‘Calling’ is a major theme in much Christian spirituality. Being called to faith, called to serve in a particular way and so on. It’s something that was big in our circuit this afternoon with the ‘ordinand’s testimony service’ for one of my colleagues, a probationer minister who is about to be ordained this summer at the Methodist Conference. We listened to Chrissie telling us the story of her ‘call’. And throughout the process, she will have been asked – as I was – whether she still felt as called to the ministry.
But a recent article in Ministry Today, The Concept of Calling in Christian Discipleship, challenges this popular understanding. David Kerrigan points out that the examples of being called in Scripture are much less common than the more regular pattern of looking for character and qualifications. He argues that the idea God has a meticulous, detailed plan for all of our lives is defective. Although there are exceptions where God does have particular plans for certain individuals, it does not apply to most of us. He argues this on pastoral, intellectual and biblical grounds.
Pastorally, when someone misses what they believe to be the detailed will of God, it can be catastrophic – as it is also when others do not agree with them. Intellectually, he sees providence as more about the overarching big picture than the fine detail. Biblically, there is much on general discipleship to set alongside those examples of specific calling.
Read his article and see what you think.
That’s the theme that has popped up a couple of times today. In both cases, it’s been a resource that challenges popular evangelical practice.
Firstly, I met my weekly Bible Study group. We discussed what they might do as a Lent course when I start my sabbatical next month. With the support of the church treasurer, I had recently bought a few DVD courses, so that groups might feel more confident to run some studies without ‘expert’ input.
One DVD I invited them to look at this morning was ‘Stop Looking For The Will Of God‘ by the redoubtable Jeff Lucas. His theme is that rather than worrying about discovering the will of God, we should concentrate first on seeking God for himself.
When I came home, I found an email from The Transforming Center. It containd one of Ruth Haley Barton‘s regular devotional articles for church leaders. Entitled ‘Discernment: Finding God In All Things‘, she encourages a more Ignatian approach of discerning the presence of God with us in the contrasting themes of ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’. That is, what gives us life and what drains us of life? We are more likely to find God’s pleasure for our lives in those activities which energise us rather than those which suck the life out of us.
It’s an attractive theory, but would need testing at greater depth than a seven-page article can offer. It would be interesting to know where Barton sees the place of doing something uncongenial, because we are servants, for example. I am sure she has a place for that in her spirituality, it just isn’t obvious to me in the article. (Unless I wasn’t being very attentive, perhaps.) Certainly that is in my mind, having taken a Methodist Covenant Service on Sunday, which delicately balances the fact that we may like what God calls us to do, or we may find it unattractive. The Covenant Service neatly avoids the two contrasting traps of God’s will either being something we love or something we hate.
Both Lucas and Barton are subtly different from evangelical convention, which speaks of finding God’s will supremely through Scripture, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trusted Christian friends, circumstances and the resources of reason, tradition and experience. They don’t eschew these filters of understanding God’s will, but they place the emphasis elsewhere. While certain biblical characters are castigated for not ‘enquiring of the Lord’, Lucas and Barton avoid the kind of paralysis some find themselves in where they won’t get out of bed without divine guidance. They put an emphasis back on the relationship with God, in place of a more mechanical approach.
So I wondered: what is important to you in finding and following the will of God?