We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Testing Every Call

In a posting entitled, "God Calling," Outlook editor, Jack Haberer, throws some chilly water on our Presbyterian penchant for terming things we want to do "calls" from God.  He is correct.  We do tend to use the term "calling" too much, especially when clergy are contemplating a "call" to a new church.  Haberer argues that by calling every whim and inclination a call from God, we tend to shut down critical thinking.  There is the Presbyterian church, for example, where a group of lay leaders felt "called" some years ago to engage in an aggressive revivalistic, renewal campaign in spite of the reservations of other members and the pastor.  For their trouble, the revivalists only found that they could not bully their congregation into renewal.  They blamed the church, of course, and most of the key revivalists left it for greener pastures.  In retrospect, it is hard to term their efforts a call from God.  Whether it remains a pattern today or not, I'm not sure, but when I was a young pastor it impressed me how often God called my colleagues in ministry to larger, more prestigious churches with bigger salaries and how seldom God called them to smaller, less lucrative, and more needy churches.

That being said, it remains true that the Spirit does prompt our hearts and inspire our thinking.  The thing is that we need to remain critical of our own ability to listen to these promptings and receive inspiration.  Every call must be critically evaluated by the biblical standard of Galatians 5:22-23 and similar passages, which give a clear set of measures for the fruit of the Spirit.  In what ways is this calling we feel loving, peaceful and peacemaking, and so on?  And we must acknowledge how easy it is to confuse our personal desires with the promptings of the Spirit.  Our human tendency is to play god, and we have to remind ourselves periodically that this is so.  A true call should humble us.  It's service to others should be clear.  In a true call there should always be a tinge of doubtfulness about just how real the call is.  And as a matter of practice we should never trust any person who is secure in or sure of their calling.  Such a person is likely to be fooling themselves and just as likely to make a mess of things one way or the other.

There is one other important factor, however, that puts in question everything Haberer wrote in his posting and that I've written here.  That is, the Spirit has the uncanny ability to extract good from human arrogance and foolishness.  It is possible, for example, for the Spirit to transform what was not a true call into one.  So, we should never overestimate ourselves nor underestimate the Spirit.  It is true that bad things happen to good people.  It is also true that good things happen in bad situations.  I'm not saying it is OK for church folks to go charging off doing whatever they feel like doing because the Spirit will make it all better.  I am saying that when we arrogantly go charging off doing whatever we feel like doing the Spirit can still extract some good from it somewhere—almost certainly, however, not the good we expected to happen.

In sum, certainty of our calling is not the measure of a true call from God.  The evidence of the fruit of the Spirit is that measure.  Amen.