Note: This article spotlights the work of Paul Anderson, an individual faculty partner in the Oikonomia Network. He delivered this address as the 1985 Quaker Lecture, Western Yearly Meeting. See original text for full citations.
Part Two of Two; read part one here.
What does it mean to receive a holy calling? It means first to be called into relationship with almighty God. Out of that relationship, and its encounters, comes an awareness of who we really are and what we are called to be doing. As John Woolman says:
Wherever men (and women) are true ministers of Jesus Christ it is from the operation of the Spirit upon their hearts, first purifying them and thus giving them a feeling sense for the condition of others.
John Woolman, Journal
Catching a glimpse of what it means to receive a holy calling, we must ask a second question: “What does it mean to be wholly responsive to those callings?”
Before discussing the meaning of responsiveness, let us first back up a bit. I can imagine that some of us might be feeling a bit left out. After all, the previous illustrations are quite exceptional. I mean, how many of us here have actually been addressed by a voice out of a burning bush or seen the meeting house fill up with smoke and fire-carrying seraphim? Our tendency is to think that unless a spiritual calling is spectacular, it isn’t important. Not so! Remember our earlier discussion. A holy calling is first an invitation into relationship with God. Out of this relationship stems a partnership in which we find ourselves sensitized to needs in the world and empowered to meet those needs by the love of God. All spiritual callings have their roots in a spiritual encounter, and every spiritual encounter leads to a divine calling as to how we should be stewards of those human-divine experiences.
Unfortunately, some callings are not recognized because people misunderstand the connection between callings and responses. One misconception is the idea that the legitimacy of callings depends on how spectacular they are. Therefore, God’s presence becomes confused with manifestations of it. Consider, however, the story of Elijah on the mountain (I Kings 19:11-12) when the presence of the Lord passed by. The account emphasizes the point that God was not in the wind, earthquake or lire – but in the gentle whisper. Each of us experiences God in unique and distinctive ways. The way in which we respond to our spiritual callings should be an expression of the ways in which we have encountered and are being transformed by God. This is what we mean by the proper stewardship of human-divine encounters. Our ministries will likely be most effective in those areas in which we have been ministered to ourselves. Thus, the character of one’s ministry is often like in kind to the character of one’s calling.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the “patriarch of Quakerism” should make such a distinction throughout his ministry that it was not the building of brick and stone which as the church of Jesus Christ, but the people who sought to worship him in Spirit and in Truth. After all, Fox had written in his journal at the beginning of his ministry:
At another time it was opened to me that God, who made the world, did not dwell in temples made with hands … but that his people were his temple, and he dwelt in them.
George Fox, Journal
Whether one’s encounters with God have a dramatic character or a subtle one, we are called to be stewards of our experiences with God. If our human-divine encounters be more subtle, our stewardship may take the form of unceasing prayer, and bringing a sense of God’s presence into the arena of everyday life. If, on the other hand, one has heard the Lord roaring from Zion as did Amos (Amos 1 :2), one’s stewardship of that encounter may possess the same urgency as did Amos who exclaimed:
The lion has roared – who will not fear?
The Sovereign Lord has spoken – who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)
One’s ministry will often be similar to ways in which one has been ministered to; and in seeking to discern one’s calling, one should start by asking: “How am I to be the best steward possible of my encounters with God?”
Another misconception is the belief that one’s calling is not legitimate unless it is similar to the callings of others. This is where a Quaker view of callings to ministry is vital. A spiritual calling to ministry is not merely a function of one’s ego, nor is it a calculated plan to do good in the world. A spiritual calling does not come from imitating the leadings of another. Rather, true callings come from imitating the One who is the true Leader, Christ himself. Robert Barclay poses the question:
What make a man a minister, pastor or teacher in the Church of Christ? How does he come to be one? We answer: “By the inward power and virtue of the Spirit of God which will not only call him but will in some measure purify and sanctify him.” Since the things of the spirit can only be truly known by the aid of the Spirit of God, it is by this same Spirit that a man is called and moved to minister to others. Thus he is able to speak from a living experience of the things to which he is a witness.
Robert Barclay, Apology
The temptation is to think that because God has called another person or group to a successful ministry, this calling is identical for us. It is the same fallacy to assume that the failure of another’s ministry means that we should not undertake that ministry. The question is whether or not God has or has not called us to be engaged in that ministry. We are called not to be successful, but to be faithful to the callings and leadings of God.
If there were an aspect of another’s ministry which should be imitated, it would not be the program, but the prayer and seeking out of which the program emerged. Alan Kolp has said that ministry involves the identifying of a need and going about seeking to meet that need. Such a process begins and ends with prayer, and truly successful programs are the outward structures through which needs discerned through prayer can be effectively addressed in the world. It is easy to forget that George Fox’s vision of a people to be gathered began not with climbing Pendle Hill, but with a spiritual prompting or leading. His key words are: “I was moved of the Lord to go atop it.” The true source of callings is not the callings of others. We may be informed and helped by such testimonials, but without experiencing a calling ourselves, the experiences of others will not suffice.
Now let us consider what it means to be wholly responsive to holy callings. As human beings, we were created in the image of God for fellowship with God. Therefore, to be called into relationship and partnership with God is an invitation to become most fully ourselves. If we refuse this love-relationship with God, we not only forfeit what it means to taste of the divine, but we also forfeit what it means to be most fully human. Responsiveness begins and ends with letting our lives become a perpetual “yes” to God, the source of all life and being.
What it means to be responsive is essentially what it means to be alive. And being wholly responsive to divine callings involves being wholly alive to the One who is the source of these callings. Responsiveness not only involves an awareness of being addressed by another, but it also involves what we do and who we become because of that awareness. Some responses can be partial, involving only our minds or our feelings. But being wholly responsive touches every aspect of our lives, not just one or two. Such a response is a spiritual one because the spiritual encompasses all aspects of life. Therefore, being wholly responsive involves being alive to God with our intellectual selves, our emotional selves, our physical selves, and even our social selves. This is what it means to be spiritual, and this is what it means to be alive.
Let me illustrate what I am trying to say. If I were to enter a room in which you were sitting, there would be several levels on which you might respond or relate to me. You may, for instance, choose to ignore my presence in the room, preferring to continue reading a newspaper or doing whatever it was that you were doing. A level a bit more engaging than that would be to acknowledge my presence with a simple greeting: “Hello!” or “Hi, how are you doing?” or “Nice day, isn’t it?” might be responses you might choose to make. Such greetings are not really overtures to learning the details of how another is doing; in fact, we probably don’t want to know those details. These responses are designed to acknowledge the presence of another while at the same time keeping the discussion on somewhat of a surface level.
A third level on which we could relate would be to explore our commonalities. “Oh, you have children, too? Well, let me tell you about mine. And, yes, let me hear about yours.” Or, “So you had your appendix out too, well, what was it like? Would you like to see my scar?” Such discussion explores common areas of interest, but the interests take precedence over the other person and the relationship.
A fourth level would involve going beyond common interests and schedules to seeking to cultivate a friendship with the other person. A friendship may involve common likes and interests, but it goes beyond the given time-allotment of fixed schedules to seeking to cultivate common experiences and interests. The cultivation of a friendship requires intentionality. It is an activity which consequently must be reserved for fewer people, because one simply does not have the energy nor the time to develop a solid friendship with every person one meets.
More exclusive yet is a fifth level on which two people might choose to relate. It is that of intimacy. Intimacy takes some time if it is to develop within a relationship. It involves not only the sharing of information or ideas, but the sharing of feelings between two people. It requires some long, unstructured times together for no other purpose than simply being together with one another. This is not a means to another end. The other person IS the end of all one’s interests, energies and desires. Knowing and being known are the goals of intimacy. The realm of that knowledge is comprehensive. It wells up from the core and center of our beings and encompasses our minds, feelings, bodies and other friendships. Responding to one another on this deep level involves the entirety of who we are, and it affects the entirety of what we do.
If I were to enter a room in which you were sitting, you could choose to respond to me on one of those five levels, and so it is with our responsiveness to God. There may be people here tonight who are responding to God by ignoring his presence. Such a response does not mean that God doesn’t exist; it may simply mean that we don’t want our agendas disrupted, and so we choose to live our lives as though God did not exist.
Or, we may choose to relate to God on a surface level. We may feel perfectly comfortable with our shallow greetings but not wanting our conversation to go much beyond comfortable phrases which can be easily rehearsed without much personal involvement.
A third level on which we might choose to respond to God is to explore our commonalities together. In doing so, God is granted a well-defined place in our lives, such as the time between 9:30-12:00 on Sunday mornings, or conversations with other people with whom we have a spiritual interest m common. However, we probably wouldn’t want God to tag along with us during the week or in our thought lives. Limiting our responses to some common contexts and interests may seem convenient because then we can get on with our real lives.
A fourth level would involve actively pursuing a friendship or relationship with God. Beyond the scheduled times for worship we may institute some “extracurricular” times for worship in order to help us be more regular and consistent in our devotional lives. We may seek to go beyond our commonalities, and so our prayers may include intercession for others rather than merely being limited to petition for our own needs. Our relationship with God may be intentional, and we may be committed to its cultivation. Our spiritual lives may have some bright spots in them, but our love relationship with God has not yet become for us allconsuming fire. That happens only when intimacy with God is developed.
The ultimate level on which we might choose to respond to God is on precisely that level. To respond to God on a level of intimacy means that we begin to know and be known by God. The same Hebrew word for “knowledge,” as in “knowledge of the Holy One,” is used in saying that Adam “knew” his wife, and she conceived and bore a son. Intimacy with God can never be reduced to an easy religious method or a quick solution to a spiritual project. Intimacy is by its very definition exclusive, and it can only be cultivated by spending healthy, uninterrupted time together with one’s partner. When this happens between ourselves and God, new openings of truth and light and love occur. No longer can we speak of God as theological topic, or spirituality as a respectable aspect of life. We have known and been known by God as lover and beloved, and at the faintest nuance of our Lord’s presence our hearts overflow with passion and adoring love. We find ourselves caught up in the melody of the ancient hymn, “Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills my breast.” The effects of such empassioned love cannot help but transform every aspect of our lives. As George Fox wrote in his journal:
Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all creation gave another smell unto me beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell …George Fox, Journal
Being wholly responsive to holy callings involves cultivating a relationship with God which is intimate, and therefore transforming. Being known by and knowing God gives us new eyes with which to see ourselves and the world. The result, then, is that we become partners with God in the work of extending God’s redeeming Love to a world which yearns in anticipation for its healing invasion.
As Neave Brayshaw has said, the Society of Friends “has rediscovered, neither easily nor quickly, the truth that it exists not for itself, but for the world’s healing.” Spiritual callings arise out of spiritual encounters with God. Therefore, the ways in which we experience ourselves as called men, women and children will arise out of the ways in which we have experienced ourselves as encountered by God. Being wholly responsive to those callings, then, involves living in the newness of life which results from knowing and being known by God. It involves the totality of what we do and who we are. The outcome is that our lives become channels from which new spiritual callings and encounters spring. Whatever our experiences with God have been, whether they be like unto a blazing bush in the wilderness or the gentle whisper on the mountain, our common calling is to be proper stewards of those experiences.
As a society, we Friends have been blessed to overflowing with a rich abundance of spiritual encounters. God calls for us to be stewards of what we have learned and experienced. Otherwise, we would be unfaithful to our spiritual callings, individually and corporately. It is out of transforming intimacy that the prophets of old heard and saw the Lord with ears and eyes of their souls; and in light of the holy presence of almighty God early Friends could not but tremble in reverence and awe. We have a holy calling as Friends; all of us do. The same One who startled the apostle John during worship some two thousand years ago stands before us today-inviting, calling us into spiritual partnership. Might our prayer be akin to that of Lancelot Andrewes, who prayed nearly four centuries ago:
Thou who walkest in the midst of the golden candlesticks,
remove not our candlestick out of its place;
set in order the things that are wanting,
strengthen the things which remain …
Lancelot Andrewes, Private Devotions, ed. Alexander Whyte, #5, “Intercession.”