It’s a part of the mystery of following God that every disciple encounters––including pastors––in their own way: how to ‘hear’ God calling. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know who God made me to be?
There is no single, clear answer to this question. I get a little frustrated with curricula that make this process a test to take and a score to receive. Sure, those can be a tiny part of the journey of discerning vocation, but there is something much, much deeper to be listened for over years. God blessed me with that …communication… Friday. It was one of those experiences that needed nearly 48 hours and a lot of conversation with my friends/colleagues/travel companions before it came into enough focus to try to write it down.
Friday we met with Peter Storey, retired pastor, former Methodist bishop, and seminary professor at Duke Divinity School for 7 years (including the 3 I was there) and interim leader of the Methodist seminary here in South Africa for the past several years. Dr. Storey was a prominent voice in the struggle against Apartheid, serving as chaplain at Robben Island during a portion of Mandela’s imprisonment, serving as pastor of the Methodist church in District 6 during the forced removal (see my earlier post “The Face of Evil”), leading Johannesburg’s largest Methodist Church to integrate (when it was illegal to do so), and working closely with Desmond Tutu in the height of the struggle. Peter is my hero in ministry and a friend.
In class at Duke with Peter and in worship when he preached, I was captivated in a way that remains unique in my experience. Something about Peter and his story connect with me at a deeper level than usual with other teachers, mentors, or heroes of mine. I left Duke having been formed most deeply by Peter’s teaching and witness. I didn’t see him again until 3 years later when I brought him to St. Luke’s to do a workshop for the church leadership. Hearing him then was a profound reconnection for me, (and he made a real impact on St. Luke’s––folks are still mentioning it to me when we cross paths today). And Friday was the first time I’d seen him since that visit in 2006.
I was, of course, glad to see my friend and mentor. But something bigger was happening for me. As Peter talked about his experiences, taught us about how Apartheid worked, and called us to be the kind of leaders he was as a pastor and bishop, the still small voice of God that had been whispering for years (and especially this week) became a roar. I didn’t hear anything; it wasn’t words that were appearing in my head, like sometimes happens. It was an emotional experience––my heart overflowing. (I have tears in my eyes remembering it now.) I sat there listening to Peter talk about what it looked like to be a biblical prophet in 1960s South Africa, weeping. I didn’t have specific thoughts, I didn’t have specific plans, my brain wasn’t buzzing. My soul was on fire. If there was a word in my mind, it was, “Yes.” Over and over I kept thinking ‘yes. That’s it. That’s who I am.’ Not that I am Peter Storey, but that my calling, my identity, overlaps significantly with the way Peter describes ministry. And, evidently, since it took a couple of days to manage to write even this much, the clarity of that moment doesn’t easily translate into clarity on the surface, or clarity about what to do next.
Despite the fact that it doesn’t come with a road map, I thank God for those moments when the whisper becomes a roar, when the wave deep inside crashes, when the Divine Presence fills me so full it flows out my eyes. In moments like that, I know in the deepest way possible that all will be well, at the very same time that I don’t know how that will come to be.