Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.
My family believes in two concepts that are not very common in our modern American parlance. The first is calling. The concept is generally that if you pay attention and are open (and obedient), you may discover a purpose divinely intended for you. You have the choice, in those circumstances, to either embrace the call and follow where it leads, or reject it and follow where you will. (Well, unless you’re Jonah. Then you’re just stuck.) The second thing is related. Christians believe that ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, or paraclete, or spirit, or dove, or tongues of flame, or what you will call it) came to us and landed upon God’s people and changed them. And we believe the Spirit is with us today. It is the Spirit, in our theology, that sends us those calls we may or may not ignore.
In my family, we believe the Holy Spirit is perilous, and that calling is both real and usually profoundly inconvenient. As an example – my parents spent 4 years as missionaries in the Congo in Africa, where I was born. When they came back to the states, my mom went on a speaking circuit talking about the mission and the work. The little old ladies would swoon and tell her, with a three year old me on her hip, that she was so NOBLE. She’d always reply that if she was really noble she’d teach middle school. Well, my mom retired a few years ago from a 20+ year career as a middle school teacher. She’d often advise us children, “Never say what’d you’d do if you were noble!” Inside that joke is a belief – being open to hearing what God asks of you leads to you doing those things, even if you don’t want to. Don’t pray for God’s guidance unless you’re actually willing to take it, or like Jonah you might find yourself in Ninevah, pouting.
My own greatest calling was an anti-call. My junior year of college it occurred to me that I might have to do something for a living after college, and that reading medieval literature was not actually a job. (Even less a job when you don’t read Latin.) I had been given a grant for that summer, $3000, to do a cool internship or something. This was well before internships were the expected route for every college graduate. I’d spent the prior two summers waiting tables and working temporary jobs. I applied to a bunch of internships. I was really excited for NPR (form letter rejection), and also submitted to be a summer volunteer with the PCUSA, applying the hard work I’d done on my Spanish as a missionary. I got a call from the PCUSA asking me, “How’s your Portuguese?” and found myself headed to Mozambique, instead of to South America.
This felt like call. I had been very faithful in service of my small church community. My understanding of faith was only enriched by looking at 2000 years of how differently we’d approached the same God and scriptures. My gifts were so clearly useful to a church: I’m musical, I write well, I speak well, I’m pretty organized I care about people deeply. To me, this was clearly the beginning of a call which would likely end up with me pastoring a church. I prepped my besotted fiancee that this was a possibility. He was behind it all the way. And then I took the (at the time) world’s longest commercial flight from JFK to Johannesburg to start a summer of mission.
My friends, if you believe in call, you must believe in not-call. The complete absence of call, or clarity that this is NOT what God demands of you. Without the not-call, there can be no valid call. And never has anyone been so not-called as I was that summer. It didn’t destroy my faith (or even, I think, harm it that much?) but it was so the opposite of being invited and encouraged to pursue a career in the church that I never even looked at seminary. I focused on my half-hobby of writing web pages, and it’s been 20 years of technology since then.
It’s been a quiet few decades for call as I’ve gone from maiden to matron. The last 20 years, I’ve been a faithful and loving member of a small congregation, giving of what skills and time I have to serve God there. I’ve been a deacon, an elder on session (our governing board) for like 15 years. I taught Sunday School. I co-ran the youth group. I served on worship committee, christian education, hospitality, membership, stewardship, personnel and nominating committees. I’ve run the web presence, and restacked the web site twice. After our beloved pastor retired, I not only took on the Christmas Pageant, I also led the mission study taskforce as our interim pastor died of a brain tumor, and our pastor search after a long time in the wilderness.
My children were baptized in the church. I’ve vowed to other children as they were baptized. My roots there are broad and deep and filled with love.
If you’d asked me, I would have told you that my funeral would be held there.
And then I was called, by the Holy Spirit, to leave. I was, am, deeply confused. Faithfulness is part of who I am. I love my church and congregation deeply. I have sacrificed much for this group of people. I have washed dishes and windows, and watched the children grow. I have preached sermons of encouragement and vulnerability. I do not understand how or why I am called away from the people I love. Like Jonah, I fought it for a long time, not believing that I could possibly be called to do anything as stupid and drastic as breaking up with a beloved congregation. What for? Why was I not being called TO something?
Truly, I don’t know. I can’t even tell you how I know it was being called, other than it seemed to be something outside my own volition and consistent and unmistakable.
I’m not sure why. I have some theories. These last few years I poured an unsustainable amount of me into the work of the church. I knew it was a burnout rate, but I did it anyway in love. But this year, I reached the end of myself. There was no more to give, and I was incapable of resting in pews while I watched my friends overworked. There is the sense of a breaking point reached, and I reached mine. Again, it was not my faith that was destroyed. But rather, how I express my faith HAD to change or it might in fact be sacrificed on the twin altars of duty and habit.
So I made a decision. I sat with it. I talked to a few people. (There are remarkably few resources on how to break up with your church with love.) I prayed. I sat some more. I spent months thinking, praying, and wondering if this could be right. And then, after Easter, I shared my decision with session. Since then, I’ve been gradually mailing my bewildered friends notes explaining myself, as best I could. On Pentecost, I hiked a mountain – a place I’ve often found close to God – instead of wearing red and singing hymns of discipleship and the Holy Spirit and tongues of flame.
I don’t know what comes next. I think that rest is a part of it. Part of God’s promise and commandment to us – both – is that we may and must rest. I will pray, and read the Bible, and sing hymns. I will climb mountains. I will visit other congregations and worship as a stranger. (Zoom is actually great for this…) And I will listen for that still small voice, and for it to call me to something, finally.