When I wrote earlier about hearing the call to ministry, a few people asked about the specific moment itself. I tend not to talk about it too much, not only because people look at you funny if you say you hear voices in your head, but because sometimes it’s discouraging to people who don’t have a call story with voices or flashes of light or burning bushes. I want to emphasize that many if not most of the pastors I know do not have stories like this– they realized that they were called the same way someone realizes they want to be a doctor or a teacher or a farmer. Having a call story with voices and light and burning bushes doesn’t mean we’re more called; in fact, it probably just means we’re more dense, God had to resort to getting our attention by slapping us upside the back of the head.
(The following is a near-transcription of a sermon I preached about my call)
It was a Tuesday night, Mardi Gras, my freshman year in college. I was studying to be a teacher, because that’s what I wanted to be. In particular, I wanted to be a high school English teacher. I wanted to teach Shakespeare, because you see, you have this really old text, and yet the words are still so beautiful and powerful; the ideas still shape us and tell us about who we are, and when you read it you come to a deeper appreciation of the author, a brilliant and profound thinker. I imagined I’d have a semi-captive audience of high school students and their eyes would light up as I’d read them this old text, and together we’d explore how it still touches us and shapes us today.
I was taking Introduction to Education, which I am convinced is designed to weed out people like myself who shouldn’t be teachers, or to make sure that those who want to be teachers want it enough to make it through the class, because it was the most boring, anti-learning course I’ve ever taken. And so this Mardi Gras night, even though the next day the professor was probably going to read the textbook to us aloud in class, I was reading the textbook. And I had read the same sentence a dozen times, and it wasn’t sinking in.
It was getting late, and I was getting desperate. I thought if I could just picture my vision, my dream, that would be the impetus I’d need to finish my homework and go to bed, it would motivate me enough that I could finish reading and get some sleep. So I closed my eyes and I pictured myself in my classroom, with my Complete Works of Shakespeare textbook and my captive audience of high school students and them getting excited about the old text and… it did absolutely nothing for me.
I had this moment of sheer terror. This was what I was supposed to do with my life and now it didn’t inspire me. What am I going to do, who am I going to be?
And then–I won’t call it a voice, because I didn’t hear it. It was a thought. And the thought kind of scrolled across the back of my mind the way text scrolls across a marquee sign in a bus station. And the thought said, and I quote directly, no dummy—not the last time God’s called me a dummy, but the way—no, dummy, you heard wrong. I didn’t say teacher, I said preacher. Picture yourself as a preacher.
Now it was late and I was desperate and I wanted to get my homework done so I thought I’d try anything, and so I did it; I pictured myself as a preacher. In some ways it was familiar. I pictured an old text, and yet the words are so powerful, so beautiful, the ideas in it so important that they shape our lives now in our very hearts and souls and who we are meant to be. And when we read it, we learn about the incredible Author of such a work. I pictured my semi-captive audience whose eyes sometimes do light up as we together discover again and again how these words speak to us and how they shape us today and that the Author who wrote and inspired them, that Author’s love for us and for creation have no limit.
That was what I pictured. It was the most exciting, most inspiring thing I had ever imagined for myself. It had so much purpose, it felt so right and I thought what a great idea I just had! And then I thought where *did* that idea come from? I spent the rest of that Mardi Gras night alternating between arguing– Wait a sec, I know you’re omniscient and all but it’s a small dorm room and an easy mistake to make. I think you meant my roommate; she goes to church a lot and does that clapping and hand-waving thing a lot, and I haven’t been to church in a while now. I tried to read the bible when I was in high school and got stuck in Deuteronomy and haven’t opened it since. And then on the other hand just laughing hysterically, which wasn’t particularly odd behavior for Mardi Gras night.
The next day was Ash Wednesday, and I gave up Catholicism for lent, which is a good punch line, but was actually true and a hard decision I had to make, because that was how I knew how to be spiritual in my life, and the thing that I’d imagined was not going to be possible within the Roman Catholic Church. So I had to go find a place that would let me do what I had imagined.
In the weeks and months and years that followed and are still following, I learned something: that evening was not when I was called by God. That was when God got my attention, because I can be kind of a dummy sometimes, and I needed a moment of vision to get it into my head. But in fact this had been my gift and calling and passion my entire life. Every time I took one of those tests in high school that tell you what you’re supposed to be when you grow up, they would always flip back and forth, but the first two answers were always lawyer and pastor, and I thought I was too moral for the first and not moral enough for the second, so let’s go for choice three, which was teacher. Never realizing that all three were about taking an older text—the bible, the constitution, Shakespearean literature, interpreting it, studying it, explaining it to people persuasively and with excitement, and helping them see its relevance and beauty, helping them see it in a new light— all of that was pointing to a skill set that I have and was being called to use for God’s work. Never realizing or putting together that I had always loved church, my whole life, even after my family stopped attending following my parents’ divorce.
That summer after I’d begun to take that seriously, I was home and I came across this picture. This is not my daughter, although I can understand the confusion. This is me, and I’m about Arianna’s age, and I’m playing my favorite game. I’m wearing my nightgown with my bathrobe over it. I’ve taken a piece of bread from the kitchen and squashed it flat (because we were Catholic and Catholics use those wafers for communion). Sometimes I would take the cup from the bathroom, not pictured here, and I would fill it with grape juice (because I was a good Methodist even then), and I would serve communion to my stuffed animals. I would pretend that I was a priest, and that was my favorite game when I was four.
This is my Jeremiah 1 picture; before you were born I called you, and I keep it on my desk in my office to remind me that while it might have taken me a while to get it through my head, this is what I’m called to do, and what I was called to do my entire life. That’s what I know, what’s familiar to me, that’s the gift and the passion and the joy that I have and am called to use in God’s service.
And it reminds me that we all have that, we all have gifts and passions and talents, and we are called to use them for God’s service. Your vocation, says Frederick Buechner, is where your deep passion meets the world’s deep hunger. I’ve found my vocation. Have you found yours?