4 The LORD’s word came to me:
5 “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations.”
6 “Ah, LORD God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child.”
7 The LORD responded, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’ Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say.
8 Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you,” declares the LORD.
9 Then the LORD stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me, “I’m putting my words in your mouth.
10 This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.”
What does it mean to be called by God? And, how do you know when God is calling you? What does a call even feel like? While there are some similarities between most call stories in the Bible and the modern call stories we hear from others, there isn’t a single way to answer those questions. In Bible Study on Tuesday morning, someone asked how you know you’re being called. The answer I gave is that my call was inescapable.
I’ve likened my call to ministry to the experience of Samuel in that it first came to me when I was young, probably late elementary or early middle school age. When Samuel heard God speak, he didn’t recognize the voice of the Lord, and neither did I. I didn’t know what it was, where it came from, or why it came to me, and my response to hearing this weird call was fear and resistance. So, I pushed it away every time.
My grandmother, Betty Romain, loved the hymn Here I Am, Lord (U.M.Hymnal #593) because it reminded her of me. But my call was definitely not like Isaiah’s. I never really had the heart to tell her, but I never had an “I’m here. Send me!” moment like in Isaiah 6:8.
In fact, my call didn’t come all at once. It was spread out over several years and came at different moments of my life. The earliest moment I remember was when I served as an acolyte for worship at Central United Methodist Church in Evansville. I had to sit in the front pew with the other acolyte, so, of course we had to behave and, you know, pretend that we were paying attention. I mean, it was the front row.
While the pastor was preaching, I remember a voice, or a thought, or whatever it was, tell me I’d be doing that; or that I could do that. And my immediate response was terror! I was like, Unh uh! I’m not gonna get up and talk in front of people. No way! I remember the thought—the call—sort of backing off at my denial, but I was still scared of the idea and adamant that I would NEVER be a pastor.
Well, that scenario came and went a few more times through my middle school and high school years. And my response was always the same. Nope! Not me! Not gonna do it! But things changed during the week leading up to Saint Valentine’s Day, 1996. That was the second semester of my Freshman year at Findlay.
During the first half of the week, that voice, or thought, or idea, whatever it was, had been crashing into me. And I was getting annoyed because, this time, it didn’t go away when I pushed back. By Wednesday, it was overwhelming. I tried to go about my day. I sat at my dorm room desk to study chemistry, but everything came to a crescendo when I heard loud, and clear, and audibly that God was calling me to ministry. I can’t quote a voice or the words spoken, but it was a kind of audible-certainty: you will do this!
This time, my response was anger. I got SO mad! I shoved my book away, threw my pencil across the room, and shouted, “All right, God, I’ll do it!” And, as soon as I acknowledged and accepted that call, my anger disappeared—along with the pounding of that voice—and I felt peace. At the same time, I didn’t have a clue what to do with this call thing. But I needed to figure it out, and taking that step was scary, too. I mean, have you ever told someone that you’re hearing voices? Nevertheless, I sought the wisdom of others who had been called: my campus pastor, Will Miller; my home pastor, Mac Hamon. And each time I spoke to someone, God confirmed my call in so many ways: big and small and weird.
When we look at the major call stories that are recorded in the Bible—even when we hear call stories from some people—we can feel amazed, and awed, and… so incredibly insignificant in their shadow. Stories like Jeremiah’s call can leave us asking, What about me? What am I called to? Don’t I get to have a calling? I’ve never heard God speak to me like that. Where’s my vision, my burning bush, my hearing of God’s voice?
I mean, why do some people today get cool call stories that resemble the call stories we see in the Scriptures while others—even faithful people who want to find their calling—struggle to recognize anything that looks remotely like a call from God. In theory, we might know that everyone is called by God. Every Christian is called to live this radical thing we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ through faithful obedience to God. The Christian faith speaks of baptism as a kind of call—even as a kind of ordination into the priesthood of all believers—in which we’re set apart and called to serve. But in practice—and in reality—we might not see, or hear, or experience anything “big” enough for us to imagine or name as a call from God.
In January of 2014, God got into an argument with me—which I lost—and told me that I needed to write. When I told Joy about this other call, she was deep in the midst of trying to discern her own path forward. Charlotte would start Kindergarten soon. She had considered going back to school, but she hadn’t settled on a degree by that time. And I think she was a little annoyed with me when I told her. She was incredibly supportive, but she told me, “You know, it’s really not fair. You get two calls, and I’ve spent YEARS asking God to give me one. Why do you get two calls when I get none? Where’s mine?”
It was a fair point, I think. But I know my wife. I’d argue that she did have a call, even if she hadn’t discerned the specifics of it yet. We took a walk one evening and we ended up talking about what she might want to do in the future. While she talked a little about what she might like to do, she talked more about the needs of Fort Wayne as a community. That’s where her heart was (and still is). Partway through our discussion, I said, “You know, if you could start an orphanage and take care of every needy kid in the world, you’d do it, wouldn’t you?” And her response was a very startled, “YES! I would!”
Joy’s call is to advocate for children. Whatever she does, you can bet that taking care of children in some way, shape, or form is going to be a part of it. While we lived in Fort Wayne, she was going to enroll in IPFW, earn her master’s degree in School Counseling, and hoped to work in Fort Wayne Community Schools. The 2018 Census Bureau estimate is that 21.8% of children in Fort Wayne Community Schools live in impoverished households, and that’s down from what it was when we lived there. She wanted to be an advocate for those kids.
Then, we heard that we would be moved to Mount Vernon. Just when Joy figured out a path to live out her call, we moved. And it took her time to discern a new path. Joy earned her master’s degree in Public Administration from USI and started Thrive, which began as a project for one of her classes. She’s called to take care of children. But discerning exactly how she could live out that call was a long and winding path, with a few switchbacks and Road-Closed-Due-To-Avalanche signs to boot.
The reason I mention my wife’s call is because, when we read a call text like Jeremiah 1:4-10, or Isaiah 6:1-13, or Ezekiel 1:1-3:27, or the call of Moses in Exodus 3:1-4:17, or of Gideon in Judges 6:11-24, we can feel like our own call is a disappointment, or maybe not even there, because it’s not some grand sound and light show with burning bushes, wheels-within-wheels, visions of God enthroned, and a wet fleece when the ground is dry. Christian calling is not reserved for those whom God asks to do mighty things. Call is the invitation to every Christian to witness to the gospel in whatever ways God opens to us.
Sometimes… Okay, oftentimes, call is something we resist. Either we feel inadequate, or unprepared, or we lack experience. We have really great reasons for resisting our call. Jeremiah was too young. Moses couldn’t speak well. Gideon doubted, and didn’t have the right pedigree to be a leader. We have reasonable objections to excuse us from pursuing whatever call God places upon us. Isaiah, with his volunteerism, is an exception.
Mary also stands out as an exception. She was called to be an unwed mother and said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said” (Luke 1:38 CEB). I think Mary also shows us that our call from God can be something as simple as being a parent—though every parent knows that there’s nothing simple about being a parent.
To have misgivings about our call is nothing new. Jeremiah’s reaction to his call, and his lifetime of work as a prophet, show us that fear, anxiety, resistance, inadequacy, and even resentment are understandable reactions to the demands of a call that God places on us. But, what we also learn from Jeremiah and others is that those feelings and reactions don’t disqualify us from God’s service. It’s not our suitability, nor our list of achievements, nor our level of confidence that caused God to call us.
“Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5 CEB). It sounds similar to a Psalm we might have read before, “You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb. I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful—I know that very well. My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my embryo, and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me, before any one of them had yet happened” (Psalm 139:13-16 CEB).
God knows each of us more intimately than we know ourselves. God is the one who calls, not because we’re perfect or perfectly ready to take on a task, but because God knows us. God empowers us to fulfill the call we’re given.
How do we recognize what our call is? I think I’d start by asking a question. And it’s not, what are you good at? It’s not what are your skills? Rather, what moves your heart? What do you see in your family, your church, your community, or your world that tugs on your heart? Even if you don’t have any idea how to begin addressing it, even if you’re certain that you’re inadequate to the task, what are those things?
It might take time to discern exactly how to live out the call or calls that God places on each of us, but that’s okay. We might even be as terrified of our call as I was of my call to ministry, and sometimes we have good reason to be afraid. Yet, it’s God who prepares us to live out whatever vocation or call we’re given. What’s more, every person who is called by God—and I’d argue that every person is called by God—is offered the most often-uttered command in the Bible: “Don’t be afraid” (Jeremiah 1:8 CEB).
God is with us. When we follow our call, God is with us. When we’re struggling to find or hear our call, God is with us. When we’re following our call and having difficulty, God is with us. When we do our level best to ignore the call and pretend that God isn’t pounding on the door of our lives to claim us and all that we are, God is with us. We don’t have to be afraid to answer and accept God’s call, because God loves us, and God is with us always, even to the end of the age (c.f. Matthew 28:20).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay