Thursday, December 13, 2012

On the Sobering "call" to Service

It seems, at times, that though some words are overused they show no sign of going back to reasonable usage levels. Words like "awesome" and "radical" fall under that category. In addition, the word "calling" gets thrown about far too much, particularly as it relates to Christian ministry. So intangible are the impromptu definitions given when asked what is meant by it, I'm convinced no one really knows what they mean when they say it. This, however, doesn't stop some from confidently asserting, "I was 23 years old, and living just for myself, when God 'called" me into the ministry."

What does that mean? What was it like when you got "called" by God? Did you hear anything? What form did the theophany take? How did you distinguish God's "call" from your own ambitions? How did you know it was God that "called" and not just a whim of fancy? How can we tell the difference?

What did it produce in you? ...Resolve? Piety? Fear?

What is the nature of "calling?" Is it static and fixed, remaining on someone forever? Or is it more dynamic and fluid, coming and going as the Spirit sees fit during realtime Kingdom operations?

I've often wondered if our debates over whether pastors that sleep with their secretaries can return to ministry after being deposed has been muddied by the assumption that their "calling" is irrevocable. Sure Moses can be denied entry to the Promised Land for losing his temper and striking a rock, but the embezzling clergy MUST be allowed back in the saddle because "the 'call of God' is on his life." I've always found that problematic. "Calling" should not be a credential touted to gain privilege or even be tossed around to open career doors. On the contrary, "calling" should be a sobering concept. It should carry the flavor of being summoned for perilous service, for being drafted into a battle that some might have otherwise avoided if left to themselves.

My fire chief in Fate, Texas used to communicate to the firefighters the true weightiness of "calling" by reminding them: "The nature of the fire service is that you enter the station each day not knowing whether you'll ever see home again, for the nature of that next 'call' could potentially hold mortal dangers into which you will gladly wade in service to your community." In other words, "calling" is cause for sober reflection on the epic perils possibly awaiting the one that answers the "call." Yes, firefighters experience the high of an adrenalin rush when the tone goes off and they must ride out on the apparatus to the scene; but that "high" is also the spike in awareness so that the very real potential dangers can be addressed as well. The "call" of the alarm tone is cause for excitement, but also cause for a healthy fear of the unknown - a fear that makes one careful and vigilant.

For this reason, I believe we do better, as clergy, to view "calling" in this manner. The "call" of God takes on some tangible form through the authority structures of the Church, but when it comes we soberly and fearfully consider what perils we have volunteered to face. In addition, the "calling" is not a cause of pride, advancement or privilege. Instead it is a reason to be vigilant and alert, knowing that to serve Christ and his Church is no comfortable matter. History demonstrates examples of men who, knowing this to be the case, had to be drug to ordination in chains. This is understandable considering what we should think regarding God's "calling."

It is not something we should seek with unbridled enthusiasm regarding our career advancement. The "call" to service is instead a heavy weight to bear on one's soul. Even a little reluctance would be understandable. Nevertheless, for those that find fulfillment in service, being "called" to serve God's mission is an adrenalin rush all its own, albeit at the same time a reason to sit back and contemplate the dire responsibility they've been loaded down with which can be taken back or redirected should the Holy Spirit see fit to do so. However we speak about God's "call" on us into ministry, it needs to be laced with some sober contemplation and hushed tones knowing that this "call" could hold potential mortal dangers we'd otherwise have passed up given the choice.