I was sitting with Alan Saunders on the back seat of his parents’ Ford Zodiac driving up Brooke Road West. Suddenly his mother swivelled around: “Ross, I hear you want to be a missionary when you grow up.”
I was both surprised and mildly embarrassed. And as a nine-year old I learnt the painful truth that you can’t always trust your friends to keep your confidences.
That is as much as I can remember. But the point is that even as a child I had a sense of God’s call on my life.
This Sunday our new curate Sarah O’Donoghue is being ordained at Liverpool Cathedral. And she too tells of a sense of God’s calling even as a child.
In fact, Bishop James invariably ended an ordination service by addressing the children, presumably by now bored out of their minds after a two hour marathon, to be alert to God’s call on their lives. From his experience so many of those he ordained speak of their childhood sense of vocation.
The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah speaks of God’s commissioning, even as a child.
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ (Jeremiah 1:4)
Jeremiah had a deep-down sense of being chosen by God for a particular purpose. And his response? “Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
Human beings as we are, we do our best to sidestep God’s claim on our lives. Sometimes we may go to considerable lengths to avoid his commission.
Later in his ministry Jeremiah is worn out by representing God to a wayward people. He wants out – but God won’t let him.
“But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9).
In my own case God wouldn’t let me go. Amazingly I was awarded a place at my theological college at St John’s Durham by mistake. I had already accepted a job as an economist for British Railways (and judging by yesterday’s news they still need me); my life now stretched out before me on two parallel lines. But God had other ideas. He pulled the points.
I thought I was simply having a friendly chat with the principal – we were staying with friends over the road and I was at a loose end that morning. He thought he was interviewing me for a place. Sometimes God pulls a fast one.
But usually he doesn’t. He looks for our free response to follow his guidance, not necessarily to ordination. In fact, it could be anything. The danger is we can sidestep God’s call.
In George Elliot’s Middlemarch, Tertius Lydgate is a young doctor with high ideals but choosing the easy paths he never completes his life’s ambition. For the onlooker he seems to have found success but we the reader know that he dies with an acute sense of failure.
So what happens when we realise that we have not heeded God’s call?
Sometimes it may mean going back and starting afresh.
One of my colleagues at St John’s was Francis Pym. Strangely I first came across Francis some months before meeting him, in a glossy in my dentist’s waiting room. Francis was an award-winning architect but awards or not, he faced up to the fact that he had failed to respond to God’s call to ordination years earlier.
But often by returning to God we cannot simply Return to Go. Life has moved on.
God’s guidance is not an inflexible plan – it is always a relationship. And so the Holy Spirit can, so to speak, press the reset key. But that doesn’t make it any easier. We may have hard choices.
But first we need to own up to the truth that we have, for whatever reason, failed to respond to God’s calling. We may even have thought that we could bounce God into a new situation of our own making so that there was no way back.
Whatever, we need to simply by honest to God and more importantly, to ourselves. No self deception. Then simply pray “What now, Lord?”
Margaret Nadauld writes: “Your heavenly Father will help you find the right path as you seek his guidance. Remember though, after you pray you must get off your knees and start doing something positive; head in the right direction! He will send people along the way who will assist you, but you must be doing your part as well.”
“We plan the way we want to live, but only God makes us able to live it.” (Proverbs 16:9).
So we pray for Sarah and those being ordained with her this Sunday 10.30 am at the Cathedral
For your info Bishop Paul is hosting a Life Call evening Wednesday week, 8 July 7.00 pm All Saints Stoneycroft,