Unique meaning in life – Listening for God’s call

‘One night Samuel was in his bed. God called Samuel’s name. Samuel sat up and looked around. “Eli must be calling me,”’ he said.’
Samuel hears from God by Jill Kemp and Richard Gunther: freebibleimages.org

LAST SUNDAY [2nd June 2024], as part of my training as a Methodist local preacher, I shared the following reflection at a church in south Liverpool.

The inspiration came from the three recommended readings for the day:

  • 1 Samuel 3:1-10 in which God calls the child Samuel
  • Psalm 139 which tells us that God knows us intimately and loves us unconditionally
  • Mark 2:23-3:6 in which Jesus is criticised for healing someone on the Sabbath

PLUS resources from ROOTS, a partnership of Christian organisations which publishes worship resources online and in print.

‘Here I am, for you called me’.

– 1 Samuel 3

THESE are the words of the child Samuel, apprentice to the priest Eli at the temple of God.

I wonder:

  • how could these words speak to each of us today?
  • what does it mean for us to be open to God, whatever our age, status, or circumstances?
  • how does God speak with us now?

God called me to be where I am today.

God called me to join the Methodist Church in 2021, to explore what it might mean to serve as a local preacher, and to discern a call to ordination.

But, as they might say on the news, more on that story later!

First, what do our readings today tell us about being open to God’s call?

The child Samuel, we are told, lived in a time when:

‘The word of the Lord was rare…
visions were not widespread’

– 1 Samuel 3:1

And Samuel

‘did not yet know the Lord,
and the word of the Lord
had not yet been revealed to him’.

– 1 Samuel 3:7

Yet, in the dark, three times he heard someone calling his name and thought it was his guardian and mentor, Eli.

Samuel needed Eli to help him realise that God was calling him, and only then could he respond:

 ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

– 1 Samuel 3:10

God gave Samuel an insight into what was soon to happen and, as he grew up, Israel came to know that Samuel was a great prophet of God. He even had two books in our Bible named after him!

It may have taken a few goes, and a nudge from someone else, but once Samuel realised who wanted to talk to him, he was open to doing what God wanted – not just in that moment, but for a lifetime.

By the end of Samuel’s story, the word of God is abundant through his prophetic ministry, and Israel is back on course as a people in close relationship with God.

What caused this turn to the good?

Previously, in the first Book of Samuel (2:27-36), we learn that Eli is a corrupt, disgraced priest whose poor sight symbolises his failure to recognise the responsibilities of his role. Despite this, God gave Eli the insight to help Samuel respond to God.

Samuel’s repeated visits to Eli show his uncritical enthusiasm to obey the old priest’s call, and Eli’s dismissal at first must have been confusing for Samuel. His response to God was equally as enthusiastic as his response to Eli. He answered:

‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

– 1 Samuel 3:10

Other prophets showed greater reluctance to respond to God’s call, like Isaiah, who said [6:5]:

‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,
and I live among a people of unclean lips’.

And Jeremiah, who said [1:6]:

‘Truly I do not know how to speak,
for I am only a boy’.

Samuel answered:

‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’


‘Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking!’

which might be closer to how I, and many of us, might respond as we rush to tell God all the reasons why we couldn’t possibly be, or do, what’s needed when God calls us.

Psalm 139 might have come to Samuel’s mind as he reflected on the amazing experience of hearing God’s word. Samuel may have known the story of his birth; in the psalm every birth and every life is set in the context of God’s loving care. We, like Samuel, may be surprised by God, yet the psalm tells us:

‘Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.’

– Psalm 139:4

God knows us better than we know ourselves and calls us to be the best we can be with God’s, and each other’s, help. There is truly nothing we can say or do which is a surprise to God.

In the NRSV Bible translation which we often hear in our churches, the subtitle for Psalm 139 is ‘The inescapable God’. The psalmist spends six verses wondering

‘Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?’

– Psalm 139:7

ending with the realisation that, as Bernadette Farrel’s hymn based on this psalm put it,

‘Even the darkness is radiant in your sight’.

Even the darkness of my fears, doubts and resistance.

O God You Search Me and You Know Me by Bernadette Farrell, performed by Frodsham Methodist Church.

Yet we can often find ourselves surprised by the limitless and inexplicable nature of God’s love which calls us to be fully human, fully alive, and to be the best we can be, with God’s and each other’s help.

The psalm reminds us that we might fear, or doubt, or resist, but God persists in loving us, and calling us.

In Mark’s gospel we are reminded of the invitation and challenge of God’s call in the example of Jesus.

We are told it is the sabbath – the day on which God’s people are called to rest. It’s a reminder that God’s call can be as much about being as about doing. We are also called to rest, to reflect, to be refreshed, and to return to the way of being and doing to which God calls us.

Christ heals the man with a paralysed hand [detail] – Byzantine mosaic in the Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily via Wikimedia Commons

But Jesus is criticised for appearing to act against God’s law on the sabbath, by picking grain to eat, and by healing a person with a withered hand.

Mark, the Gospel writer, paints a picture of Jesus pushing at the conventional boundaries to highlight a new understanding of God’s will. Jesus shows how religious laws have no place in denying food to hungry people, and a proper understanding of God’s law does not forbid actions that enrich the quality of someone’s life.  

This healing miracle, like the many others recorded throughout the Gospels, show that sometimes God’s call is to restoration, wholeness, and a return to community after a time of isolation.

It can be hard to be patient if we seek God’s voice and don’t hear it, or accept that God’s time is right when we do hear it.

In the hymn I, the Lord of sea and sky, inspired by the story of Samuel, the response ‘Here I am, Lord’ is followed by a question, ‘Is it I?’. That stage probably comes for most of us before we can confidently say ‘yes’ to God, before we can turn the questions into a confident statement: ‘It is I!’

I, the Lord of Sea and Sky by Daniel L. Schutte, peformed by Ruth and Joy Everingham.

Understanding our calling may be a long, drawn-out process, with a decision coming only after a time of exploring and testing. Like Samuel, it helps to be open to the prayerful counsel of those we trust. It can help to be open to the possibility that God’s call may not lead where we expect or desire. It may demand hard things of us. But sometimes hearing hard things can move us out of our comfort zone, and that may be exactly what we need. Like a plant that’s bound by its roots and needs a larger pot, sometimes we need to be removed from our comfort zone to allow us to grow and flourish.

All this is particularly true of formal ‘vocations’, such as ministries within the church, but it can also be uniquely true for each of us. We may think about things for a long time, we may warm to ideas and then get cold feet, we may chat about things with those who are close to us. We may even wrestle with God in prayer. But then, how often do you hear someone say, once they have taken the plunge, ‘I wish I had done this ages ago!’?  

It may not be something we’re called to do, it may be something we’re called to be, or to express in how we live. In his book Discovering Your Personal Vocation, the Jesuit priest Herbert Alphonso writes that our call from God, our vocation, is

‘the unique God-given meaning in a person’s life’.

Even among people who are called to formal ministry in the church, as a steward, preacher, deacon, or presbyter, each one will have their own unique way of fulfilling that call.

You may be thinking, like Eli or Isaiah, ‘I’m not worthy’. Or like Jeremiah, that you’re too young, or not ready. Or you may think ‘it’s too late for me’. The old priest Eli is still serving God, even though he has not always been in step with God. After a lifetime in God’s service, and going astray, he may have thought his task was finished. But God gives Eli insight to help Samuel hear God’s call.

God continues to call and speak through older people who are open to God, like Eli, just as much as he speaks to and calls younger people like Samuel.

Eli is not the only elder through whom God acts in the story of the people of Israel. Bible scholars think Moses may have been around 40 when he fled Egypt, and around 80 when God called him to return, and save God’s people.

So never say never – God may yet surprise us all!

Here’s how God surprised me.

At university, I volunteered with the Chaplaincy, leading on fundraising and social justice activities, and hosting Evening Prayer. I began discerning a call to ministry – having survived a serious mental health crisis as a teenager, I felt I had been given another chance, and needed to give my life to God in gratitude.

After graduation, I trained as a teacher and taught in church schools to gain experience as I wrestled with doubts. While at theological college it was mentioned that, after ordination, I might return there to teach. But cracks began to show. My spiritual director helped me begin to be free of a negative image of myself and of God which was not a firm foundation for the life-long commitment of ordination. I left, with my spiritual director’s support. I thought a call to ordination was mistaken, that I had tried it and found it wasn’t for me after all.

So here I am, around 25 years later, exploring my call to ministry in a different tradition. I didn’t see it coming.

In 2021, after a difficult year, I went on a retreat. In a guided meditation on the story of the road to Emmaus, I came to the point where the companions returned to the apostles in Jerusalem:

‘And the two told what things had happened along the road, and how they knew him in the breaking of bread’

– Luke 24:35

When I prayed ‘How can I know you in the breaking of bread?’ I heard ‘Try the Methodist Church’. I felt strongly that ordination might yet be open to me.

I also felt like I might be going mad! So, I discussed it with my Eli, Barbara Glasson, who used to be the minister in Liverpool City Centre. I knew that if she thought I was mad, she would tell me. Instead, she said, ‘You know you’re called – get on with it!’

Then I spoke to Sheryl Anderson, Chair of Liverpool District, who suggested I join St James Woolton, where I have attended regularly since January 2022, and became a member in May that year. I began to get more involved, with reading and sharing intercessions in church, leading prayers and reflections during telephone worship, joining Church Council, organising a Lent course, and leading services as a local preacher on trial.

In May 2023 I began the process of candidating for presbyteral ministry, and in February this year I was recommended for ministry training, subject to approval by Methodist Conference later this month.

So that’s how God called me to be where I am today.

I wonder:

  • whether, or when, you have felt God was calling you?
  • how did you respond, or how might you still respond?
  • did it come as a surprise, or take you somewhere surprising?

Let’s encourage each other in listening for God’s call, being open to what that might be and where it might take us, as individuals, and as a community of God’s people.

I pray that God to continue to surprise us. I pray that each one of us may receive the call to know God better, or perhaps for the first time, and to know ourselves, and each other, as God sees us.

God of surprises, we thank you for speaking to Samuel;
and for speaking to us.
We thank you for the Elis in our lives; how they point us to God
and listen even when the message is surprising.
Thank you for each one of us here today;
as we are open to you and each other,
we can do great things in your name. Amen.

Permanent link to this article: https://abravefaith.com/2024/06/09/unique-meaning-in-life-listening-for-gods-call/

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