THE CALL IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
How do we know when God is calling us to do something? Samuel’s story speaks to us across the ages
The epithet ‘professional’ is one of a select number of over-employed words in the lexicon. All people aspire to it because it denotes a job thoroughly and efficiently performed. As if in conjunction with this, there has been a decline in the use of vocational language: the idea that one might have a specific sense of calling to a task which eschews the calculation of material reward. All professional roles should ideally demonstrate this sense (the word itself implies a witness to some higher truth: professio). By the same token, all vocational posts should aspire to standards of patience and thoroughness which have become the benchmark of the modern professional. If fewer people speak of a calling in their work, it may be because someone has to be doing the calling, and we are uncomfortable with this kind of language in functionally secular Britain.
This generates the risk that the modern Christian does not confidently and unashamedly own a sense of calling in their work unless it is in full-time stipendiary service for God. Sharp and summary distinctions of this kind are unfaithful to the one who calls. Every Christian should have a sense of vocation in their life. Any work, paid or unpaid, which contributes to the flourishing of human life is fulfilling the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves. Discipleship stumbles when there is no sense of this in daily work; when the Christian life becomes something we live when our work is finished for the day and we can volunteer for the local church.
How, then, do we determine God’s expansive claim on our life?
Few people experience Saul’s kind of calling on the road to Damascus. This was the ancient world’s version of extraordinary rendition, where the person is snatched off the street, hooded and bundled into the back of a car which speeds off to an unknown destination. More people may find Samuel’s calling in the first book of Samuel, chapter three, to be nearer the mark.
Samuel was devoted to the Lord in the Temple at Shiloh by his mother Hannah at an unpromising moment in Israelite history. The priest Eli and his two wayward sons had abused their status: the sons in their wanton abuse of the office of priest and Eli in his half-hearted attempts to discipline them. The historian notes: ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread’. It is against this barren landscape that Samuel is called personally by God and from which we can take so much.
God calls all people; there are no stereotypes. Samuel was only a boy, naïve and innocent in a corrupted culture. We form images in our minds of the kinds of people God calls, but his choices defy our expectations. At times they specifically challenge society’s perception of the Christian: a beautiful actress, a brave soldier, a charismatic businesswoman, a talented sportman. At other times, like Samuel, they defy our notion of power: what use is a boy before he becomes a man?
God also called Samuel in the night, demonstrating a tendency to speak to people when they are least expecting it; when they are tired and dead to the world. Yet this is the moment when the clutter of our lives is re-assembled by our somnolent minds, allowing more memory room for new experiences. It isn’t necessarily when we create space to pray that God will speak to us; if this were so, he could only relate to us when we make time for him.
Samuel was unused to hearing the word of the Lord and mistook this voice for Eli’s. Three times he makes this categorical error and each time God demonstrates persistence and patient understanding. Samuel would grow to become one of Israel’s finest prophets and judges, a man who became finely attuned to the nuances of Yahweh. There was no disappointment by God in Samuel’s cluelessness here, merely a repetition of the calling as an early reinforcement of a voice he would come to listen to and love. We may fairly expect the same treatment.
Mature Christians can be as slow as novices when God speaks, for we allow the thorns to grow up around us, as the parable of the sower warns, where anxiety and the things we own dominate our waking hours. Yet God will not give up. Most of us have experienced an occasion when we think we hear a dictionary word for the first time and then proceed to hear it again and again within a short period of time, marvelling at the coincidence. More likely we have ignored the use of that word until we understood it and are now open to its use. The same is true of the calling of God. We may be unaware of the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit, repeating words, until the penny drops and we wonder how we didn’t hear him in the first place. As you read this and I write it, there is every chance of a whisper from the shadows which we are oblivious to.
Samuel showed his willingness to hear God, following Eli’s advice to tell God he is listening. When in doubt, we also should vocally express our openness to the word of God. There are many unconscious inhibitions which the Holy Spirit may have to persuade us over before we are honestly ready for God. Only by teasing these out are the edges in our lives smoothed off like a carpenter working at a lathe.
The song ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’ celebrates the calling of Samuel and encourages us to believe the same God will call us by name too. This is the most romantic side to personal calling: God knows and affirms us in the name we have been given. No other boss could grasp the names of those who work for him like God does; no-one is less cherished than another. And yet the first message to this child Samuel is often forgotten, being God’s judgment on the house of Eli. It was a daunting task for one so young and so dependent on the recipient of this terrible word. Sometimes we face an early challenge in our own calling which asks of us the integrity and honesty which must shape all we do in years to come. To pass this test early is to relieve the pressure that might later come to bear if we suppress the meaning of this calling for too long.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine (Isaiah 43:1)
The one who calls is always faithful to his word.
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