From Nudge to Insistence into Call

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Sometimes a nudge comes before the insistence. It often takes time for insistence to mature into call.

1 Samuel 3:6-7 Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?” “I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.” (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)

[Scripture taken from the Common English Bible®, CEB® Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible.Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.]

John Caputo’s dictum – “God does not exist, God insists” – has been transformative for me, opening a whole new way of thinking and being. Caputo describes that change as a movement from theology (rational reflective thoughts about God) to theopoetics (metaphorical musings about what transpires in the name of God). Insistence can sometimes best be described as the scent of the rose or the smile on the face of the world of the finger tickling the belly button of the cosmos.

Conversation about insistence seems to generate many synonyms – invitation, provocation, lure, nudge, urge, goad, stirring, prod, spur, spark, call, and more. It seems to me that these terms represent somewhat of a spectrum – “nudge” does not seem to have the potential or the passion of “insistence;” instead it represents a milder, less intense form. “Call / calling,” on the other hand, might rise to the level of another category. Insistence is a passionate stirring within; calling is a discernment arising out of the insistence and beginning to give it direction. Insistence is what Meister Eckhart calls ebulitio, “the welling up and flowing out of the love of God within.” Call is the decision and commitment to channel that welling up and give direction to the outflow. Call is the commitment to live into a response to the insistence.

As I reflect upon my personal experience with the insistence that comes in the name of God (perhaps)… as I connect personal experience with my study and practice of discernment (both individual and group)… as I attempt to make sense out of my 20 years of wilderness wandering toward calling as a Presbyterian minister… I am convinced that my intuition early on picked up on a nudge that was becoming insistence echoing around inside me. I immediately misidentified that insistence as call. It then took 20+ years of pretending to live out a calling before the insistence was transformed into a genuine call upon which I could respond.

While I had been confirmed as a member of the church at age thirteen, it was not until my senior year in high school, that I began to experience an inner nudge. For some reason I couldn’t explain, I began attending worship on my own. I had been nudged, something (I knew not what) was stirring within me.

During the middle of my junior year in college, while participating in a mission project with the Inner City Protestant Parish in Cleveland, Ohio, I was rooming with the director of our ecumenical student fellowship. He asked that question which is often asked of college juniors and seniors – “What are you going to do with your life after you graduate?” My answer was immediate, “I think I want to go to seminary and become a minister.” Because I had never consciously entertained that idea previously, I almost had to ask, “Who said that?” My intuition transformed the nudge into an insistence.

In retrospect, one thing was missing from my continuing process of faith formation. Everyone assumed that since I had articulated the insistence, I was indeed called. No one helped me process that insistence. No one asked me if I even understood what becoming or being a minister even meant. No one helped me reflect upon the kind of spiritual growth I might need to experience in order to be a Presbyterian minister or the kind of seminary education that would best prepare me. As a young Samuel, I had no Eli to whom I could run; no one to help me process the nudge, especially as it was becoming more insistent in my life.

Seminary probably should have been a time of deep struggle with faith and vocation. In truth it was relatively easy because academics was my strength. My mind was nourished; my spirit was not. During the next 20 years I served as pastor for 2 years, returned to Princeton Seminary to receive a Th.M. degree, and then served three churches as Minister of Education. My ministry showed some promise and a lot of creativity, but never demonstrated the level of productivity that was expected from me. On more than one occasion, I was asked about my sense of call. The insistence was strong; call was weak.

All that changed toward the end of August, 1981. My wife, Susan, suffered a major trauma which brought her to the brink of life and caused brain damage. Something quite different was stirring in me during the months that followed. I didn’t know whether Susan would live or die, whether she would recover or not. What I did know (even though I did not know how I knew it) was that, whatever happened to Susan, the children and I were enfolded in a genuine deep hopefulness. It was during this time that I read Ignatius on consolation and desolation. What Ignatius seemed to be saying was that if I were experiencing deep peace and that peaceableness was not a outgrowth of the circumstances of my life or something that I had earned or particularly deserved, then perhaps I might consider it as a gracious gift (without why) that comes in the name of God. That understanding began to transform insistence into call. At the end of nine hectic months, a new chapter was opening in a tumultuous way as I was fired from my position as Minister of Education.

After being fired I returned to familiar territory and was welcomed back into a previous presbytery where I spent the next year as an interim pastor and then, at the recommendation of Presbytery staff, became interim and eventually installed pastor for a congregation I served for 12 years. Those twelve years of ministry were the proving grounds for call. Nudge had morphed into insistence which then was transformed into a deep sense of call demonstrated by personal, professional, and congregational spiritual growth.

The lack of a guiding community (an Eli) to help me process the insistence I had experienced earlier in my life served as a different kind of insistence during these twelve years. I became committed to establishing (for myself) and helping others form colleague groups for personal and professional formation and continuing discernment of call. My leadership with the congregation and in the Presbytery prepared me for a new ministry as a presbytery executive. I was told by a member of the presbytery executive search committee that I was the only one of their four candidates who had demonstrated a clear sense of calling to that ministry.

An early stirring, a nudge, intensified into an insistence. Ministers, professors, Presbytery candidates committee, family members, and I misinterpreted that insistence as a calling. In retrospect, however, that insistence had not been nurtured so that it could mature into call. Personal maturing had to precede the maturing of my call. As is sometimes the case, personal tragedy and grief can accelerate that process, as it did with me. Caputo suggests that instead of a projection, insistence is a projectile that pierces us. Call happens when the direction of that projectile is discerned, committed to, and acted upon.

Half of my forty years of ministry was spent living a lie because I had not progressed beyond insistence and, in fact, had continued to mis-interpret my experience of insistence as call. My ministry struggled because creativity became a substitute for call. My creativity kept a shield around my inner being, protecting me from being “outed.” I could hide the reality of my faltering faith by making creativity the face I showed the world. The insistence continued to insist but was not yet transformative – that is, not until the protective carapace was stripped away by my wife’s trauma and I began to listen to the vibrations of my inner self. Listening, I clearly heard anew the insistence, discerned its direction, and committed to it. The insistence finally transformed into call; my trying/pretending to do ministry finally became ministry.

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