Vision, then, will paint for us a marvelous picture of what we older people can do not only for God and other people, but for ourselves. Tens of thousands of senior citizens have learned that once they are locked into the idea of becoming useful, growing old acquires much more than utility value. It becomes a kind of junket, a hayride, full of serendipities, unexpected excitements, and sometimes hilarious enjoyments. People give over their thumb-twiddling, or playing solitaire, or watching television, and get with the flow of life. They start blooming like heather on the heath.
At this point a skeptical reader might object: "What you say is all very well, but when we make hints that we would like to be useful, the younger crowd manages to elbow us out of the way." And others might chime in: "Be honest who really needs us? Who considers us competent? What is there for us to do that someone younger can't do better?"
When I run into such objections, I avoid specific replies that can easily become self-defeating. I prefer to go to the most comprehensive resource I know, the Bible. It gives us a word that speaks to such problems.
That word is calling.
What in the world is "a calling"?
Before we define the term, let's back up a moment. The primary goal of the Christian life, according to the New Testament, is to know the will of God and to do it. Scripture usually interprets that will in terms of human beings. When Christ sent out disciples, He sent them to people. They were to witness to people, to heal people, to offer heart and hand to people. If they were called to suffer for their faith, they were to do so on behalf of people. They were to follow the example of their Lord, who died neither for truth nor virtue nor any other cause, but for people.
The way a Christian goes about fulfilling the divine will among his or her fellows is known in Scripture as a calling, or vocation. Those words, which are identical in meaning (one has a Hebrew and one a Latin root), have gone through many changes and have lost much of their original spiritual quality. The Oxford English Dictionary still defines vocation as "action on the part of God of calling a person." But when we say of a person, "He missed his calling," it's doubtful that we are referring to some kind of call or summons of God to that person. Both terms, vocation and calling, have become secularized in common usage.
Nevertheless the Bible is very clear that it is God who calls. Paul describes to the Philippians the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, and he tells Timothy that God has "saved us and called us to a holy life."1
Once we have grasped the significance and importance of having a vision of what God wants for our lives as we grow older, we are to wait for a call from God unless, of course, we already have one. This call will come to us personally and may well summon us to an immediate, distinct, and particular field of endeavor. It may be something we are already doing; it may be something altogether new. To understand where the call comes from, it would help if we looked at certain Scriptures.
Paul's letters set forth the principle that God calls men and women to special tasks in His cause and evokes from them an active response. He himself was called to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Greek-speaking people all over the known world.2 We see this also in the very distinct call of God to Abraham in Genesis: "The Lord said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.' "3 Let the reader note that Abraham was seventy-five years old when this call came to him.
The Bible records many similar calls. Moses heard a voice calling to him from a thorn bush in the desert.4 It told him that God was sending him to the pharoah of Egypt, that he was to lead the
persecuted Israelite tribes out of slavery to a new land. The text informs us that Moses, like Abraham, was a senior citizen, eighty years old to be exact, when he undertook his mission to the court of Pharaoh.5
God also issued clear and specific calls to Gideon, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Jonah, and Peter, to mention just a few biblical personalities. These calls seem to have been audible: God spoke and men heard. Joan of Arc said she heard voices that came from God ordering her to lift the siege of Orleans and unite and liberate France. To list all the other men and women of church history who claimed to have heard audible divine calls would be pointless; let the record simply show that God does speak at times in that way.
But does He call people in other ways? Of course! If all praying people had to depend on was audible responses, my guess is that Heaven would register a sharp drop in the number of daily prayers offered. Yet even though no audible sound comes through, worshipers are often convinced that during a season of communication with God they receive a divine summons to a specific action. Such conviction is open to challenge, of course. A young man once informed that grand old man of literacy, Dr. Frank Laubach, that "prayer is nothing but auto-suggestion." Dr. Laubach replied, "That's all right, my boy, God can use auto-suggestion."6
But a call can also come through the circumstances in which one finds oneself. A trip down
the Mississippi to New Orleans when he was twenty-two years old must have hardened Abraham Lincoln's convictions regarding slavery. The impressions he received found expression in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Wilfred Grenfell in 1885 while a medical student heard Dwight L. Moody speak at an East London tent meeting. He accepted Moody's challenge as a voice from God and became Grenfell of Labrador, devoting his life to the physical and spiritual needs of the people of that barren land. Nevil Shute writes about a young British woman who was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II and forced to march through Malaysian jungles. For a while she lived with the natives. After the war she went back to the village and hired men to dig a well so the women who had befriended her would have fresh water in which to wash. It was only after a diving accident had paralyzed her from the neck down that Joni Eareckson sensed a call to what has become a world-wide ministry on behalf of the handicapped.
Circumstances can expose us to conditions in which it is hard to evade the blunt truth that if God has any reality at all in our lives, He is calling us to do something.
I once studied under a man who claimed that if we want to know God's call in our lives, we ought to find out first of all what God made us able to do. He had pioneered guidance counseling by assembling a battery of tests and measurements to determine aptitude, ability, and
level of intelligence, to which he added social and vocational interests.7 He was right to this extent: Some people do have a knack for certain types of work as against other types. Some excel at math; others suffer from poor rote memory. People born with low finger dexterity probably should not study the piano, at either age six or sixty.
The difficulty with this approach lies not in its scientific basis but in its theological presupposition. It assumes that God is not free to act, that He is limited to His own natural means, that He cannot strike a powerful blow on a crooked stick. And it is preposterous. Who can tie strings on the Almighty? Nothing is too hard for God. When it comes to human beings, He can use anyone He chooses, whatever his or her qualifications. Evangelist Joe Blinco used to say that God has an exasperating habit of laying His hands on the wrong man. He picked a man totally lacking in communication skills, for example, to face the reigning monarch of Egypt and demand freedom for the foreign slave.
What if human ability is lacking? To surmount difficulties and handicaps is part of the business of life. When God calls He expects us to go beyond our skills and aptitudes. That's why our reach exceeds our grasp. Did not Jesus say, "To him who overcomes I will give the right to eat from the tree of life"?8 If you want to find out what God wants you to do from here out, perhaps you should apply to the Lord Himself,
rather than limit yourself to scoring your intelligence quotient.
In the beginning of the twentieth century a young graduate of Cornell University was engaged in a most amazing effort to win the entire world to Jesus Christ. His name was John R. Mott. During his years as secretary of the World Student Volunteer Movement, Mott's travels took him everywhere to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India, Latin America, Australia, China, Japan, and the islands of the Pacific. And everywhere he went, he led young men and women to Christ. In 1946 he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Something John Mott said has stayed with me for many years, and I would like to offer it as the best definition of a call of God that I have ever heard. He said: "The awareness of a need, and the capacity to meet that need: This constitutes a call."9
The statement seems to imply: What difference does it make how old you are, or how young? If you see a need and can do something about it and it lines up with the vision God has given you for serving Him, you have a call. The call may come to you over the telephone or in the mail or in a chance meeting on the street. It may come during a worship service in church you may be inspired to start writing letters to overseas missionaries. It may come to you through something you have read or from the question of a child. You'll find you don't have to go after it; it goes after you. At the beginning it requires no
arranging, no promotion; that will come later. To recognize a need, and be able to meet that need, is a situation that can take place anywhere. God opens the door, and that's it: You are off and running.
Ah, but wait a minute. They tell us we are old folks. They laugh and say we couldn't take calls from God without a hearing aid! Their advice is "Go easy, old timer. You had your day." They may dismiss us as codgers, geezers, gaffers, fogeys, fossils, baldies, fuddy-duddies, hags, crones, buzzards, back-numbers, goats and nannies, and turn their backs on us.
Well, are they right? Is that what we are? Don't make me laugh. Tell it to Nestor, the old Greek warrior in Homer's Iliad, who taught his son how to race a chariot and the mighty Achilles how to fight. Tell it to Mother Teresa. Tell it to Colonel Sanders. Tell it to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, whose personal faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ enabled him to rescue the German nation from the grave Hitler had dug for it.
Here, then, is a top-of-the-line solution to what sociology insists on calling "the problem of the ageing." The solution is this: Find your calling! It may come to you in prayer or Bible study; it may emerge from daily circumstances; it may come as a result of great and sudden need; it may even come through your own vocational skills and interests. Find it! Listen for it!
A word to remind you: There are other voices in the world, and they too have their calls. Some
are pleasant; many are tempting. Make sure that the Word of God validates the call to which you are listening. Talk to Christian friends about your call. Get all the help you can, but remember that in the ultimate sense your call is not coming from king or priest or family or friends or anyone else but God Himself. And that further, the call of God is irrevocable.
When Moses first heard God's call to go to Egypt and demand the release of his countrymen, he resisted it. "What if they don't believe me?" he asked. "What if they won't listen?" God's reply was in the form of another question: "What is that in your hand?"10 It was a state-of-the-art question. Today God may be asking you the same question: What is that in your hand? So you're retired. So people say you are elderly. What are you doing right now? Why aren't you doing it for God? Paul says that God's call is irrevocable. Once He calls, He never takes it back.
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1. See Phil. 3:14 and 2 Tim. 1:9.
2. See Acts 9:15 and Gal. 1:16.
3. Gen. 12:1-2 NIV
4. Ex. 3:4 NIV
5. See Ex. 7:7.
6. From a conversation between the late Dr. Laubach and the author.
7. See Ernest M. Ligon, The Psychology of Christian Personality (New York: Macmillan, 1946).
8. Rev. 2:7 NIV
9. Alexander Miller, Christian Faith and My Job (New York: Association Press, 1946).
10. Ex. 4:2.
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