Don Follis | Call of God centers on our love of God and neighbor

Don Follis | Call of God centers on our love of God and neighbor

The May 8 edition of "Christian Century" magazine features a dozen short essays by people, mostly clergy, responding to a one-word writing prompt given to readers by the editors: "Call." The articles largely reflect on the call from God to enter the ministry. A few identify a specific call, "almost a wooing," wrote one pastor. But more wrote about seeing their call unfold over the years. They describe circumstantial calls with different scopes, time periods and chapters. One pastor in her 80s wrote of longing for chapters of her call to yet unfold.

I look back on a 40-year ministry career with few specifics about a crystal-clear call. Having now spent a decade counseling and mentoring 200 pastors, increasingly I've come to think, "If you ever truly know deep down in your knower that God is calling you to something specific, you better hold on to that. You won't get that very often. God seems more interested in your faithfulness than in the clarity of your call."

My first foray into thinking about a call to enter the ministry came when I was 15. I liked the pastor of my church and the way he cared for people. One day he asked me to join him as he visited people in the hospital, and then worked on his sermon for the coming Sunday. While he wrote his sermon, I sat in a chair and tried to read a book of theology.

When summer rolled around, the pastor invited me to join him and several teens from our church to attend a weeklong church camp. One afternoon during camp my pastor pulled me aside to tell me that during the evening vesper service there was going to be an invitation given to any who felt called to be a pastor. "I want you to give it some thought," he said. "You'd be a good pastor someday."

In fact, that night I joined several others teenagers at the front of the chapel, each of us saying we could imagine one day being pastors or missionaries. Walking back to the bunk house my pastor put his arm around me and told me his own father was not a church attender. "But the day I told him I wanted to be a pastor he put his arm around me the way I am putting my arm around you and he said, 'Well son, I think you'll be a helluva preacher.'"

Apparently wanting to etch that last line into my brain, he ended our conversation by asking me to preach the following Sunday evening at my church. Not until I returned home did it even occur to me that I'd almost never spoken in front of people, I'd never really read the Bible and I had no idea how to prepare a sermon. Right then, I didn't need a call from God. I needed a miracle.

God brought my mom to the rescue. Sitting frozen to a chair at our kitchen table, I was a deer in headlights. I told her I wanted to preach on love from I Corinthians 13. She did all the work, stringing together some Bible verses and thoughts, before finally blurting out, "I have no idea what I am doing." I snapped back, "Do you think I do, mom?" We took a big breath and somehow cobbled out a message.

When I rose to speak that Sunday evening, I read Psalm 23 (mom's idea), some verses from I Corinthians 13 (mom's idea) and a few verses from the end of Revelation (mom's idea). Mom even found a quip from Winston Churchill she had stuffed in the back her Bible. We stuck it between the verses in I Corinthians 13 and the verses from the book of Revelation.

The only saving grace for the 20 congregants who gathered to hear the young boy preach his inaugural sermon was that, mercifully, I stammered along for only five minutes. I weaved together Psalm 23 (often read at funerals), I Corinthians 13 (often read at weddings), and an all-purpose quotation from Winston Churchill.

God does call people, but the older I get when and where their ministries begin and end is not nearly so clear to me. This past week the call of God was remembered in the lives Jean Vanier and Rachel Held Evans. Both received obituaries in The New York Times. Vanier died at age 90 after decades of knowing he was called to serve the disabled and the marginalized through Catholic L'Arche communities that he began in 1964. Held Evans died at just 37, leaving behind her husband, her two children, ages 3 and 1, and 169,000 in her Twitter congregation. The best-selling author knew her call was to challenge conservative Christianity, and she gave voice to thousands of doubting, wandering evangelicals wrestling with their faith.

What matters more and more to me is knowing that every day I am called to hear the words of Jesus: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27).

Don Follis counsels pastors, directs retreats and consults with a wide array of churches, helping them clarify issues related to conflict. Contact him at donscolumn@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):People, Religion
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