When I first applied to seminary, I always envisioned that I would end up in a church. And while I still believe that to be a possibility, whether it be fourteen months from now, or fourteen years from now, God’s immediate call to hospital chaplaincy was a riot and certainly a surprise initially. But when I also applied to seminary four years ago, I also had no idea the number of hoops, hurdles and trenches I would have to leap over, through and endure in order to seek and discern God’s call to ministry. You see, to serve the church isn’t as easy as declaring a sense of call and then going out to serve it, as it was in the days of Paul and the disciples of Christ. If it were, the world would be filled with prophets, apostles and pastors, all preaching the Gospel and claiming to have the right answers and the direct path to Christ.
The ordination process has been daunting – ten exams, two tries at the PC(USA) Bible content exam (and two failures), the writing of a credo, and now, I have reached what will soon mark the end of the ordination process. On the 18th of August, I will get to meet with a committee of ministers and elders from my classis to discuss my credo and Hebrew exam, and should I pass, my ordination exam will be complete. Four years total, with one year off for health reasons, and it will all come to a beautiful but rather anticlimactic conclusion should I pass these two exams.
In these moments of waiting for August 18th to arrive, I have been meditating on the various call stories in scripture: that of Samuel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Paul, and even the faithfulness of Job in the face of trial and tribulation. In each story, the called individual was so totally unfit, and yet God persisted, perhaps even to the point of overriding human will and desire. In the case of Jeremiah, God insisted to the reluctant and even pessimistic Jeremiah that he was destined and created for the purpose of prophethood before his birth, and because of this there was no way he could get out of it.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations….Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 1:5, 8. NRSV)
Jeremiah’s hesitancy and reluctance is valid; here comes God to announce that not only is he to be a prophet to the nations, but that he was destined for this purpose and only this purpose…before his birth. But don’t worry, Jeremiah, God will be with you. See, that’s the thing with these biblical call stories. God never abandons, nor does He forsake his chosen (and seemingly completely unlikely) characters. The call to ministry comes with lots of responsibility, but with it also comes a companion in the divine creator, who not only calls but equips and guides. Take the call story of Abraham:
“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3, NRSV)
Abraham was commanded to leave the comfort of his home in his old age – something I have been constantly reminded is quite a compromise, and not something to be taken lightly at all, but rather is a leap of faith and the sign of great trust in God’s providence – because God had greater plans, both for Abraham, and for this other place Abraham was being sent. Abraham’s call involved both a geographic move, and a detachment from family and friends. And yet, God said, if you do A and B, I will not forsake you, and make a great nation of you, and bless you and keep you.
Here’s the thing about picking up the phone when God calls to ministry; the timing isn’t ever going to be perfect, and the way it happens – the road to the pulpit, hospital, prison, etc. is never going to be paved with gold. Being called to ministry meant facing the fact that God calls the most unlikely of characters, like me, but with that comes also the understanding that God not only follows alongside and equips these characters as well. Think about it; a twenty-five year old, naive WASPy young woman with very little worldly experience prior to undergrad picking up the God-phone. A very unlikely candidate for service to the church and yet, here she is, finished with seminary, and God-willing, all-the-wiser as a result of being road-worn, world-torn. And yet, God continues to walk alongside because when God calls, God endures.
In each of the call stories of the Bible, God doesn’t simply pick up the phone, call, and then put down the receiver, only to walk away without a care in the world. God isn’t the type of divine Creator who creates and then distances Himself from that which He creates. Instead, He actively involves Himself in creation, including those which He calls to minister to creation – the pastors, prophets, apostles, elders and deacons, and lovingly equips them each and every step along the way. The funny thing is, God calls the funny, unlikely and completely ridiculous people to these positions – why? Perhaps out of relatability, perhaps because we are all unlikely, ridiculous and funny in different ways, and we are all different in our own ways, and that is exactly the way God desires creation to be.
So as my ordination process slowly nears its end, and whether it ends in an ordination service this fall (I’ll be looking for people to do prayers, read scripture, etc.), or it involves more time in discernment, God continues to amaze and inspire in calling the most unlikely and incredibly different of characters to this odd and wondrous calling. Not because He doesn’t want to call the regular and blah, but perhaps because the everyday, average people are the ones who can bring God into the darkest, most regular and average corners of the world.
In calling the normal and regular, unlikely and unfitting, like me, and perhaps even like you, God is realizing our potentials, the potentials that we haven’t seen at times, and might even not see in the here and now, and is calling our bluff. God is calling us into what we were created to do, just as He did with Jeremiah. So struggle as we might to envision the potentials and realities of our calls, they are there, and they are God-given, unlikely as they might seem. Jeremiah’s seemed unlikely, Abraham (as Abram)’s seemed ridiculous, and Job should have given up in great times of strife and trial, yet all three incredible men continued to have faith in God’s calling on their lives. Calling, however blind and leap-inducing it might be at times, involves an act of faith on our part, and that means leaping into the unknown, and understanding that the feelings of insufficiency, not fitting, unlikeliness, and at times, the absolute ridiculousness of the call to ministry means the perfection of it all.
Ministry means leaning into the unknown of God’s desire – God knows how it will all work out, and we are not meant to; I am not meant to know whether chaplaincy is it for the entirety of my ministry, or whether it will involve church ministry as well. I am not meant to know where I will land geographically, whether I will be ordained in October or November, or how my ordination exams will go in a month. But what I do know without a shadow of a doubt is that God is with me, and has equipped me for just this purpose from the time I was formed in my mother’s womb, and every hurdle, bump, bruise, ick, yuck and joy equipped me for such a time as this.
A time of uncertainty and yet so much certainty. A time to trust and wait, to be still and know that He is without a doubt the God who has led me this far and will not go anywhere.
No one ever said the call to ministry would be easy, and it hasn’t been. But it has been a lot like the calls from the Bible – filled with trials and tribulations, joy and tears, laughter and a whole lot of questions. But never once have I questioned that God would lead me through to where I am supposed to be. Because God never makes a mistake in calling the funniest of characters – the most comedic, the most intelligent, the brightest and those willing to act when they see something is wrong – to ministry. God does not call the militant, the reactionary, the mean-spirited and the immature. For those, the call process will be long and filled with walls too high to climb and too long to go around.
But for now, I shall wait…wait a few more weeks until I meet to discuss the 90 page paper that was described as verbose but theologically sound by a man I greatly respect. A paper that stands to determine whether I will be ordained in the RCA. Two final exams.
Thanks be to God, this process is almost over. And yet, its ending marks the beginning of yet another, equally daunting journey – the wondrous journey of the ministry in service to God and God’s people. I wonder which is harder.