“Everyone has their own calling, but not everyone is looking for the phone, or either they missed the call, or just not answered it.” ― Anthony Liccione
When I first applied to be a pastor, at the ripe old age of 18 and a half, one section of the interview was labelled “Sense of calling.” Did I have a sense of calling? In what way was that sense of calling manifested? What had I done about it so far? In a hundred searching questions, the interviewers sought to unpack the meaning of God’s hand on my life.
Clearly, because I was so young, I didn’t have much experience of life, and the conclusion of the board was that I should complete my degree, continue working in local churches and take opportunities to preach wherever they arose. Fair enough. I offer the same sort of advice to younger would-be pastors now, now that the boot is on the other foot.
But my answers to the board then are still fresh in my memory today. In fact, they seem to me to have gained validity with the passage of so much time.
So how did I justify a “sense of calling”? I talked about begging my big sister to take me to Sunday School when I was four; singing “Turn your eyes upon Jesus,” with passion and emotion; joining the choir when I was seven; responding to a talk at Pathfinder camp when I was eleven with a tremulously raised arm; and feeling the hand of the bishop on my head when I was thirteen, at confirmation, and the words “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Not a saintly boy by any stretch (before any of my old friends write in to expose me!) but somehow –in some mysterious fashion – actively seeking God for pretty much the whole of my life. Where did that desire, that seeking, come from? None of my family were church-goers, or religious in any way. Just me. I can still remember huge chunks of the old Book of Common Prayer to this day.
What a weird little boy!
My only explanation is mixed up with that strange word “calling.” That picture on the Sistine Chapel ceiling has man reaching out for God as God reaches for man. But which comes first?
And what is happening in the moment of contact?
The Bible is full of stories about that moment. Two personal favourites are the story of Abraham (in Genesis 12) and the call of Isaiah (in Isaiah 6). The Genesis passage was given to me to speak on that first Christmas carol service. At age seven I stood at the lectern, on a little box, almost entirely hidden by a massive golden eagle, and spoke words which I claimed to have understood.
“The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”” (Genesis 12:1-3).
Before I was allowed to speak the words, the curate (a wonderful man who made a huge impact on my life and whose name I’ve completely forgotten), took me on a run-through and gently asked what I understood by the passage. I said that even when Abraham wasn’t seeking God, God was seeking Abraham. He paused and let the silence settle, and then he said: “Maybe God is seeking you too.”
I can’t tell you how my heart was stirred with that thought. Even writing it down now recalls a powerful emotion, fifty years later. It was certainly there still when I came before the board as a Bible College student. Maybe God is seeking me too?
The question arises: “For what purpose?” The answer came for me some years later, in another moment of calling, in the story of Isaiah: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go…” (Isaiah 6:9).
As I grew older, I began to hear many voices competing for my attention. But when you are young, before you strap on whole rucksacks of responsibilities, then you are freer to choose. You have a moment or two to answer the voice that speaks to who you are and to what you want to do with your life. Isaiah suggested to me that I listen to the voice of God, and pay no heed, as Fred Buechner puts it, to “the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture.”
That voice will tell you salary and status are all that matter about work. Listening to that voice, for Buechner, risks your becoming one of the world’s many people “now engaged in a life’s work in which they find no pleasure or purpose” and “suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only years that they are ever going to get in this world doing something that could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else.”
So many voices. Parents, teachers, vicars, books, poets, musicians: they all speak powerfully and help us realize something about ourselves and our gifts that we hadn’t fully realized. But those same voices can also be noise, distracting us from the same voice that called Isaiah to his life of faithful service before God.
Perhaps we’re too slow to be silent before God and listen for his voice. It’s a voice that whispers as often as it shouts. Perhaps we must be careful with our lives, for Christ’s sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters a great deal. The truth is that for each of us there comes a point of no return, a point beyond which we no longer have life enough left to go back and start all over again.
To Isaiah, the voice said, “Go” (Isaiah 6:9), and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is: Which one will we obey with our lives? Which of the voices that call is to be the one we answer? Each one’s choice is their own, of course, but my own answer has been that I must go with my life where I most need to go and where I am most needed.
Fred Buechner (again) has really helped me with this, suggesting that we should first listen to “the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness.” Doing so would lead us to do with our lives whatever “makes us truly glad.” Glad. Not “happy” — saying “Here I am” to God certainly didn’t guarantee Isaiah a life of unbroken bliss! — but “glad,” which is a synonym for “joyful” or “fulfilled.”
I think that while that can sound self-centred, Christianity does not teach the negation of the self, but the restoration of the self. While broken by sin, we are distinctive persons made in the image of a Triune God, and so, meant for relationship and community — not dissolution into a whole, but as members of a Body.
And so, we need to listen to the voice telling us to go “where we are most needed.” Gladness is not for our own sake alone, but is needed by others enduring a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain.
Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” (Matt 4:4), and in the end every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is the same word, and the word is Christ himself. And in the end that is the vocation, the calling of all of us, the calling to be Christs. To be Christs in whatever way we are able to be. To be Christs with whatever gladness we have and in whatever place, among whatever brothers we are called to.
That is the vocation, the destiny to which we were all of us called even before the foundation of the world.
Today if you hear his voice…. Listen good.
This is from Ken’s book Friend of God on the Life of Abraham. Msg us here for a copy or go here.