my number. When I answered the phone, a recording would ask me to hold for someone who had “an important message.”

We all know about telemarketers, I said — and they all want something: to sell us something, to solicit donations to a charity, to ask for our vote, to get our response to a survey. And mostly, they irritate us. We may ask them to take us off their list, but are never sure whether they do. 

I asked the class to put on their theological/metaphorical thinking caps and throw out ideas for how the common experience of dealing with telemarketers might be turned into a devotional thought or sermon illustration.

At first, some students put a positive spin on the experience by imagining God as a telemarketer who keeps trying to get through to us — not through a robo-dialer, but as one who has always known us better than we know ourselves. Often, however, we respond by screening the calls and refusing to answer, or we decline the opportunity to listen to the message. We may even ask to be taken off the call list, but God doesn’t give up on us. Like Jesus knocking at the door in Rev. 3:20, God wants to have fellowship with us and to bless us. God continues to call, even when we don’t answer.

After we worked over that idea for a while, another student suggested that we flip the metaphor — what if we think of God as the one who gets call after call from Christians who disguise their appeals as prayers and who always want something? Surely it must get old to have millions of people calling every day, pleading for medical help, asking for financial support, seeking guidance, and Lord knows what else. Yet, God does not grow impatient with our importunity, or ask us to stop calling. God listens with love and responds with grace.

I don’t know if any students will be picking up on that notion in future sermons, but I for one expect to remember our dialogue the next time a telemarketer calls. I may not be any more interested in supporting the companies who give a fraction of their proceeds to the Fraternal Order of Police, or in signing up for a new credit card. I don’t think, however, that I’ll ever answer another telemarketing call without wondering what God thinks when I pester the Almighty with petty petitions rather than personal praise — and without standing in amazement that God doesn’t just hang up when Caller I.D. shows my number.

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