Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On Questioning God's Call

Recently I had the opportunity to talk about my call to ordained ministry with some folks learning about the candidacy process in the UMC. I was asked many good questions, some revealing some common misconceptions or assumptions, all getting to some issues which I think are pretty important.

Though it is not the first question I’m often asked (nor was it in that discussion), I want to speak today to this one:

So you never questioned your call, right? Once you heard it?

Oh, I question it. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

Okay, that is an exaggeration.

But I question it. I did from the beginning. I still do. Somedays I question it off-handedly, some days the ability to question it (and argue with God over it) is the only thing that gives enough elasticity to it to keep at it.

My actual response to that question recently was, “Oh, yes. I do. Often. I did today. I think it’s, maybe arrogance, something, to be so sure you don’t question it. I think we should always question what we think God is saying to us—always look for signs and guidance. In the United Methodist Church we value not only an individual’s sense of call but also the community’s discernment.”

I think our notion here is if God’s call is so strong, others will see it.

Indeed, my own call became clear to me not because my father (grandfather and great-grandfather) was a pastor, but because an older woman at the church my father was then serving in Baltimore (Brooklyn UMC, now closed) said to me “It’s such a shame you’re not going to me a pastor like your father.”

A call to ordained ministry had literally never occurred to me before that.

There’s a film I love called Keeping the Faith¸ staring Edward Norton (as a Catholic priest) and Ben Stiller (as a rabbi). They were childhood friends who grow up to be men of God. There’s a woman they both fall for. It’s like a priest-and-a-rabbi-joke meets a romantic comedy meets a coming of age film meets a religious movie.

But in the midst of all of that, it’s got some really great reflections on calls to ministry.

On one scene, Edward Norton’s character is struggling with the commitments he’s made as a priest. He’s considering leaving the priesthood, finding his vows to be too tight. He’s discerning. He seeks out his senior priest, who had also been one of his seminary professors, and asks his advice—should he just leave the priesthood? It seems in seminary the senior priest had told the seminarians if they could think of doing anything else, they should. Don’t enter priesthood. Go do that instead.

The problem is, as Edward Norton’s character is finding out, this pure, unquestioned confidence withers in the face of real life. At that moment, he can absolutely imagine leaving the priesthood and settling down with a wife and family and doing something else. So if that’s really the bar, his decision is made, right?

Here are the lines from this scene:
Father Brian Kilkenney Finn: I keep thinking about what you said in seminary, that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else you should do that.
Father Havel: That was my recruitment pitch, which is not bad when you're starting out because it makes you feel like a marine. The truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one thing you could be. If you are a priest or if you marry a woman it's the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it's a choice that you keep making again and again and again.

Every day you make it. The commitment at ordination (or on your wedding day, or any other major commitment) is perhaps best understood as a commitment to keep making the same commitment.

Until it isn’t.

We all know colleagues who have left ministry. Or, perhaps their call has changed shape, and they’ve moved into extension ministry from local church. Or maybe they started in extension ministry and felt called to parish ministry. Not all of these are the same, but they direct us to consider that God’s will for us may change. May evolve.

If the Holy Scriptures are a living word, surely God’s call to each of us is as well.

Discerning call is a hard thing.

And calls are lived out within the imperfect world of the people of God.

Who can be cruel. And unforgiving. And caught up in their own stuff.

Ministry settings can be challenging. Pastors and congregations can suffer from bad fits. Family commitments can make professional obligations feel like impossible choices. Church politics and dynamics can mean pastors don’t get the perfect church for them and churches don’t get the perfect pastor for them.

(What is perfect? But that’s another post all together…)

All of this and a host of other factors can make us re-examine our call.

Sometimes we need to be reminded what our call was to begin with. Sometimes we need to be reminded that it’s ok if our call evolves.

The United Church of Christ has a line they used for advertising that I think is helpful here: Never put a period where God has placed a comma.

Hearing a call to set apart ministry (because we are all called to ministry by virtue of our baptisms) is the beginning (or middle, etc.) of the process. God is still speaking. Our prayerful hope is that through the process to actually enter licensed or ordained ministry, the individual, with the help of many others, distills down to God’s call on their lives. I think that call can be discerned. I also think it’s ok on some days to question it.

But I think on those days, we are called to use the same tools which helped us discern that call in the first place: our experience of God, our reading of Scripture, the guidance of the faith community, and our good sense.

May you hear God’s call on your life. May you be open to its continued development. May God give you the strength you need to live into that call. And should God’s call ever lead you to take a left turn or a different path, may God grant you wisdom, courage and patience to do so.

Oh, and never quit on your worst day.

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