Initially, I did not hear God’s call. I saw it. And then, over the years, I would feel it and hear it and taste it, but I have only seen it once.
I was nine years old. It was the summer before fifth grade, and I was attending a G.A. camp with dear friends. One evening as we were singing ridiculously silly songs beside the campfire, I caught a glimpse of an orange figure to the left of the fire. It was a massive figure that seemed human until I looked at it directly, and then it blurred and shifted. I remember asking the girl standing next me if she saw the odd figure, too, and she responded with a look that communicated, “You’ve had too much Kool-Aid and pixy stix, Shelley.” She wasn’t wrong. The evening ended, and we retreated to reluctant sleep in our cabins, but I was awakened in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I had just dreamed of the orange figure. It was giant but kind, warm but not burning. It had no face, but I knew it was smiling; it had no arms, but I knew it was reaching out to me. When I awoke, the cabin was pitch-black, and no other girl was awake for me to share my odd dream with. Yet I had this undeniable, terrifying thought that was placed in my heart by the orange figure . . . the thought that I would be in the ministry.
I realize that my mystical experience, at the age of nine, in the highly manipulative environment of summer camp and under the influence of the powerful drug of processed sugar, is by most people responsibly rejected outright as the fanciful imagination of a kid. I understand that reaction, and I do not blame others for that response. In fact, this portion of my “call” is generally kept a secret for fear that I will be dismissed as crazy. Yet I still see that orange figure just as vividly as I did twenty-four years ago.
Perhaps God knows just how to speak to a nine-year-old who believes in miracles and a God who wrestles Jacob. Perhaps God knew that I would need something so utterly convincing that I would not blanch when mentors told me that my only ministerial options as a woman were to be a foreign missionary or a pastor’s wife. Perhaps I needed some image that I would either have to embrace as real, or reject as pure lunacy, to tether me to the church when I felt propelled into the world of academia. Perhaps I needed a memory that was so beautiful and reassuring and intoxicating to keep me in love with the church when ministry jobs became toxic.
Graciously, God has not left me to cling to one questionably sane vision of a call. As I have developed as a minister, and most importantly as God’s daughter, I have heard my call in the reassuring words of others who ministered alongside me. I have tasted my call to strive for wholeness in the broken body of the church when I have passed the bread and wine. I have felt my call in the wrinkled hand that I held beside a hospital bed. I have read my call in the ancient text of the Bible. But I am so grateful that I was able to see that call just once, and that God’s call comes to all of our senses over the entire span of our lives.
Shelley Hasty Woodruff is completing a Doctor of Theology degree in Homiletics at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, Josh, and their daughter, Lottie.