20 June, 2024

‘Seeing the Call’


by | 14 August, 2005 | 0 comments

By  Neal Windham

The lives of those of us ordained to leadership ministry are often tightly wound. Too tightly, I”m afraid. By day”s end we cannot see where one strand of need ends and the next begins. If we allow them, the loud voices of events, people, preparations, and expectations all converge on the very center of our existence, each vying for nothing less than our total attention, with the result that God is squeezed out, or at best obscured.

No longer able to see clearly, we gradually attempt to move forward on our own, frequently dreaming of greener pastures, of a fresh calling. Frustrated by our continued search for something better, we may even yield to exhaustion and burnout, which is a sort of slow spiritual death.

A crippling, familiar story, this destructive cycle of brokenness among leaders in the church, one that begs deep questions about what it means to be called.

Unfortunately, in such a distorted view of Christian leadership, it is no longer possible even to speak meaningfully of being called. Having lost the vital connection with our spiritual axis (the One who calls) and perhaps even our sense of vocation (the “care of souls,” to use Eugene Peterson”s words), we forfeit that which drove us to serve Christ in the first place (an all-out, white-hot love for God) for ill-conceived attempts to become more than in reality we are or possibly can be: preacher, educator, therapist, conflict manager, worship consultant, and administrator. (And these are just some of our many duties.) Little wonder we are exhausted!

Eventually, we begin to ask, “By whom (not Whom) have we been called? And for what?” Or, worse, we jettison the notion of being called altogether, acting as though we have somehow called ourselves, reducing the divine summons to nothing more than an altruistic decision of human design. And, in this way, we reduce Christian leadership ministry to positive thinking grounded in shallow optimism. We thus forfeit God”s call.

How can such leaders unravel the cords of urgency, duty, anxiety, and demand? How can we replace them with life-renewing strands of hope, connected but at the same time somehow free? How can we learn to distinguish God”s call from delusional human fancy? And just how do we come to see (that”s right, see) God”s call clearly?

Answering these questions will not be easy. For most of us, the call of God comes neither through the appearance of a burning bush nor a blinding light; it is far more gradual and far less obvious than we have been led to believe. Seeing the call is hard, prayer-loaded work.

The Grammar of Calling

The way out begins with the grammar of calling. “Called” is passive voice. It implies that an external agent is at work, pulling us in a direction not of our own making, a direction much higher than anything we could possibly conceive or take on our own. Thus did God call Abraham, Moses, Deborah, Esther, Jeremiah, Peter, and Paul to a divine appointment of his doing. Frequently reluctant, occasionally in denial, at times even clueless, each of the called nevertheless had one thing in common: he or she eventually answered the call of God to lead and serve on God”s terms.

But American Christians, whose days are filled with decisions of every kind, do not yield easily to this grammar of calling. We decide where we will live, whom we will marry, what we will do with our lives, how we will relax, how many children we will have, what we will drive, and where we will send our kids to school. We are verbal about our choices””worship preferences, preferred preaching styles, church affiliations, and ministry programs. God is too often little more than a consultant. We are an active people who prefer to live in active voice. We have forgotten that prayer precedes desire, that there is a higher verdict and a deeper devotion than preference. In America, the grammar of calling has yielded to the lexicon of choice.

Seeing the Call of God

Thus, it goes without saying that, in order to answer a call, we must first learn how to be attentive to the voice of the caller. However, where today we generally put all of the emphasis upon listening for the call””it is, after all, a call””it is interesting to notice that Moses saw a burning bush before God called him, that Paul similarly witnessed a blinding light from Heaven prior to the question, “Why are you persecuting me?” In the same way, Ezekiel viewed a celestial wheel and only later heard the words, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you” (Ezekiel 2:1). Moreover, Isaiah glimpsed both God and seraphim prior to his prophetic commission.

In each case a stunning visual first caught the eyes of the listener in a striking way, preparing him for the commissioning voice of God. This order is so important. Among other things, it reminds us that God is continually attempting to help his leaders notice his presence here among us. He is not remote. He is in some sense yet incarnate throughout his Spirit-filled church. It seems we must, like Moses of old, learn to see his presence before we can ever hope to hear his call.

But just how do we “see” the voice of God today? In his intriguing book Anam Cara, John O”Donohue speaks of several “styles of vision.”1 Most of these styles form a barrier to seeing well.

There is, for example, the fearful eye, where all threatens. As we apply it to ministry, this fearful eye sees only prospects of harm and damage to the minister and his or her family. Negatively conditioned by seeing their trust repeatedly broken, such servants no longer allow themselves the needed assurance of believing that God”s hand is in their future. In truth, they have likely failed to remember his saving actions in their past. Succumbing to fear, they preach mealy-mouthed sermons designed to offend no one and pacify everyone. Meanwhile, the gospel is diluted and the church”s mission fades into obscurity.

The fearful eye cannot coexist with that trust required to “see” God”s call and hear his voice. It is a dreadful thing for a leader to cower in fear. In order to begin to see God”s call once again, the fearful eye must repeatedly learn to yield to a courageous new vision of God”s work among us, one that is tied neither to perceived ecclesial power nor to a sustaining paycheck, but to the Great Commission of Christ.

O”Donohue speaks of the greedy eye as well, where “everything can be possessed.” In ministry, those who never rejoice in what they have because they obsess over what they do not have simply cannot see God”s call, let alone hear his voice. Too often, what they see are larger crowds, bigger buildings, and fatter paychecks. “Greed is poignant because it is always haunted and emptied by future possibility; it can never engage presence,” observes O”Donohue.

And there are others: the judgmental eye, the resentful eye, the indifferent eye, and the inferior eye. Each, in its own diminished way, obscures the sight and voice of God in the lives of his needy leaders. Each throttles the call.

Only the loving eye allows true vision and, subsequently, deep listening. “The loving vision does not become entangled in the agenda of power, seduction, opposition, or complicity,” says O”Donohue. As Kathleen Raine (quoted by O”Donohue) observes, “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see it at all.”

Herein lies the divine wisdom of coupling vision and calling, sight and sound: each is necessary for the call to be whole and effectual.

The Only Way to the Call

The principle is well illustrated in the life of our Lord. As a young man of 12, Jesus became lost in wonder and adventure as all of his childhood musings in Nazareth”s neighborhood synagogue gave way to the sumptuous glory of the Jerusalem temple. Yet, as God”s Son, he saw beyond what the human eye can see. He saw more than the temple”s vast courts, impressive lines, costly building materials, and thousands of Passover pilgrims. He saw (and heard) more than its many teachers and their sometimes impressive, but often misguided, renderings of Law and tradition. He saw more than Roman domination in a land God had promised Israel long ago as a blessing.

What he ultimately saw was a profoundly needy, deeply distressed, theologically confused people. He saw the very religious eyes of Israel”s leaders clouded by fear, greed, judgment, resentment, and perhaps even a pervasive feeling of inferiority. He saw leaders who, because theirs were not loving eyes, could no longer lead. What”s more, Jesus knew they would never, could never, hear God”s true call in this pitiable condition. And neither can we.

But Jesus also heard. He heard the divine voice of love, deep and resonant, fully in sync with and responsive to his broken people. He heard the call of his Father, a call of mission and submission, a call to love the world in all its profound need, a call to mercy. And he embraced that call.

Only when a servant of Christ has first loved God heart and soul, mind and strength, and has gotten very close to the heart of God, only then can she or he really see the goodness and glory of God, and thus weep for his fallen people. And only in the weeping can he or she possibly hear the call.


1John O”Donohue, Anam Cara (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 62-65. “Anam Cara” is Gaelic for “soul friend.”



Neal Windham is associate dean of Bible and theology at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College.


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