Dr. Randy L. Hyde
The question has come to me many times and from varied sources. More often than not, the one who asks is young. It is the young, for the most part, who wrestle with a sense of calling, who look for purpose in life, especially in regard to vocation. The question, of course, goes far beyond simply earning a paycheck. It has to do with calling. So the question I am asked is, how and when did I feel called to be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ? They want to know if their experience is normative, or if their struggle is one that only they themselves have come to know.
Interestingly, I’ve been asked this a couple of times recently. It had been awhile, then bang, bang… twice, in a relatively short period of time. And it’s not so much that the questioner thinks he or she is being called to do vocational ministry, but that they are struggling with something much higher and at the same time deeper than anything they’ve dealt with before. In short, they want to hear the voice of God. Or, they want to know if what they’ve been hearing of late is the voice of God.
Sometimes, when people find out I have a brother who is also a pastor, they immediately assume our dad must have been a preacher too. That way, our decision to enter ministry would be more or less natural, more a matter of genetics or conditioning than anything else. But no, I tell them if I had followed suit I would have been a wholesale grocer salesman.
I’ve wished, from time to time, that I could give a quite dramatic response, something straight out of a Victorian English novel perhaps. “Well, you see, it was the night of July 17, 1965. I was walking through a deep forest between my village and the tiny church in the glen where we worshiped. The wind was blowing gently through the trees as the moon flirted furtively with the evening clouds. I could hear the rustling of leaves and the movement of the forest animals. It was then that I heard a still small voice calling my name. ‘Randy, this is what I want you to do…'”
But it didn’t happen that way. Not only did I not have to walk through a forest to get to church (we rode in our family’s 1962 Pontiac Fire Chief), but to this day I have never audibly heard the voice of God. And frankly, I’ve never met anybody who could tell me that’s the way the call of God came to them either.
A growing conviction is all it was. And since I was a teenager at the time, I can’t even tell you that such a conviction carried much maturity or deep perspective with it either. It was just a gradual understanding that this is what God wanted me to do with my life.
It might have been the encouragement of others that did it, but I can’t tell you that for certain either.
I grew up in the days of Baptist Training Union. Every Sunday night we had to get up in front of our teachers and our peers and offer a presentation. We called them “parts,” and if you ever attended Training Union you remember, don’t you? If you had to read your part, as opposed to saying it without notes, that meant you hadn’t studied. And if you came to Training Union without having prepared… well, you had to suffer the shame of all those who were gathered there with you. Many a Sunday night, while getting ready for church, I crammed to learn my “part.” There was a lot of pressure involved in Training Union, and having gone through that has come in handy over the years, let me tell you.
Maybe one of my teachers said something to me like, “Randy, you do a pretty good job presenting your parts. Have you ever thought about becoming a preacher?” I don’t really recall, but it might have happened that way.
I do know this. I was not alone in my growing awareness of what God wanted me to do. By the time I graduated from high school, my little hometown church had licensed me to ministry, and since I grew up in a small town just about everybody knew about it. At least, everybody who was important to me or known to me was aware of it.
But then again, I wasn’t the only one who was hearing the whispers of God. Monday, Janet and I drove up to Paragould for the funeral of Joyce Cooper, the mother of Jimmie Lou Fisher and Debbie Rogers. I will remind you, the very few of you here today who aren’t aware of it, that Paragould is also my hometown. After the burial, we went back to their sister’s home to eat. Several of us who were in school together stood around and reminisced about old times. During the conversation, we talked about how there had been five of us in our graduating class who had “surrendered” to ministry: Randy Maxwell, Keith Goza, Gerry Claybrook, Bobby Grooms, and myself. It had never happened before, having that many would-be preachers in one class, and I suppose it’s not happened since.
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Sometimes, I don’t have to go back to my hometown to be recognized. Arkansas is a small world, you know. Six weeks ago Janet and I drove up to Mountain Home to attend the funeral of Leta Jones’ father. The service in the chapel was completed and as we walked out a man came up to me. “Are you Randy Hyde?” he asked. He identified himself, but he didn’t really have to. It was Jerry Frie, with his wife Betty.
Though I hadn’t seen them in over thirty years, I remembered them. They had been active in youth work at First Baptist in Paragould and their son Bill was a year behind me in school. They gave me, as a high school graduation gift, the very first book to go into my pastoral library, the first volume of William Barclay’s commentary on the New Testament.
Looking back on all this I have come to a realization. I was completely and utterly surrounded by encouragement in my calling as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I didn’t need an evening stroll through a forest or the audible voice of God come down from a starlit heaven. God came to me in the form of those who encouraged and guided and shaped and walked beside me.
So I wonder… Is that the way it was for Jeremiah? And did he really have a choice in the matter?
“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying…”
Just once, just once, I wish we didn’t have to read between the lines when it comes to interpreting scripture. How did the word of the Lord come to Jeremiah? We know the story of Moses. It was a burning bush. Even the story of Gideon provides more detail as to God’s call. Where was Jeremiah and what was he doing? Was he in the bathtub? Was he in the street playing kickball with his buddies (after all, we know he was young)? Was he in the temple worshiping? We just don’t know. “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying…”
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…” It hardly seems fair, does it? Jeremiah hasn’t got a chance. What if he had wanted to be a college professor, or apprentice as a furniture maker? Be a wholesale grocer salesman maybe. But no, God has his life all mapped out and Jeremiah can do nothing but surrender to God’s will.
That’s another thing… Why do we call it surrender to ministry? It conveys the image of holding up one’s hands in resignation, like you would if someone comes up to you in a dark parking lot with a gun in his hands and says, “Gimme all you got.”
Maybe it’s because, if we were the only ones to have any say in the matter, ministry is not something we would necessarily choose for ourselves. Do you think that could be it? Certainly, other vocations pay better. You can always find a job that provides a bit more prestige and doesn’t require you to be on call 24/7. And, as Barbara Brown Taylor points out, there is always “the uneasy sense that God might be dangerous,” a dazzling light that warms but can also burn, reducing, as she puts it, “the whole world to ash.”1
After all, if you’re going to speak for God – which is pretty audacious, if you stop and think about it – you better get it right or else. It’s the “or else” that always hangs over the preacher’s head, like the sharp suspended blade of a guillotine just before it drops. Every day is filled with the “or else.”
Maybe that has something to do with the fact that answering the call to ministry is described as surrender.
And perhaps that is why there is almost always a great reluctance involved. If you know the scriptures at all, you are aware that there are themes running throughout, threads that bind the lives of the biblical characters together in a common journey. For example, the Old Testament is filled with the stories of women who are barren, unable to bear children. In that culture, to be barren was the kiss of death. If a woman had no children in general, and no sons in particular, she was in a world of hurt. She had no one to take care of her. Of course, that isn’t true in our society where a woman now can stand on her own two feet and manage quite nicely without a man by her side, thank you very much. But not centuries ago in the world of the Middle East. No children, no reason for living. It was as simple as that.
So there is this thread that runs throughout the Old Testament and even into the early days of the New. From Sarah to Rebekah to Hannah to Elizabeth, barren women are given the blessing of God to have sons. It was a sign of God’s divine visitation upon them and, not incidentally, makes for a really good and compelling story.
Another biblical thread has to do with the calling to ministry. Just about every story reveals that the one who is called is reluctant to respond. Gideon, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel… you name them, they don’t want to do what God is calling them to do. Life was fine just the way it was. Now suddenly, God comes along and tells them they are chosen. Look at how quick they are with the excuses. Gideon was just a farmer and Moses had a stutter. Isaiah was a sinner and Ezekiel had a bitter heart. Surely God can do better than toss in his lot with these guys! After all, think about the preachers you have ever known, and my guess is that in your heart of hearts you have always suspected that, surely, God could have done better.
Why Jeremiah? Of all people, why Jeremiah? He was nothing but a boy. One minute he’s playing hide-and-seek with his cousins from next door, the next he’s having to defend himself before God. “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But the Lord says to him, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”
“Why should I be afraid of them? Who’s ‘them’? Why will I need to be delivered?”
And then God gives him the good news… or the bad news, depending on how you want to look at it. “Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
If we didn’t know any better, we might think that was the job description for the office of president. But no, there is no personal power attached to all this. If you’ve got the Oval Office behind you, you can do all these things and still have the Secret Service to protect you. But if all you hold in your hands is the word of God and the knowledge that you’ve been called to say and do these things, you’re about as vulnerable as they come. People won’t be reluctant at all to take pot shots, throw you in jail – or put you in a hole in the ground – do all manner of evil things toward you and not think a blessed thing about it. That, in a nutshell, is what happened to Jeremiah.
All because God called him, and he could do nothing but surrender.
I have not been given the gift of clairvoyance… for which I am quite grateful. There would be too much pressure involved. But I can almost read your mind right now. I can. You’re sitting there thinking, “If it’s all that dangerous, I’m glad God hasn’t called me.” That is what you were thinking, isn’t it? Or at least, something like it. “Why, I couldn’t stand in front of a bunch of people and talk about spiritual things – certainly week after week.”
I would ask you to reconsider. You see, there are calls to ordination, to be sure. But there are also calls to other forms of faith, and I don’t think age or experience or speaking ability has that much to do with it.
Have you ever sought the voice of God? Have you ever sensed that God was trying to get your attention? Have you ever thought that perhaps God had something in store for you? My guess is you responded, as did all these folk in the Bible, with great reluctance. “Lord, I am too young.” “I’m too old.” “Sorry, I’ve got plans.” “It’s just not in the cards.”
If so, I have a suggestion for you. Live your life, the life God has given you up to this point. Go on, just live it. Do what pleases you, what fulfills you, what gets your blood moving, your heart pumping, your imagination jumping. Live your life and give it all you’ve got. Then, give it to God. Offer your life – such as it is and all that it is – to God as a living sacrifice. Acknowledge that you belong to God and no other. Then see where the journey takes you.
My guess is that when it is all over, you will be able to say that, indeed, you were called to be the servant of God. And regardless of how you did so, listening to the Voice is what made all the difference.
Lord, we’re not sure how you do it, or even why, but we do believe you are still in the business of calling people to do your will. May each of us be open to hearing your voice, however you may choose to speak to us. In Jesus’ name we ask it, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 19.
— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.