“So how did you know you were called here?” is a question I’ve been asked more than a few times already in these early days at St. Andrew’s. I take this as a good sign, because even among Presbyterians who have a strong theology of God’s calling (on paper at least), all too often the relationship between a congregation and a minister is thought of in terms of a job search or hiring process.
Now, this can simply be a matter of honesty. Sadly there are far too many cases where the calling of a minister or pastor to a local congregation or parish differs little from the hiring or staff transfer process in a secular organization. Some churches in the name of honesty have given up on the language of “call” entirely for this reason.
That said I’m glad Presbyterians in Canada have held on to the language of call and calling, even if the process all too often falls short of such an exalted concept. And that’s because for me it’s not just a matter of abstract theology, it’s a matter of lived experience. As a preacher’s kid I watched my parents often wrestle with the question of call, especially in the difficult times of ministry (“Were we really called here?”) and in the long years where the higher principles of call did battle with the realities of keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table. And now as a minister myself I too have had to face those questions head on in the more challenging times of my first five and a half years of ministry.
So can we really know if God is calling us to be somewhere, do something or take up a particular role or vocation in the the church or world at large? The resounding answer for me is “YES!”
I won’t pretend that it’s always clear or obvious, but I can say with abolute certainty that God can and does speak to us. How can be so sure? Well I definitely would not be a Christian minister today if it weren’t for the words Jesus spoke to me in my residence room at McMaster University 15 years ago this past January.
This isn’t something that happens to me regularly, in fact to date that has been the only time in my life that God has spoken to me with such clarity. Never before or since have I heard actual words from the Lord. But I did that day.
I can tell you it was the strangest thing I had yet experienced. I was looking out my window in Woodstock Hall when all of a sudden in what I can only call words without words – I didn’t hear them as a sound in my ears, it was more like a message spoken directly into my head – I heard a voice say “John, there’s something I need you to do.”
Now that might seem rather vague, but as soon as I heard the words I also knew two things without a shadow a doubt: 1) the words were spoken by Jesus; 2) and what he wanted me to do was to become a minister. Don’t ask me how I knew, I just did. Which is why my first response was to be profoundly angry and mutter to myself something along the lines of “you gotta be …. kidding me.” Of course I immediately took that back, as I was still of the mistaken opinion that you weren’t allowed to be angry at God or talk back to him. But that was my gut response.
And that’s why I say I wouldn’t be a minister today if Christ hadn’t called me by name and told me to go and serve him as a minister in his Church. As a preacher’s kid I had seen ministry take it’s toll on my parents, known our struggles as a family to survive, and felt the kind of pain that only comes when the church hurts you. I wanted no part of that, and it was only after two and a half years of running away from God that I said yes.
I’m only here today looking out the window of the minister’s office at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Ancaster because Christ spoke to me, called me by name and told me to follow. I had no doubt then, and I have no doubts now. This is what I am called to do.
So does God call us, speak to us and personally guide us today? Absolutely. Is it usually that clear? Nope. As I said, it was only that clear once. But the longer I walk with the Lord, and the more time I spend learning to listen for his voice, and look for signs he gives us, I have found that yes, he does regularly call and guide us if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.
So how do I know I was called specifically here to be the minsiter of St. Andrew’s at this moment in time? Well, that’s something I’ll save for my next post.