There is an old joke—so old, in fact, that it may be unknown to a newer generation and, therefore, recyclable.
A young farmer, standing in his field, observes a peculiar cloud formation. The clouds form the letters G, P, and C, and he thinks them a call from God: Go preach Christ!
The farmer rushes to the deacons of his church and insists that he has been called to preach. Respectful of his ardor, they invite him to fill the pulpit.
That Sunday, the sermon is long, tedious, virtually incoherent. When it finally ends, the leaders sit in stunned silence. Finally, a wizened deacon mutters to the would-be preacher, "Seems to me the clouds were saying 'Go plant corn.'"
If it really happened that way, it wouldn't be the first time there's been confusion about what it means to be called into ministry.
The concept of a call is one of the most profound of all biblical ideas. The Bible is riddled with stories about calls to men and women who, when summoned to service, went out and marked their generation in a particular way. Such calls had several commonalities.
First, in one way or another, they all originated out of the Godhead. God the Father called Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Amos (to name a few). Jesus called twelve men "to be with him," and then sent them out to disciple the nations. The Holy Spirit called Saul and Barnabas and others to apostolic opportunity. No one in the Bible anointed himself or herself.
Second, biblical calls were quite unpredictable. Gideon, for example, responded to his call, "How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." Why David? Why Jeremiah? Why Simon Peter? And, of all people, why Saul of Tarsus who recollects, "I was a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man?"
When St. Francis was asked why God called him, he said, "God picks the weakest, the smallest, the meanest of men on the face of the earth, and he uses them."
Third, biblical calls usually focus on mind-boggling, seemingly impossible objectives. Build a boat, Noah; lead a nation out of Egypt, Moses; face down a wicked king, Elijah; preach to the Gentiles, Paul. But the call was so compelling that it gave courage to the one called.
Finally, each biblical call was unique. No call seems like any other. The circumstances, the nature, the expectations of the call: all customized. When God wanted a word said or a people led, he mandated a person to make it happen in an unprecedented way.
Calls were not classified ads so that anyone could volunteer. Persons, sometimes strange persons, were selected while others, seemingly more worthy and capable, were not. There was only one Esther, one John the Baptizer. There was only one Moses in spite of what Miriam and Aaron dared to think the day they asked, "Hasn't he also spoken through us?"
These not-so-novel observations are worth repeating. For they form a foundation for authoritative ministry in the twenty-first century.
If we have lost our faith in the idea that such calls continue today, then perhaps we have lost touch with the supernatural element that ministry desperately needs. The key questions are simple: Does God still call men and women as He once did? And do we know how to recognize and implement a call if it should come?
How God called me
I have lived my life under the discipline of a call. Looking back, the call seems to have emerged in a family conspiracy in which my mother and grandmother prayed fervently that God would raise up a preacher in their family. That apparently was me. How (or why) God merged his choice with the prayers of two women is a mystery to me. But their prayer is part of the story.