There have been several times in my life when I felt God calling me. These moments were not the direct, undeniable encounters experienced by Moses and the Apostle Paul. There were no burning bushes or blinding lights. My heart never had the ‘strangely warmed’ feeling that John Wesley experienced on May 24, 1738. I just felt a strong urge to move in a new direction. The last time this occurred was when I felt called to attend seminary upon retirement. It was totally illogical as I had never thought about attending seminary until 2011. My energy was funneled into career and family. No matter how much I tried to push seminary out of my mind, it surfaced again and again as something I needed to do. I finally threw in the towel and applied during the winter of 2013.
Suzanne G. Farnham, founder of Listening Hearts Ministries, along with three others (Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, and Susan M. Ward) wrote Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community (Morehouse Publishing, New York, NY, 2011) as part of the Christian Vocation Project. For a two year period, a group studied centuries of vocational writers and produced this book. The project was born during an April 1987 retreat co-led by Parker Palmer that Farnham attended. Parker Palmer authored another book on vocation, Let Your Life Speak (2000), and wrote the foreword.
In chapter one (pages 7–14) of Farnham’s book, titled What is “Call” for the Christian?, the authors state that “call may be emphatic and unmistakable, or it may be obscure and subtle. … God calls us on many levels: God calls creation, calls the Church, calls my congregation, and calls me, today, to teach me where I am now. God calls the entirety of my life. And at specific times and places, God calls me to particular actions.” My call was “obscure and subtle.” The authors define God’s call “in the widest, most inclusive sense, to encompass what we do and who we are.”
“One sign that God may be calling is a certain restlessness, a certain dissatisfaction with things as they are.” This statement hits home for me as I was both restless and dissatisfied. I felt the need to change, both externally and internally. I was not sure why or where God’s call would lead me, but the urge to change was strong and unrelenting.
“Other signs of God’s call may be a sense of longing, yearning, or wondering; a feeling of being at a crossroads; a sense that something is happening in one’s life, that one is wrestling with an issue or decision; a sense of being in a time of transition; or a series of circumstances that draw one into a specific issue. … Ultimately, it is not what the evidence suggests but the source of the call that gives it authority.” The source is God.
How do individuals discern God’s call? The authors follow the Quaker communal approach. “The needs of the community are important to consider in evaluating a call. … The word community comes from communis, meaning ‘common,’ and from communicare, meaning ‘to share or participate.’” (pages 36–37, 45) Scripture discusses both solitude in prayer (Mark 6:46) and community (Matthew 18:20).
The authors advocate forming a discernment group as a community process that assists individuals in exploring their call. The individual seeking guidance assembles a group of unbiased Christians who, in confidence, listen to the individual and only ask questions. “A goal of a discernment group is to reach spiritual consensus.” (page 53) The called individual answers questions honestly until he or she is satisfied. This may take hours of discussions and several sessions. There is no rush, and the process is mutually supportive.
“People meeting with a discernment group may come to feel that what they are hearing does not come from God. This, too, is discernment. … Understanding that a call does not come from God, or even seeing that an issue is not as clear as it once seemed, can quiet the cacophony within, creating stillness and space, fostering silent, listening hearts where, finally, we come to hear the Lord speak.” (pages 54–55) Looking back, I should have formed a discernment group and gone through this process. It may have eased my restless heart and clarified my call. Perhaps it would have steered me elsewhere or improved my decision. I will never know since I made my decision without communal assistance.
“I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will council you with my eye upon you.” (Psalms 32:8, NRSV) The only way to hear God’s call is to listen in silence, ponder within community, and respond through action. Through these steps, we discover that we are made in God’s image and called by God to a life of faith. We discover whose we are and our vocation within God’s creation.