St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
1 Samuel 3.1-20; Psalm 135.1-5, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; Mark 2.23-3.6
How do we recognize God’s call? How do we know for certain when God is calling us to do something or to enter the ministry?
A story Illustrates how easily one may be mistaken. A young farmer noticed a rather peculiar cloud formation which roughly formed the letters G, P, and C. He interpreted this to be a call from God: Go preach Christ! The farmer enthusiastically rushed to the deacons of his country church and insisted that he had been called to preach. Respectful of his ardor, they invited him to fill the pulpit. That Sunday, the sermon was long, tedious, and virtually incoherent. It wandered in the wilderness and never reached the Promised Land. When the sermon concluded, the deacons sat in stunned silence. Finally, a wizened deacon muttered to the would-be preacher, “Seems to me the clouds were saying, ‘Go plant corn’” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2003/fall/3.35.html).
The story of this cloud formation reminded me of one of my favorite comic strips: Bloom County. Little Oliver is sitting on the peak of his home admiring a starry sky. The stars align and form the words “REPENT OLIVER.” The final frame shows him thinking, “Bloody difficult being an agnostic these days.” Unlike the farmer, I think Oliver got the right message!
How do we recognize God’s call? The story of Samuel and Eli is instructive. Eli could no longer see; he undoubtedly would have called Samuel on numerous occasions. Eli was lying down in his room; Samuel was lying down where the ark of God was. Suddenly, Samuel heard a voice calling, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli answered, “I did not call; lie down again.” Again, Samuel heard the voice calling, and again he ran to Eli. This time, Eli told him, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” The Lord called Samuel a third time. This time, Eli, perceiving that the Lord may be calling Samuel, told Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” When Samuel responded to God as instructed, God shared what he was about to do to the house of Eli. In the morning, Samuel was afraid to share God’s message with Eli, but Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” The story continues, “So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then Eli said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’” What Samuel prophesied came true – “none of his words fell to the ground;” thus, the people knew that he was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord (1 Samuel 3.1-20; NRSV).
This story shows us the value of the godly wisdom of an older, experienced person. Perceiving that Samuel may be hearing the voice of God, Eli advises, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” In the Episcopal Church, one who senses God’s call to ministry is tasked with forming a discernment committee. This committee then works with the person to assess the legitimacy of the call. The role of the congregation is vital. If a person has been called, the call should be affirmed by the congregation, and that is when the real work begins.
I rarely share my own experiences from the pulpit, for God interacts with us in a multitude of ways, and what I have experienced may not be what you will, or should, experience. This attitude may in part stem from my study of Old Socrates who never wrote any philosophy for fear that the truth he had come to know may interfere with other’s search for the truth. In my case, I encountered several instances of confirmation of my call, and those instances continue.
Over the years, many people had told me that I should be a minister – at the time, I explained that my teaching and administration were my ministry. Then I found myself in a situation where I was fired for maintaining my principles – full-time teaching and administration were denied. At the same time, I was asked to chair the search committee for selecting a new dean at Calvary Cathedral.
Several people told me I would be perfect for the dean’s position if I were ordained -- some began to ask why I did not pursue ordination, and to encourage ordination. Robert Wagner was currently serving as interim dean. We became very close friends. On one occasion, he entered a meeting where ten or twelve members of the cathedral were present, looked at me, and said, “I so wish Larry were a member of the clergy.” I remember another occasion where he gave me God’s blessing during communion. When it was announced that I had entered the process, one elderly leader of the congregation said, “It’s about time!”
I will confess that I had previously considered the priesthood, but never felt compelled to become a priest. Robert Wagner was my Eli. The congregation encouraged and affirmed my decision. I think most who are called have an “Eli” and are confirmed by their Christian family. And yes, some are called to serve as “Eli’s” and some among the congregation are called to encourage others to pursue the use of their gifts in ministry. If the Spirit prompts you to speak to someone about pursuing the ministry, I hope you follow the Spirit’s leading.
At one time, people would not have thought of entering the ministry without a call. Now it is not that uncommon for people to consider the ministry as they would any other career. I am pleased that the Episcopal Church holds to the use of a discernment committee and the evidence of congregational support. I hope our Church never moves away from this position. As Gordon MacDonald, the former Chancellor of Denver Seminary and Leadership Editor for Christianity Today, says, “The genuineness of a call is usually . . . confirmed by others who discern the unique work of the Holy Spirit in a particular person” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2003/fall/3.35.html).
Another confirmation of a call is seen in the alignment of the gifts and talents one possesses with the ministry to which one is called. In his first letter to the Church of Corinth, St. Paul instructs us as to the nature of those gifts: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit . . . To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. . . All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Corinthians 12.5,8,11; NRSV).
Some are called to “Go preach Christ,” others are called to “Go plant corn!” Both are important – we need to discern where our gifts lie, and then lovingly use them for others. As the theologian Frederick Buechner puts it: “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger coincide” (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Frederick_Buechner).
The results, the fruit, of one’s ministry also serves to confirm one’s call. A good match between one’s call and one’s gifts should bear good fruit. In cases where the results are questionable, the congregation should not hesitate to engage in ministry review to see if, and how, better results may be attained. Mutual ministry review is healthy for congregations even when things are going well.
One of the fruits of ministry, of following God’s call, is a sense of joy. That does not mean that one who is responding to God’s call is to be joyous all the time, or even most of the time. Life has its pressures, but there should be moments when deep joy wells up within one’s soul.
Is God calling you? If so, what is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to be? Consider these questions, listen for God’s voice, and respond. I do not think you will ever regret doing so!