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« Bishop Rodney E. Clark | Main | Identifying Frenemies »

The Call

MY MOTHER HAD A LITTLE WOODEN SEWING BOX shaped like a pulpit.  I can’t remember doing this, but they tell me that I knelt behind it and pounded the top, mimicking my dad and all the preachers who came by our store-front church.  It was apparent to my mother—not so much my dad—that I was destined to be a preacher.  That may have been cute as a toddler, and even okay as an adolescent, but I disabused myself of the notion as I progressed into my high school years.  My sophisticated (self-diagnosed), somewhat cocky teenaged mind had little place for preaching.  What a droll, provincial idea that was!  I fancied myself suited for a much more refined role to play in the world.  My debate class experience, as I explained in the preceding chapter, slanted my thinking toward the legal profession.  I really liked making speeches, and I would like to think that I excelled at it.  I also enjoyed wrestling with broad social and geopolitical questions.  I know it may be weird, but I got an adrenalin rush from building a persuasive case for or against a resolution, digging up evidence and substantiating facts, and engaging in oral polemics.  I exuded confidence that my natural skill set equipped me to be a lawyer. 

After graduation, the debate class environment came to an end, and subsequently, my enthusiasm for the law dissipated.  I was no longer surrounded by future attorneys, and the influence of my coach ceased as well.  Church and summer camp activities once again claimed the lion’s share of my time.  At the same time, the pressure for deciding my future education began to build.  Would it be community college? State university?  Did I want to stay home and go to school or trek across the country to a distant location?  Would I take a year off and work to make some money?  I was truly one of the “multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision.”  (Joel 3:14) Finally, Bible college, a choice I had never seriously considered, floated across my mind.  But that possibility meant that I had to come to grips with something that terrified me.  Was God calling me to preach the gospel?  Surely not!  How embarrassing!  What would all my university-bound friends think?  What about all my teachers who had charted out a course for me that would have taken me to a law partnership, an academic profession or a political office?  What would they think?  It would be a let-down of the first order. 

But I couldn’t shake the idea that I might be called to preach.  Finally, I did the only thing I knew to do.  I was—and am—a much too private person to spill my thoughts out for the world to hear, so I went to the church on an off night.  I had the empty sanctuary to myself.  Had anyone else been there, it would have ruined it for me.  That night, I started out kneeling at the altar, but the magnitude of the thought proved to be too great to pray a tidy, controlled, restrained prayer.  I soon fell over on the floor and lay prostrate groaning, weeping and driving my fist into the carpet for an hour.   The prayers that I pray today without compunction were much more fraught with meaning, much more difficult for my untried mind to capture with words in that hour.  To use a well-worn cliché, I was treading where angels feared to tread. 

Suddenly, for the first time ever, I seemed to be transported into a different dimension.  Looking up from my prone position on the floor toward the front of the sanctuary, I didn’t see the baptistry.  Instead, I saw the crucifixion of Jesus, the His blood running in rivulets from His brow, palms, side and feet, and dripping on the ground below.  It was on par with the scripture, “He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.” Matthew 17:2 (NKJV) That vision shook me to the core.  I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  Now, there was no denying it.  The call was real.  I had to receive it. 

Strange thoughts can enter the mind of someone in the throes of an epic decision.  I was still too embarrassed and too overwhelmed to share this experience with anyone.   I remember thinking, “Well, if I’m going to do this, then I had better be a flaming evangelist who will set the world on fire!”  I prayed (more like shouted) into my pillow that night that I didn’t want to do this if I couldn’t be as effective as the Apostle Paul!  It was all or nothing.  Of course, in my more rational moments, I knew that such an expectation was ludicrous, but the sheer enormity of becoming a preacher blew my world apart.  I knew that I didn’t want to settle for mediocrity.  All I could do was give it my best shot.  The results had to be left up to God. 

The call of God differs from a burning to succeed, or the driving power of pure ambition.  The energy generated by a secular motivation comes from within, and it seems to be self-aggrandizing and fueled by a competitive spirit.  I’ve personally seen friends whose compulsion for a worldly position made them sell their souls for promotion, recognition or another zero added to their income.  Those who enter the ministry based on sheer ambition usually crash and burn in the process.  I’ve seen that happen too.  Sam Keene begins his book, “Fire in the Belly,” with this verse: “A man must go on a quest / to discover the sacred fire / in the sanctuary of his own belly / to ignite the flame in his heart / to fuel the blaze in the hearth / to rekindle his ardor for the earth.”   

Such carnal elements, as romantic as they may be, never factor into a call to the ministry.   The true calling of God comes, not from within your own soul, but from something outside of you.  You many have been responsive to it, but you didn’t concoct it.  You are not driven; you are drawn.  It is as though an invisible leash (as gauche as this may sound) is tied to your being and pulls you along.  At the same time, you do not feel helpless, or powerless to resist.  You go willingly. The call takes you to places that you would not have chosen, but, having been taken there, you sense that it is precisely where you ought to be.  Paul expressed it this way: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:1-2 (NKJV).  In writing to the Philippians, Paul equates his call to being “apprehended” by Christ. It connotes that he fully intended to go his own way, but God overtook him and pulled him in another direction.  

The call of God has taken me to out-of-the-way places.  It has landed me in small, fledging congregations of four or five people.  It has led me to troubled churches, to dysfunctional homes, to unresponsive memberships, to rowdy teenagers, to nursing homes where residents sat around in near-vegetative states, to uppity crowds who could barely tolerate my carryings-on, and to shallow groups who grooved to my music, but dismissed my preaching. Eventually, the call pulled me into receptive congregations who responded positively to my ministry.  Regardless of the setting, however, I have always felt that I was in the right place at the right time.   

The core calling into ministry must be the voice of God, but there are ancillary forces at work that vary with the individual.  Some depend on an emotional appeal; some rely on the force of their personality; some pursue excellence in administration or presentation; some devote the bulk of their time and energy to doctrinal orthodoxy or the craft of the sermon; some gravitate toward locations or demographics.  We are all different in some way, and I thank God for it!  We can discern this variety as we study the styles of those who wrote the Holy Scriptures.  Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were all God-called and anointed, but they each had their own unique way of expressing the voice of God to us.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were night and day in their style and purpose.   

I would like to think that I possess a sliver of all of the above in my particular brand of ministry, but I’m probably too close to the forest to see the trees (or is it vice-versa?).  At my age, I should have it figured out, but I still consider myself a work in progress.  Because I’ve been around so long, many may look at me as a permanent fixture in the church—staid, well-defined and pretty much a block of granite.  Surely the Master Sculptor has a few more features to chisel in the finished product before He’s through.  It’s the call.  The relentless call.

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