What does it mean to be called by God? If calling exists, is it fixed or fluid? Is there something specific we're supposed to be doing that we might be missing? Does God always or sometimes or ever have a set plan for our individual journeys?
In my youth the idea of calling was a terrifying mystery; there were so many conflicting voices on what it was and how one discovered it and what one was to do if they didn’t have a clue. One wrong step, especially early on, might set a person up for an empty and unfulfilled life. And I became convinced I was misstepping all over the place because I landed at the beginning of my third decade feeling lost and left out and useless.
One day right there in the middle of my uselessness, I sat with my friend Rebekah by the carefully landscaped pond on the property where we worked. It started in a series of waterfalls that flowed over rocks down an embankment into a small pool. The pool opened into the larger bulk of the pond, their union crossed by a bridge of large, flat flagstone. At the far opposite side of the pond it narrowed into a path of rocks that channeled the rushing water into another smaller pond. There the water was sucked down through pipes into the ground, back under the small pond, under the channel, under the large pond, under the pool and up the embankment to be spilled out and down the waterfall all over again.
Rebekah looked at me solemnly. “What is your purpose in life?” she asked. It was delivered neither as an accusation nor a chide, but as a gently desperate query from one whose heart was also wandering, itchy, looking for something.
I turned my face to the water again and was silent, puzzled by the strange calm that nudged me to wait before speaking. Eyes on the quiet flow, my mouth finally opened.
“This is what I know,” I said, as I wondered who this person was who was speaking. “I am called to love God and to show His love to others. Beyond that… gosh, what is there beyond that?”
My friend turned to me and almost inaudibly breathed, “Yeah, I believe that too.”
I don't remember what more was said, but I do know this: our voices were hushed and holy.
What happened there in the sun, in the cool breeze that lifted off the face of the water? What happened in that moment that had not happened in fierce prayer, in the laying on of hands, in repeated desperate attempts to storm God’s castle, to find his secret map? I had as strong a sense of the presence of God there in those few moments as I have ever had in my life.
My experience is ever fighting with my expectations. It’s hard to shake off the shackles of tradition, of things learned long ago, of the voices shouting about the Will of God. “If you are not clearly called to something else, then you are called to be a missionary. Period.” This was the litany my adolescent heart heard from her Christian heroes, the Matthew 28:18-20 principle. Funny that I can remember the exact reference to that scripture when almost every other reference escapes me.
Funny also that while my heroes were at core dead right, what I heard was dead wrong. I assumed a literal interpretation, as young hearts often do, and signed up to be a foreign missionary. I spent five months in agony, wanting to love what I'd been told was my calling, but terrified and hating every moment, every requirement. I left feeling like the rebel Jonah and I waited for calamity, for the lot to be cast and for the seeing eyes of others to pierce me. “You ran from your call.”
I could give in to the desire to shame those who misled my young self. I could rise up with indignation for her sake and expound on the turmoil they preordained to enter and engulf a good portion of her adulthood. I could do these things, but the tricky part is, she is me and I am fairly certain she would still have misunderstood even if the truth had been spelled out plainly for her.
And the me who sat by the pond that day did, after all, find her way to the truth: that calling is like the water, falling out over the rocks. That it lands in a small pool, deeply stirred. That it opens into a wide expanse of unknowing. That it is channelled into a tiny raging river that pours into a smaller calm. That it is sucked down and drawn through darkness to… the same waterfall? I don’t know. Maybe the same waterfall, maybe some different ocean altogether. This I do know: that I can trust the flow.
I can trust that the One who pours out living water into and over and through our lives knows exactly where every molecule is going before it ever begins to move.
And I can trust that even when I feel swept underground and channeled through places of suffering—places I can't see and probably don't want to see, places unromantic and even suffocating—these are the places where life becomes more real and purposeful and vision becomes more focused.
So, yes, sometimes calling meanders in the way I have often experienced, one thing leading to another, one vision expanding into a deeper vision, at times rushing with passion and urgency and at other times sliding sideways with a sure calm. Other times it moves more directly, with pointed purpose, shot like an arrow toward a target. And sometimes it gets lost for a season in the dark places of unknowing. But all the ways it unfolds are equally compelling.
They show me that we aren’t all that different from the Old Testament prophets. Ezekiel receives a personal visit from the Eternal One and is knocked flat by the call, so much so that he has no qualms about living out God’s bizarre object lessons. Daniel finds himself as a prisoner of war and lives his life in exile with integrity. Amos looks up from his sheep, hears a Voice and speaks what he hears. Some see a vision, some hear a word, some have a wildly important message to deliver. Some are called to speak against the injustice of the enemy, some are called to woo that same enemy to repentance. God does all things in every way possible so everyone might hear this: He wants to love us, wants us to love him, and wants everything about us to bear the imprint of Love.
Maybe I don’t have as many pressing questions as I used to. Maybe the calm wisdom of the girl beside the pond was a reflection of something that was coming. Sometimes it still feels yet to come. I still want note cards dropped from heaven with step-by-step instructions. Go forward eight paces to the dead elm tree, turn towards the sun and start digging.
The crazy thing is we are both and calling is both. We are calm and rush, still and surge, wise and bewildered.