When I was in seminary and first heard the hymn “Here I Am Lord” I loved it. It spoke to me; it felt real. But after the weekly recitations during the student sermons, I began to think about the words, tone, and general problem, the Hymn became clear. When reading the Old Testament with modern eyes we gain an understanding that a calling is individual and perfect. It is a notion that calling is exclusively between an individual and God.
This is often the case when people look at stories like the Call of Samuel. This is the story of the young boy apprenticed to a prophet, whose life and role would shape the Hebrew people. But, in the beginning, Samuel was not sure of his calling or even who the voice was; it took another, his “master,” to give him the insight to understand the call. Eli knew that this was coming. Eli also knew that neither he nor his family could be the one to carry forward; they had become lost to themselves, and his children had found their way into debauchery.
The great reformers worried about that a lot because they saw how the individual calling had stirred people into pride and, though the term was not coined at that time what we understand today to be, narcissism. In other words, often the individual calling became more about what makes me feel good or what feels right to me rather than what is God calling me to do within the community and the world we are in.
In a fundamental way, this is why people often get burned out in their callings, because they do not look to others or walk with others in their journey. When I see people the most burned out, the common thread is that they either do not want to work with others, they want to go it alone or fix everything themselves rather than giving the chance to listen to others, or are unwilling to struggle.
The truth of call is that God calls us to be part of the body, and while the call is individual, it is specific and affirmed by the community. This is a central understanding of Call in the Presbyterian Church. It is also why we see no difference in ordination between all church leaders, lay and clergy, except for purpose. I guess a better way to put it is that while call is always individual, it is always two-pronged, one that highlights the gifts and skills we have and the second to ask how those can be used within the community.
You know, it is interesting that when I interviewed, the number one complaint people had was that “everyone” was burnt out, and the number two complaint was that we have “No Children.” Interestingly, when people spoke of the burnout often people highlighted that they were trying so hard and nobody else was or that they had to accomplish this or that because nobody else was qualified. What is both funny and sad is that the most unbiblical calling there ever has been is the calling to save the church. And given time to do more research I would posit that this was why not only our church but so many churches are struggling.
When they are recognized and when we are given freedom to live them out, we feel good and worthy of God. The problem, though, is often we find ourselves in situations where our callings bring us to a place of great difficulty. We often label this as burnout, when we are ready to throw our hand in the air and call it quits. I can only imagine how much “burnout” the prophets experienced as they went on their often lone journey.
Eli was a great leader, but knew that the calling of Samuel meant a change, that God would tear down all that was, in order to create something new. Samuel would be the catalyst for this change, but along the way many others would have their callings, and the community would always have its constant change, but the message of God through Samuel never changed. And that was for the people to come together, celebrate God, and live a life within that.
It is interesting, when we sing the song, “Here I Am Lord,” we often forget that we are asking God to place us in impossible situations. Though within that calling we trust that God will work and carry us through. This means that our calling will not be frustrationless, or devoid of difficulties, but when those happen we recognize that we are doing the Lord’s work and trust that God is using us for His plan.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen