July 27, 2014
Last summer I was asked to talk with a group of college students involved in tutoring ministries with children in low-income neighborhoods of Dallas. The ministry is called Project Transformation. The students stay in dormitories at Southern Methodist University where I teach, and I was asked to talk with them about what it means to be "called," since a number of them were sensing a call to full-time ministry of one kind or another.
Here is the gist of what I shared with them:
I do a lot of guest preaching. And I got tired of just saying good morning. I thought I would try out a quirkier, more interesting opening remark. I was at a United Methodist Church in Anthony, Kansas a few years back, doing a weekend of teaching and preaching. The pastor introduced me and I stood up and said, "Good morning. I am here this morning because your pastor invited me to be here. But the main reason I'm here is because I don't have anywhere better to be."
I meant that as a compliment, but I could see by their faces that they thought I was insulting them and their church. But actually I was speaking the truth! I didn't have anyplace better to be than that church. I didn't have anything better to do than preach the good news as I have been called to do.
All Christians share a common vocation to be a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ. Within that common vocation we have different callings. Some are called to ordained ministry, but by no means all. Every calling we live out in faithful response to God's claim on our lives has meaning and also entails sacrifice. Every calling boils down to specific, often tedious tasks, whether it is tutoring children, writing, composing music, building a school in a country far from home, or scrubbing toilets in a school close to home.
In Romans 8:28, Paul reassures the Roman church that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose. But in the midst of these scenes and sacrifices in which we live out our callings, it is only human to wonder things like: Isn't there someplace better I could be? Couldn't I be making more money doing something else? Is this really making a difference? Does anyone really appreciate what I'm doing? Why does it have to be so hot in Dallas in July?
Paul in these verses offers the Romans good news. He reassures the Roman church that living out their callings as disciples of Jesus brings with it the assurance that God is at work for good in all that happens, that in the process they are being conformed to the image of Jesus and that they will be glorified, rewarded by the gift of eternal life. They will experience a foretaste of that life to come in the joy of today.
When we are living into a difficult calling, we need to be able to discern the difference between good advice and good news.
I felt a call to be a pastor as a teenager. I was sitting in Mr. Kocher's 11th-grade European history class daydreaming while he lectured about World War I. I experienced the assurance that this was what God wanted me to do with my life. I spent the next several years trying to find anything else in the world to do but be a pastor. Since I didn't really want to do it, I was especially grateful whenever an acquaintance, friend, or stranger gave me some sensible advice or pointed out some realistic obstacles.
"There aren't many women in ministry. You may not be accepted everywhere."
"You could do lots of different things, many of them more lucrative than this. Why be a pastor?"
"How will you ever get married? Who is going to want to date a minister?"
"You'll be in a fish bowl. Can you take that constant scrutiny?"
"There will be criticism. Is your skin thick enough for that?"
A lot of people in the Bible, when they are contemplating answering the call of God, receive good advice from other people:
Abraham and Sarah's mail carrier: Abraham's mail carrier probably gave him good advice: "You say you're going to 'the land that God will show you'?" (Gen. 12:1) The postal service needs a specific forwarding address if you want to receive your benefits checks in the future. We need a street address or at least a P.O. box. Are you sure it's wise to head off without more specific directions from your boss?"
Job's friends: "You don't look so good. This must be a punishment by God for your sins. You need to confess whatever it is you've done and repent and then your suffering will cease."
Peter's advice to Jesus: "God forbid it, Lord, that any struggle or sacrifice should come into your life on account of your using your gifts!"
Usually good advice points out the obstacles to our answering the call of God. And often, it makes good sense.