Samuel’s call in the Hebrew Scriptures is a biblical story that has always hit close to home for me. In a cursory read of 1 Samuel 3: 1-18 most people grasp on to the infamous quotes, “Here I am; you called me,” and “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The story encapsulates a very traditional understanding of the Christian conception of vocation.
As Katharine Mahon wrote in her introduction to our Vocation Bible School series, vocation can be broadly understood as “the calling or destiny we have in this life and hereafter.” Biblically speaking, vocation is about the ability to hear God calling us to a greater depth of being and/or more fervent prophetic action. Should we have the capacity to listen and to hear God calling, our vocation is to follow accordingly. Often we see Samuel as the archetype for vocation and discernment. But Samuel’s call is so much more complex than God calling a young boy who eagerly responds. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Three times God calls out to Samuel, and three times he goes running to the priest instead. God’s voice is – quite literally – right in front of him. And yet it is not until the fourth call that Samuel willing responds, “Here I am.”
Samuel’s inability to hear God calling out to him elicits my deepest insecurities about discernment and vocation (as I know it does for many people too) because of all the times God has tried calling out to me and I either failed to hear it or stubbornly continued on with my own agenda. And it is in those moments of insecurity that I envy the way God called out to Samuel. I spend time wishing that the voice of God was so clearly and blatantly in front of me that I had the ability to respond, “Here I am.” It feels as though I spend most of my own questions of discernment trying to guess what God wants me to do. Wouldn’t it be nice, I wonder, for God to call out to me in the middle of the night and directly tell me how I can best be a disciple?
On Sunday morning I opened the New York Times and read the feature story, “The Battle for Venezuela, Through a Lens and a Gas Mask.” Here is the breakdown. After the death of Hugo Chavez (the former leader of the ruling Socialist party) in 2013 and his succession by current Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, the number of social and political challenges facing the country skyrocketed. So too did the level of violence. One of its central challenges for the past several years has been its failing economy. The world’s highest inflation rats and price controls have resulted in severe shortages of necessities like food, medicine, milk, and toilet paper. While these products might be affordable at the local market, the limited amount of items is quickly procured by the black market – where people sell these essential goods at a much higher rate. A rate so high that the average Venezuelan simply cannot afford it. And while food and medicine are disappearing from the shelf – Mr. Maduro tightens his authoritarian grip on the nation to control the civil unrest. And most recently, protests have intensified since Mr. Maduro has called for a rewrite of the nation’s Constitution.
The author of the times article, Meredith Kohut, draws attentiveness to the plight of the Venezuelans who are struggling under the countries authoritarian rule and suffering from its failing economy. One of the protesters she quotes is a 22 year old who said he was fighting because “ of medicine shortages that killed his mother, worsened his grandmother’s high blood pressure and left his asthmatic little sister gasping.” And to make matters even more severe, his family can only afford one meal a day, usually just plain white rice. The article quotes Tyler, “We are living with a hunger that we have never had before.” Another protester said, “If they don’t kill us here protesting, we will die either way – be killed for a cellphone or a pair of sneakers – or we will die of hunger or die simply from catching any disease because there is no medicine here.”
I put the paper down on the table and reread the quotes:
“We are living with a hunger that we have never had before.”
“If they don’t kill us here protesting, we will die either way …”
While reading those quotes, I was reminded all over again that, like Samuel, I fail to hear God calling out to me even at the moments when it is loud and clear. It leads me to question whether or not the way I understand vocation – the call of who I am meant to be and what I am meant to do – effectively at all.
It does not come as a surprise to me that we understand vocation selfishly. Even the most profound reflections on vocation and discernment place us at the center. For example, Michael Himes (one of my favorite college professors) has three famous questions for determining what your vocation is: is this a source of joy? Is this something that taps into your talents and gifts and uses them in the fullest possible way? Is this role a genuine service to the people around you, to society at large? In short – What brings you joy? What are you good at? What does the world need you to do?
And I think those questions are important. But perhaps the order in which they are asked needs to be reversed. What if we began our questions on discernment and on vocation with asking ourselves who we need to be for the world and what we need to do for those who are suffering under its systems of oppression.
Chances are, God will not call out to each of us in the middle of the night in a loud booming voice. But God is in fact still speaking. I would venture to argue that discerning the voice of the Divine in our midst is more obvious than we might think. If we remain entrenched in an understanding of vocation that is so self possessed, we might miss those people and places where God is speaking.
“I thirst” (John 19:28).
“We are living with hunger.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Please don’t let me die.”
How many times will we, like Samuel, hear God calling but fail to respond? Will we continue on with our own agendas or respond, “Here I am.” Our vocation as Christians to build the Kingdom might depend on our ability to do so.
Meg Stapleton Smith is a Ph.D. Student in Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. She received her M.A. degree in Ethics from Yale Divinity School in 2016 and received her B.A. degree in Theology from Boston College in 2013. Prior to her time at Yale, she was Director of Campus Ministry and a Theology teacher at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, MA. Her current research interests lie primarily in analyzing Christian virtue ethics from a liberationist perspective.