Our first reading this evening, from the Book of Samuel, addresses one of the most interesting questions in the whole of the life of faith – namely, how can you tell what is, or is not, the call of God.
And it is one of the things I have had to think about a great deal. Because one of the most fascinating and also it has to be said, most challenging areas of ministry in which I have been involved for much of my ordained life has been in vocations work: in other words, evaluating and selecting candidates who feel that they may be called to the ordained ministry.
It is fascinating, because it is always extraordinary and often profoundly moving, to hear individuals speak about their own experience of life, and their experience of faith, and the process by which they have come to feel that they may be called to priesthood. It is challenging, because of course, from the human end of things, how on earth can any of us set about trying to determine whether or not God really is calling this particular human being to that particular ministry. It is an exercise that is by definition fraught with peril – because how can any person or institution prove or disprove what is in the mind of God?
But, of course, we do have to have some kind of evaluation process. We need it partly for the protection of the individuals who feel called (I should say at this point that I absolutely love my life as an Anglican priest, and would never have chosen to do anything else – but believe me, the ordained life is so peculiar, and so demanding and so taxing on so many levels, and so unlike anything else, and I thas such ludicrous terms and conditions attached to it, that anyone who doesn’t have a vocation for it is unlikely to survive it.)
But we also need a proper discernment process for the protection of everyone else: because as an ordained priest you are in a position of absolute trust; you handle the sacred flame of people’s lives; you have to have the pastoral, and emotional, and personal and spiritual resources to be able to deal with the most difficult of situations: with tragic death in appalling circumstances; with people’s fears and anxieties, and anger and hurt – and if you lack the skills you need to do that, you can cause a great deal of damage, albeit unwittingly. Which is why I am told that it is still a criminal offence to impersonate an Anglican clergyperson.
So, in relation to vocations, we have to have a very careful system in place, in which we do our best to listen, carefully and attentively, setting aside all prejudice – because God really does call the most surprising of people sometimes, who turn out to have the most amazing ministries – but we also need a system that is rigorous; in which we can explore with each candidate the resilience of his or her faith; their pastoral and emotional intelligence; their capacity to reflect on experience, and think things through; their ability to work with others, and much else besides. And for all its inevitable shortcomings, I have generally felt that the system we have, at least most of the time, and when operated properly, is about the best system (or certainly the least worst) that we can come up with.
Interestingly enough, one recurrent motif I have often glimpsed in some of the strongest candidates who have been sent to me in the past, is an element of surprise somewhere along the line – in the sense that this is emphatically not where they ever for a moment imagined that they would end up – and yet they have an overwhelming sense that they need to at least test this inner conviction that they have that they must explore this issue. The sense that they might have a vocation has left them with a sense of divine restlessness.
Conversely, the people that I often worry about most are those candidates for whom it is all too clear cut: ‘I am here because God has called me;’ or ‘The Church needs people like me,’ (which even if they don’t say it explicitly, you know it is what they are thinking!).
All of which raises a broader question that is relevant to all of us, regardless of whether or not we happen to be ordained, or have a ministerial vocation. Which is how can any of us tell what is, and is not, the voice of God?
Many years ago, a woman who attended the church where I was based came to see me. Her life had been a catalogue of disasters, which, judging by the story she told, largely arose from the fact that she was convinced that God was constantly telling her to do all kinds of things, which then proved deeply problematic. The bit I remember most clearly is that on one occasion God told her to move to Spain (which turned out to be a complete nightmare). But for me, the thing that set all kinds of alarm bells ringing was that, interestingly enough, God was forever telling her to do things that she already rather fancied doing – moving to Spain being a case in point. I strongly suspect that her God would never think of calling her to go and live in a bleak council estate in the inner city. Or to sell all she had and give everything to the poor.
Because the reality is that when God really does speak, it is more often than not a voice that contradicts every one of our assumptions, and cuts across our own sense of what we should be doing, and trounces our own personal wishes. That certainly coheres with my own experience.
Many years ago, before I was ordained, I trained as a schoolteacher – and, as part of my training, I needed to find somewhere to live for the three months when I was on teaching practice. I had been packed off to an unknown town which had very little in the way of rented accommodation available (and certainly not for such a short period). I made various trips there desperately trying to find somewhere, but without avail. At the end of yet another of these fruitless visits, I was walking back to the train station, when I found myself going past a church hall, that clearly had a toddler group going on inside it. I got half way down the road, turned round in my tracks, and walked back to the church hall. I have no idea what made me do that – I was 24, unmarried, and without the slightest interest in small children, so I had no reason whatsoever to be going into a toddler group. But nevertheless, I felt compelled to go there. And as I entered the hall, I met the vicar coming out. He invited me into his office, and I explained my situation. I can remember saying that, although I needed accommodation, I was also very willing to be of help to someone, if I could – providing them with company, for example. He wrote down my details – and off I went.
A few days later, I received a phone call from that vicar, giving me a phone number to ring. He had put my request for accommodation into the parish magazine, and one of his parishioners, a young woman who was recently divorced, with two small children, had come forward.
What emerged was a brilliantly and mutually beneficial arrangement that neither she nor I could possibly have planned had we tried to do so. She had to work evenings several days a week – she taught cordon bleu cookery classes – and so as her lodger, I not only helped her financially, but I was also very happy to babysit for her when she was working. It was a perfect arrangement.
Oh, and because she had to try out all her recipes at home, I also got cordon bleu cuisine thrown in every night. That is what I mean about the unexpected – I was able to help meet somebody else’s needs in all of that. What was it that made me feel compelled to turn in my tracks, and walk into an unknown church that was hosting a toddler group? I have absolutely no idea. What I can say is that it is of a piece with many, many such experiences that I have had in the past.
All of which brings us back to the story of Samuel: the servant of Eli in the temple, who, asleep one night, hears a voice calling him – and naturally assumes it is Eli. So he goes to him, and is told to go back to sleep. He does this twice more – until Eli, recognising the ways of God, instructs him to boy to respond to the call which he now believes is of God – and the message that Samuel gets in reply is very far from being a message of comfort for Israel. Samuel neither sought that message, nor was it a message he found it easy to communicate – but that was the mark of its authenticity. It was also the start of Samuel’s ministry.
The ways of God are not our ways, because the life of faith in a turbulent world, will never be easy. But to be prepared to hear the call of God and follow it, will always open new possibilities of a richness that one could never otherwise begin to imagine.