On Friday I received a phone call from a close friend; the caller said, “I wanted to talk to you because I didn’t want you to hear this from someone else.” Now that’s a pretty ominous beginning to a conversation. Naturally, before the caller could say another word my mind was already speculating; the caller continued, “I am about to announce my retirement, we are moving to Florida.”
What would it take to cause you to drop everything and make a really radical change in your life? Retirement(?) retirement is not really so radical that I should be surprised to hear my friend say they were retiring. The evidence that this change was coming had been there for a while, in her conversation and in their increasingly-frequent vacations to Florida over the past several years. Frankly, if she had said, “I’ve accepted a position on the west coast, I leave the end of the month,” I would have been floored. Unless you unexpectedly find yourself in the enviable position of being able to retire at the age of ’35,’ retirement is not as much a radical change in the direction of your life as it is the destination which you have set for yourself.
What is radical change? When I say radical I am talking about something truly extreme – a total departure from your current life; what would it take? Maybe an offer of employment or a marriage proposal? I went on a radical diet once, dropped over forty pounds and completely changed my eating habits–you see where that went.
I have a friend who is in ministry; this year will mark her tenth anniversary at the church she serves as senior pastor. Around the time she was being ordained she told me the story of her “call;” I don’t know if she sees it this way but I think it is a little reminiscent of the story of Jonah. Jonah is another one of our Bible stories, which like Noah and the ‘Good Samaritan’ transcends the faith. People who aren’t even religious know these stories—although usually inaccurately. They remember Jonah’s whale (which the Bible says was a great fish or creature in the sea – not a whale), probably confusing it with Pinocchio’s whale – which itself may not be entirely coincidence. But for many – religious or not, what gets lost in the fish story is the ‘call’ story.
The Lord had a specific job for Jonah to do, He called Jonah and told him to go immediately to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and warn the people that the Lord was upset with their sinful ways and was going to destroy the entire city and its hundred and fifty thousand citizens. It wasn’t like Jonah didn’t hear God’s call, or that like Samuel he didn’t recognize that it was God calling. No, Jonah heard the call and deliberately chose not to follow, instead he devised a plan to escape the Lord by jumping the equivalent of the first bus out of town; he booked passage on a ship and headed out to sea. My friend heard God’s call – what struck me when she told this story, was that she said she literally heard God’s voice call her, and instead of following, she responded, “Not now God, I’ve got a really good job and I’m working my way up the corporate path – everything I planned is finally working out.” A few years went by and she heard God’s voice a second time (again literally) and responded, “Oh God, not now. I’ve got two little babies and my husband’s business is doing well – please, not right now God.” She wasn’t quite as defiant as Jonah but she thought she knew best. Still later, when she was working as a counselor at the Baptist Camp Lebanon, she heard God’s voice a third time; and she knew she could not refuse again… maybe she was afraid of fish? God had a specific job for her to do and finally she answered; I found it ironic that on her church’s webpage she now says, “one of the things I love most about Baptist ministry is our realization that God made us each as unique individuals, and has special plans for each of us.”
I have another friend in ministry; who, with all her worldly possessions packed into a rental truck, I followed from Ogdensburg, NJ to Ogdensburg, NY; 333 miles. Google-Maps will tell you it’s a six hour drive – I will tell you in a fully-loaded rented box truck it is much closer to seven; seven up and seven back, with an hour to unpack. On the trip north we stopped once for gasoline, north of Binghamton, where I was treated to a sandwich she had packed for me in a plastic baggie. If you’ve seen Ogdensburg, NJ you have a pretty good idea what Ogdensburg, NY looks like – just bigger and flatter. What was the attraction in Ogdensburg(?) an interim ministry at the First Baptist Church on State Street, a half dozen blocks from the icy St. Lawrence Seaway. I remember telling her how totally blown away I was by her incredible faith, and that I was incapable of that kind of faith; to leave family and friends to accept this call and that I was incapable of doing what she was doing. Since that day some ten years ago, she has served in at least four interim ministries from New Mexico to Massachusetts, where she packed a rental truck and trusted.
I have still another friend in ministry; I don’t really know the details of her “call story” which is odd, because when I read her emails and blog and the news from her church’s website, I sometimes think she reveals too much of herself… or at least a lot more than I am comfortable doing. But today I’ll make an exception and tell you a little about my call.
A few summers ago I attended an ABCNJ Minister’s Council event at Camp Lebanon. It is likely most of the pastors present all knew one another, but I was one of the few new-comers. At one point we were asked to break into groups of four or five and share our personal call to ministry. You may have heard me speak about mine: for over twenty years I had been active in the life of the churches I belonged to, writing in the monthly newsletter, leading retreats and worship, and more recently being invited on several occasions, to bring the worship message to the congregation at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Ridgewood, NJ. Several times at Emmanuel, the topic of “licensing” had been raised. In our denomination, licensing is considered the first formal step a candidate takes in the process of ordination. I had no vision of ever proceeding in the ordination process so whenever it was brought up, I politely declined. Until one Sunday, a woman who remains a dear friend suggested that the church’s desire to license a member spoke as much about the congregation as it did about the candidate. I had never considered it from that perspective and now had to rethink it. On the day the congregation recognized my license I stood before them, and told them I did not know where my path would lead but that a traditional pastoral ministry was not in my future, and they should not be disappointed by that.
This was a tumultuous time in my career; when I knew with certainty I needed to leave the corporate world but had no concept of what God wanted of me. Unlike my “Jonah” friend, I was not (literally) hearing God’s voice in my ear, and I didn’t have the kind of faith it took to pack a rental truck with all my belongings and just trust. For three months I prayed for direction – specifically for the kind of courage and faith, because it took both for Peter to initially swing his leg over the side of the boat. Over and over I prayed, “God, I’m trying to be faithful, show me what you want me to do.” I remember exactly when I accepted that call, although I still didn’t understand it as such. In looking back now, I know that was when God gave me the courage to have faith. I finally understood that if I first stepped out of the boat, God would lead me. And so I did exactly that, I stepped out and resigned my corporate job. And true to God’s promise, no more ten days passed when I received an email (on a Wednesday evening) saying a little church in West Milford needed a pulpit supply that very weekend, was I available? I was out of the boat; was I going to have the courage not to look down?
As I listened to the other pastors tell their stories, mentally I was comparing them to my own; when it came my turn, I told a somewhat shorter version of my story, and thought it was pretty dramatic – God patiently leading me by the hand and then finally laying it all out in spectacular fashion. When our groups were called back together, one person from each was asked to briefly summarize our discussions; what a surprise I got when the person from my group said “we all had pretty ‘routine’ call stories to tell.” “WHAT!” I thought, weren’t you listening to my story?
In retrospect, when compared to packing all my worldly possessions in a rental truck, or literally hearing God’s voice, my story might just be ‘routine’ after all. Those who have been called into ministry might be tempted to think of our “call” as being something special, but lest we get too full of ourselves, let us be reminded of how Jesus called a few fishermen as he walked along the shores of the Galilee. The Gospels don’t make a very big deal out it. From Matthew and John we assume they may have heard Jesus speak in the synagogues or had met him before. They all seem to agree He was walking along the shore when he came upon Simon and Andrew and said, “Come and follow me, and you will fish for people.” It’s a nice phrase; it has a nice image to it, why I’m sure they each include it. Come, I have a specific job for you. And a short time later he came upon James and John, two brothers; “Come; follow me.”
Hearing and following God seems so simple, but in real life it gets complicated. It is always God (or Jesus) who extends the invitation. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians in the early church said, “… we could not even begin to search for God if God had not already found us.” We assume that discipleship is only for those few select courageous ones of great faith, but God calls ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
Luke tells us Jesus called all his followers together and chose twelve from among them to be his Apostles. It did not mean that He valued the others any less; it was not American idol where the ones not selected were sent home. It meant simply that for those twelve, God had a specific job. When He chose, He picked ordinary people: fishermen, political activists, tax collectors, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, who had to grow in their faith just as all believers do. He chose people who could be changed by His love, and then He sent them out to communicate that His acceptance was available to everyone – even to those who would reject Him. God is calling us all to use our own unique gifts, extending an invitation to ordinary people to do God’s extraordinary work.
What would it take to cause you to drop everything when He calls, “Come; follow me?”
— Amen ―