I was five, and had spoken rudely to my mother when she scolded me. Cora was there that day, and was ready to pounce. “Don’t you speak to your mama like that! You better tell God you’re sorry. . . Go on. Now. Tell God.”
I wasn’t sure how to go about making such an apology. My parents had not explained much to me about God, even though they were Southern Baptists! I went outside, looked at the sky, figuring God must be up there somewhere, and saw a cloud shaded with darkness. Maybe that was God frowning at me? I scuffed my feet in the Arkansas dirt for awhile, and then looked up quickly. “I . . . I’m sorry,” I said as fast as I could, and ran inside. It was a strange encounter with God, only later to be more carefully defined.
Theologians might put that incident under the rubric of “Repentance.” My unschooled mind would not have defined the moment as anything but a way to say “I’m sorry.” It must have been significant for me, however, because 74 years later I still remember it. I’ve even used it as a sermon illustration at times, but the major actor in the scene turned out to be Cora, not me. I credit her as the one who introduced me to God, even though it was to the God Who Judges.
Not long after that, my next-door neighbors, the Catholic twin sisters three years older than I, attending parochial school, informed me that the trees and all that was in our back yard belonged to God. Thus I learned of God the Creator. For several days after that, I wandered through the yard pointing to each thing: “This is God’s tree; this is God’s bush; this is God’s grass; this is God’s dirt.” I was becoming a theologian.
My next encounter with God was when I entered first grade. Miss Briggs, our teacher, began each day with a story from a book of Bible stories for children. One day she read about Samuel’s call in the Temple. Samuel, a little boy, was awakened one night by repeatedly hearing his named called. Thinking it was the old priest Eli, the one he was apprenticed to, he would run to answer. Finally, Eli told him it must be God, and to answer with “Speak Lord, for thy servant hears.” When Samuel heard the call in the night again, he answered as he had been instructed, and received God’s call to him and the message of what he was to do in response.
That afternoon I was again in my favorite spot, the back yard, when I heard ever so softly, “Jean! Jean!” I answered with the words Samuel had used in the Temple, but finally realized the sound was only a breeze through the trees. Again, however, I heard, “Jean! Jean!” and answered, “Speak Lord, for thy servant hears.” But this time it was the sound of a truck in the distance. Once more came the voice, “Jean! Jean!” and my answer was again that of Samuel’s. I then discovered it was the swish of small branches rubbing against each other. Thus ended my Divine calling for that time.
It was 37 years later that the actual call came to me, not as a voice speaking my name, but through an inner sense, and this time I recognized it as valid. I answered by enrolling in divinity school. Since then my journey has been in response to what I understood was God’s message to me. It may not have come to me at all. But it was why I continued believing in what I was doing, and in some manner keep on doing but in new contexts.
I sometimes ask myself, (but no one else), if God still calls in the middle of the night, or while I shuffle and glance upward toward the dark clouds. The answer does not come. I’m no longer five years old, but now I continue life acting as though I know I’m under a call, even though it may be a fantasy. It’s better than the paths I did not take.
In his sermon titled “The Calling of Voices,” Frederick Buechner says, “You hide your face in the little padded temple of your hands, and a voice says, ‘Whom shall I send into the pain of a world where people die?’ And if you are not careful, you may find yourself answering, ‘Send me.’ You may hear the voice say, ‘Go.’” Just go.
And so I did.