Called by God

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, January 18, 2015

I Sam 3:1-11; Ps 139

Has your body ever put you on alert? Perhaps butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, tingling ears. Now—I’ve had sweaty palms and butterflies in my stomach, but I’ve never had tingling ears. Does this exist, or is this just something we write about? Has anyone experienced tingling ears?

Our story from Samuel is loaded with bodily sensations. Samuel, as a boy, wakes up three times with his body on full alert. He thought that Eli, the priest whom he was serving, had called him. But each time he went to Eli, the priest assured Samuel with a pat-pat that there was no call and told to go back to bed. Each time, that is, until the last, when Eli finally realized that God may have been trying to get Samuel’s attention. When Samuel finally turned to God, he was told that something was about to happen—something so huge, that even the telling of it would make the listeners’ ears tingle.

How does God get our attention these days? Sometimes it’s through our body. We may have an unease, a niggling sense that something is not quite right. When our body reacts this way, it is usually picking up on something that we need to pay attention to. The Spirit may be tugging at our soul and we would do well to listen.

Sometimes God gets our attention through dreams or in that early morning stage of half-sleep, when our minds are at rest, allowing the back-burner thoughts or new ideas to emerge. When I was having trouble sleeping some time ago, someone told me that I was in good company with the monks, who found those early morning hours to be the best time to listen to the Spirit. It is a thin space of quiet when the mists of heaven and earth intermingle. A Cree elder once taught me to pay attention to particularly vivid dreams, and especially those in the half-conscious state of awakening in the early dawn.

Sometimes God gets our attention through changes in energy, in health, in finances. Changes require discernment, because God’s direction for our lives changes accordingly. God is getting the attention of Westworth right now, because of changes in our finances and we need to discern prayerfully where God is leading us.

We need to be very clear in God’s direction for our personal lives and for our church because this clarity will carry us through difficult times that do lie ahead of all of us. When ministers go through discernment, we are asked to describe our call to ministry. And once we are in ministry, we must be very sure of our call, or we will not be able to sustain the difficult times. When I went through a couple of very challenging times, my call to ministry was a very important part of that which sustained me. But calls are not the sole domain of ministry personnel. Along with John Calvin, one of our ancestors in the faith, I believe that each one of us is called to a particular ministry, whether it be lay or clergy, paid or volunteer. I have heard university professors say that, if they are not passionate about teaching and writing, they will never survive the crazy-making politics of the university. The assurance of God’s call to us in each of our professions or vocations or volunteer work helps to sustain us through challenges which will arise for anyone in any workplace.

Parker Palmer has written a little book called Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. In this book, he talks about his own mid-life vocational discernment. He was invited to apply for a prestigious position with good money, good status, good job security. It had all the makings of a perfect job advancement. But he wasn’t sure. He sat with a group of friends who helped him listen not to societal expectations, but to the Spirit working through his own life. He realized that to be able to listen to his life meant to focus not only on the positive (what gives him energy, what he’s passionate about, what he’s able to do) but also on the negative—what drains him, what frustrates him, what his limits are, what he cannot do that well. He realized that discernment about the future is as much about what we are NOT called to do as it is about what we ARE called to do. This was a difficult and humbling exercise for Parker, but when he was able to be honest and listen to his life, not to someone else’s hopes & expectations for him, he heard a distinct no. He took a risk by resigning from his current job, not applying for the prestigious one and taking the space and time that allowed him to follow God’s call for his life and eventually become the prolific writer he is now.

There is a story about a young Rabbi by the name of Zusya who was very discouraged about his failures and weaknesses. An older rabbi wisely observed, “When you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ No, God will say, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya?’ So why don’t you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?”

Who has God created us to be? Jim Taylor has written a modern paraphrase of Psalm 139. Listen to the section about God’s unique creation of each one of us:

13 No wonder you know me so well, God.
Even before my mother knew I existed, you wrote the genetic code of my cells.
14 You created my life.
15 Wombs and worlds are one to you;
they have no secrets from you; you are the essence of all life.
16 As once you shaped the cells that formed my fingernails and my hair,
so you still guide me through the events of each day.
17 Even if I am only a fleeting thought flickering through the mind of God, I am in good company.
18 All of creation owes its existence to you, God.

I can no more imagine your thoughts than I can recall every detail of my dreams.
But you are not a dream, for when I wake, you are still with me.[1]
God’s creation doesn’t end with our birth. We continue to evolve in body, mind and spirit—The Holy Spirit continues to shape us throughout our life and promises to always be with us. But it’s very difficult to listen to the evolution of our body, our mind, our needs, our limitations. It’s very difficult when these change and we have to begin the discernment process all over again. In fact, discernment is a continuous process because we’re always changing in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Ralph Milton had just decided to retire as a publisher, but his decision raised a number of unnamed anxieties. When he was out for a walk one day, a girl who was about 6 years old came along on a tricycle. She stopped, gave Ralph a most intense look and asked, “Are you old?” Usually quick-witted, Ralph was stopped cold by this girl’s question. She waited. Maybe she knew she had asked a profoundly disturbing question. Eventually, he responded. “Yes. Yes, I am.” She quickly replied, “Then will you play with me?”

In that moment, this girl changed Ralph from a man, fearful of retirement, angry at his age with its limitations and necessities, to a man delighting in his age and its possibilities – transfigured by the candid, open, affirming trust of a child, who understood age to be the test of time and interest.

We are going through changes as a congregation, and for some of us as individuals. These changes may not be what had hoped for, but they might also open us to a whole new set of possibilities. As many of you know, the Chinese character for crisis is a combination of two Chinese characters, one meaning danger and the other opportunity. You’ll find these characters printed in your bulletin insert. When we find ourselves in what feels like a crisis, let’s ask ourselves, “What are the opportunities that lie ahead?” What is God calling us both to do and not to do? Who is God calling us to be?

[1] Jim Taylor, Everyday Psalms