I’ve never known anyone who disliked today’s Old Testament passage from 1 Samuel. There’s something so alluring about it, about the child Samuel, a boy wrested from his family and committed to a lifetime of menial service in the temple at Shiloh, who is almost asleep in the hazy twilight when a voice calls to him, beckoning and luring him forward. Three times the misty voice calls, until the priest Eli realizes it must be God calling Samuel to something important, something unique, some role only Samuel can fill.
Those are the most compelling stories, the ones in which one is called forth from obscurity to carry out a task, to fulfill a quest, to achieve a goal. And better yet if the entire world depends upon it. Only young Arthur can draw the sword from the stone. Only Frodo the Hobbit can return the One Ring to the fires of Mordor. Only Harry Potter can face Lord Voldemort.
This notion captivated me at an early age, the first time I saw on the big screen a small green frog, sitting atop a lily pad, holding his banjo and dreaming of what it would be like to follow his unique calling and leave the swamp. He sang of rainbows and shooting stars, and then he offered a verse that easily could have been Samuel’s:
Have you been half asleep?
And have you heard voices?
I hear them calling my name;
Is this the sweet sound
That called the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
There’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it,
The rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.
It’s a captivating outlook: that I am uniquely called to something special, that I am special and set apart for wondrous and amazing things. It’s also a sentiment that has been on the increase in recent years. According to an annual study of first-year college students called the American Freshman Survey, each year since the 1960s more and more young adults believe themselves to be superior to their peers in virtually every category.[i] This is true even in those categories, such as writing ability, in which test scores show a marked decline in ability over the past four decades. Researchers call this phenomenon “ambition inflation.” Our entire culture plays into it. Every child gets a trophy. The A- has replaced the “Gentleman’s C” as the average grade. Any 6-6 football team goes to a bowl game.
At its worst, such ambition inflation leads to (or, perhaps, is a symptom of) clinical narcissism. But in its more run-of-the-mill variety, the felt contention that we are each set apart for some great and grand role in life can and often does lead to frustration, disappointment, and deflation when the calling never emerges with clarity, or when we the things we pursue in life fail to satisfy, or when the world around us doesn’t appreciate just how special we are. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says of our time on life’s stage, “We think we could play Hamlet very effectively if only our talents weren’t so successfully concealed by the fact that we [instead are assigned] a two-minute appearance as Second Gravedigger.”[ii] Our professions, our relationships, our sense of self-worth take a hit when Excalibur remains stubbornly stuck in the stone.
But what if we’re thinking about calling wrongly? What if we are misinterpreting God’s claim and call upon us?
On the one hand, Holy Scripture assures me that I am, indeed, individually precious to God. Psalm 139 says to God, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”
That is a heady thing! But lest I take the Psalmist’s words to mean that I am destined for greatness apart from my peers, the Prophet Isaiah grants us a vision of all the gathered inhabitants of the world and then says, “Life up your eyes on high and see. Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.”
In other words, there is no one uncalled. God speaks each of our names: Eli, Samuel, you, me. And though this is, at first, hard to hear, if everyone is special, then, by definition, no one is, at least not in the unrealistic and increasingly inflated sense that our culture speaks of being special.
Is this a downer? Not for me. Rather, it’s a relief, and especially a relief from anxious striving. Rather than spending our days frantically seeking to discover that great and grandiose thing God is calling us, and only us, to do in this world, Archbishop Williams says:
“God’s call is the call to be: the vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves, to be bearers of their names, answering to the Word that gives each its distinctive identity…The vocation of things [is] to be themselves, distinctive, spare, and strange…to be the person you are. It means [God] is calling you by your name, at each and every moment, wanting you to be you.”
The real crisis of calling, Williams believes, is when we wake up after years of seeking to be special, only to discover that this very quest has led us to live falsely. The stars we have seen have obscured our true vision, and when the haze finally clears, we sometimes panic. That is when our professions, our relationships, our sense of self-worth truly suffer, when we recognize, sometimes in a flash—like Paul on the Road to Damascus—that we’ve been living a lie. In fact, Paul’s conversion can be interpreted as exactly this kind of crisis, by which God calls Paul from falsehood to truth.
But whether we arrive at the understanding early or late, our calling is, Williams says, “to find out what is true and what is false in us.” To ask, “Is this actually you we’ve got here? Or is it another defense, another game?”
“Our hearts,” Williams recognizes, “are infinitely cunning in self-deceit.” And our faithful response to God’s call is “learning to shed the unreality that simply suffocates the very life of the soul. [Calling] is, you could say, what’s left when all the games have stopped.”
We are not called, in other words, to embark on some fabricated and inflated quest for grandeur, but neither is calling a license to indulge in every impulse or urge that we experience in our lives. Like striving, our impulses and passions can also often lead us to live falsely. We are called, rather, to live authentically as the people God created us to be, people who recognize the image of God within us and therefore reflect to one another God’s own compassion and love.
Of course, it was the case that only Frodo could carry the ring, and there are those who are called to specific roles that only they can fulfill, roles both large and small. But such particular callings can only emerge when we have first pursued the primary call to live authentically. Because we can only hear the voice of God when we hear through ears that are truly our own and not the ears of a fabricated and false self.
Sometimes, that specific calling, if and when it comes, may be to a completely new place, or a completely new thing. But it is worth noting that the life to which God called Samuel was the life he was already being formed to live. Samuel had been raised in the temple at Shiloh in service to the Lord, and from Shiloh he would grow into an adulthood serving God as priest and prophet. Samuel’s calling entailed a full and authentic living into his already-present context.
I am fond of asking people if they know the difference between what C.S. Lewis’ did for a living before his conversion to faith and after. You see, before he became a Christian, Lewis was a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford. But after his great conversion and sense of calling, Lewis was…a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford. The difference for Lewis was not in what he did, or where he did it, but in the manner in which he approached the life he was already living. He became his authentic self, and that made all the difference.
God is calling, you, me, and all people everywhere. We are precious creatures, created in love, beckoned to give up the false self and live authentically, and to mirror God’s image to the world. And that is, after all, the highest calling of all.
[ii] This and all following Rowan Williams quotes are from Williams’ essay “Vocation (1)” in A Ray of Darkness, pp. 147-153.