Sarah: (Look around confused)
Lord: (more insistently) Sarah!
Sarah: Yes, Lord?
Lord: You misunderstood me. I didn’t say you should become a priest. I said you should marry Jason Priestly. You know, the actor from Beverly Hills 90210?
Sarah: (Confused look on her face) Well, it’s a little late now. . .and I think Jason Priestly is married. . .do you mind if I just keep being a priest?
Lord: (Sigh) Fine.
Sarah: Okay, well, then I’m going to go ahead and preach. . .
Hearing the call of God is a confusing, complicated process. It would be nice if God would shout from the heavens and tell us exactly what we should do with our lives. However, God seems to prefer to reveal our call to us slowly and quietly, so that we truly have to search our heart, mind and spirit.
Today’s reading from the Old Testament is about the call of Samuel. Samuel’s mother was a woman named Hannah. She was one of two wives of a loving husband and was barren for many years. One day, she went to the temple where the priest, Eli, presided. She wept and prayed so hard her lips moved. Eli, not being the most compassionate priest on the planet, thought she was drunk and told her to move along. Nice, huh?
So, Hannah goes home, soon gets pregnant and is so thankful that she not only names her son Shem-uel-name of God-she also vows to give her baby to the temple, so he can serve God all his life.
In the meantime, Eli’s sons, who were supposed to take over for him, were incredibly corrupt, stealing from the offerings brought to the table, strong-arming people who came to pray. As you can imagine, God was NOT happy about this.
So, this brings us to today’s reading. Samuel is an apprentice at the Temple and while sleeping, hears a voice calling him. He assumes it is Eli speaking and goes to him. Eventually Eli realizes what is going on and helps Samuel figure out that God is trying to speak to Samuel. So, Samuel tells God he is listening, and God gives Samuel a terrible message to give to Eli, telling Eli how Eli’s family’s dynasty will end because his sons have been so corrupt.
To Eli’s credit, he does not get angry with Samuel, but realizes that he should raise Samuel as an honest, ethical priest.
Samuel’s call story is a wonderful model for us, because Samuel could not discern his call himself. He needed the help of the community to discern his call. Without Eli’s perception, he would have no idea God wanted to speak with him.
All of us have a call-something we were designed to do. A call can be described as our deepest passions meeting up with the needs of the world around us. The author of a book called Listening Hearts writes,
A call may come as a gradual dawning of God’s purpose for our lives. It can involve an accelerating sense of inner direction. It can emerge through a dawning feeling that we need to do a specific thing. On occasion, it can burst forth as a sudden awareness of a path God would have us take. Call may be emphatic and unmistakable, or it may be obscure and subtle.*
We often think of a call in religious terms-a call to the priesthood or to a monastery-but a call can take as many forms as there are people. You can have a call to a particular work within the church: youth group, ministering to the homebound, evangelizing, hospitality, but you can also have a call to secular work-a call to the theater, to law, to medicine, to interior design, to fatherhood, to motherhood, to writing.
A call can be lived out through a paying job, or it can be something you pursue in your free time. Many calls are not particularly lucrative, so-this may come as a shock to you-some people have jobs that don’t fulfill their deepest passions, but do pay the bills. That is a perfectly honorable way to live.
There are two major glitches in life that can throw us off course from living out our call:
First: What if we don’t know our call?
Second: What if we know our call but can’t satisfy it?
In the first instance, if we don’t know our call, we need to heed Eli’s advice: Say a prayer to God, “Here I am.” Let God know that you are paying attention, ready to listen. So often, we tell God what we want or what our worries are, and we don’t leave space for God to respond to us.
Next, journal about your deepest passions. What moves you, what excites you?
Third, talk to your friends and family. Often, those around us can see our gifts far earlier than we can. When I trepidatiously announced my desire to pursue ordination, my father and a priest friend both said a more eloquent version of, “Duh.”
Finally, pay attention. Although God does not often speak in a booming voice from above, he can speak through the world around us. If you start looking for needs in the world around you, soon you will find a place where you can serve.
The second case, being unable to satisfy one’s call, is much more challenging. I have two friends, both of whom feel a strong call to motherhood. Unfortunately, both are single women. One of them followed her call, and after a year of prayer and discernment adopted a baby girl from China. This has been a wonderful experience, but is loaded with the challenges that come with being a single parent.
The other friend feels strongly that for her, the call is to marriage and motherhood. She does not feel a particular call to a profession and as you all know, you can’t just make marriage happen. For her, the last few years have been a real struggle as she has earnestly tried to seek a call, and prayed to be released from this desire to be a mother. In the meantime, she is pursuing a masters degree in a field she thinks she won’t hate, has moved closer to her nephew, and has adopted a dog to nurture. She invests in friendships, her home and in her church, but the gnawing desire of her call never truly leaves her.
Many artists and writers also struggle with unsatisfied call, because it is so difficult to support oneself in those fields.
Unfortunately, I have no easy solution for this problem. However, I think the icon of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, can be a helpful one for us. Hannah’s barrenness represents not only the inability to have a child, but also the inability to complete any creative act. Hannah, who was barren for so many years, did the only thing we can do when we are absolutely stuck and hopeless. The author of 1 Samuel describes Hannah as “speaking in her heart” when she prayed to God. She prayed, honestly and passionately. She wept and pleaded. Hannah did not suffer in silence, repressing her desires-she began a conversation with God. Hannah is an icon of hope because her prayers were answered. She also presents a challenge for us, because once her prayers were answered, she immediately gave Samuel back to God.
Hannah reminds us that, although a call feels intensely personal, ultimately a call is about lining up our lives with the divine. And, although living one’s call can feel incredibly satisfying, there is always an element of sacrifice when we live the life God intends for us.
Hannah could not have known the consequences of returning Samuel to the temple, but God would go on to use Samuel as one of the most respected prophets in the history of Israel. He oversaw the first King of Israel, Saul and was instrumental in recruiting David, after Saul displeased God.
In pursuing her desire to have a child, Hannah blessed all of Israel. Just imagine what might happen in this community if we all followed our calls.
* Farnham, Gill, McLean and Ward, Listening Hearts, Morehouse Publishing: Harrisburg, PA (1991), p. 7.