A couple of months ago, at a friend’s ordination, the pastor giving the charge spoke of a “calling” as an invitation.
I’ve been mulling over that ever since.
It’s a very different view of calling than what I’ve had. As a kid growing up in the church, we were encouraged to “go forward” during the alter call if we felt “called” to be a preacher (boys only), Christian school teacher, missionary, or missionary teacher. Or we could just feel called to “ministry” more generally. I even knew a few girls who claimed a call to be a pastor’s wife (a second-degree “call” that never made a lot of sense to me).
Those calls were something meant to be obeyed. I remember stories about men called to preach when they were young who followed a different path in the business world, only to come to their latter years convinced they’d done the wrong thing and wasted their lives.
A call was a trump card – not to be argued with. The marching orders of the God who designed you for his purposes.
But what was that supposed to look like? Sound like? A voice calling in the night? A strong desire or interest? Some kind of inner sense or drawing?
I wasn’t sure. I knew my daddy had felt called to the mission field, had surrendered himself to go anywhere, and when he found himself confined to the Lazyboy in our living room by ALS, Lou Gerhig’s Disease, he concluded that chair was his “anywhere” and shared Jesus with every person who came through the door until he died.
I knew there was a sign above the inside of our church door (and the same one hung over the inside of our front door at home): “You are now entering the mission field.”
I knew things didn’t always turn out the way you thought they would, and I didn’t know how a “call” fit into that.
I was probably 9 or 10 when I walked that aisle. I dedicated my life to be a missionary, or it may have been a missionary teacher. I didn’t hear a voice. Did I have a strong desire? I had been surrounded by missionaries my whole life. They were heroes. And I found other places and cultures fascinating.
And these were the options I knew.
I also loved Jesus and wanted others to know him. I still do. I don’t know if that constituted a call then or now, but I know it’s led me on a journey I never could have anticipated.
Loving Jesus led me to try to listen to and love others, and the world came to look like a very different place than it did when I was that girl walking that aisle.
I always thought a call was something so clear that any other choice could only be disobedience – rebellion. And I never felt that kind of call.
Instead, I had invitation after invitation. Invitations to explore the world, to study, to ask hard questions (of both God and myself), to love.
The invitations never felt like ultimatums. I had a choice, and God would be with me either way, would bless me and use me either way. But one of those options would be a path of lesser faith.
The safer path versus the scarier, riskier path – the one I didn’t know where might lead.
Slowly I learned to follow Jesus in those riskier paths. Have I gotten it wrong sometimes? I’m sure I have. I know I’ve failed the challenge at times. I’m still learning to trust.
Those invitations have led me to places I never thought I’d go, and brought me to choices so clear I’d nearly name them a “call.”
The old call was something to brace for more than to rejoice in.
The invitation of Jesus to step out in faith? Sometimes that means bracing, too – bracing for the disapproval of those who love me but don’t understand. The invitations I’ve heard have sounded a bit crazy at the time.
I’ve come to see them as the invitation of the one who said we’d be taught far more than he had time to teach us (or we were ready to hear). The invitation of the one who said we’d do far greater things than even he had done.
That’s a preposterous invitation. It calls out, promising far beyond what we can imagine. Like music barely heard, a beautiful song in harmonies strange to our ears, coaxing us further up and further in, where there’s always more.
It’s less an invitation down the aisle to the front than back out the door and into the world, where there are untold altars and opportunities to join in God’s joyful work in the world.
Inviting us to come dance with the one who is the endlessly knowable mystery of life and love.