The minister of our congregation has spent this year working through Romans, carefully avoiding touching on anything remotely controversial, or any real sense of a call to amendment of life, or growth into holiness. Quite an “achievement” in its way.
This morning his text was the second half of Romans 15 and he introduced the sermon with the opening few minutes of the recent movie Inside Out. I couldn’t see the connection to the passage, although it seemed to be a hook on which to hang a discussion around a sense of call. I don’t often agree with the pastor, but on this occasion I was nodding when he commented that he really didn’t know if there was a specific call (to, for example, a particular line of work, or congregation) from God for each and every Christian. I suspect not, in the same way that I don’t think the idea that “God has one particular person marked out as your future wife[husband]” has much validity.
But the pastor spoke about his own vivid call. He came from a farming background, and one bleak day – the farm being flooded, again – driving to church he heard a strong sense of God’s call into some sort of fulltime Christian ministry. He wasn’t quite sure what form that should take, but spoke of a clear sense of call to “proclaim the gospel to those who don’t regard themselves as worthy to receive it”. His phraseology seemed to explain a lot. I’ve repeatedly found frustrating this emphasis on “those who don’t regard themselves as worthy to receive it”, which seems to fit all too easily with the modern emphasis, seeping into the Christian church, on self-esteem. It has no Scriptural warrant – Philippians 2 should be enough for that – and, of course, there is research evidence that high self-esteem is neither good for the individual or for society.
No doubt there are those who struggle to believe that God’s grace is open even to them. But I’d be surprised if it is the most pressing issue in proclaiming the gospel in modern, aggressively secular, Wellington. Observation and experience suggest that the bigger obstacle is the sense/belief that the gospel isn’t relevant, credible, or whatever. What do these “fairy tales” have to do with me, people might respond, if they gave it even a moment’s thought. Why take this seriously – any more than Ben Carson’s grain stores – especially if the church is just going to be glorified community centre and welfare agency, the political centre-left in clerical garb (or the Beatles tee-shirt)? I reckon the world needs the clarion call of distinctiveness – news of the coming judge and King, for example, strong biblical and theological preaching, and resistance (in word and life) to following whatever debauchery the wider world now sanctions (abortion, pornography, gay “marriage”, or whatever). The distinctiveness of the gospel is a call to radically transformed lives, not the shallow me-tooism of too much of the modern church. And transformation isn’t just about contemporary senses of “social justice”, or climate change.
But the pastor’s sermon did got me reflecting on my own distinctive call – away from fulltime ministry. At 25/26 I had been heading towards fulltime theological study in preparation for ministry. I’d been saving hard, was involved in local church leadership, was preaching from time to time, and had told my employer – where I’d recently been promoted early – that I wouldn’t be staying long and that ministry was where I was heading. My father was in pastoral ministry, and had seemed to see it as an appropriate step for me. Looking back, I’m not sure I had the skills/gifts for it – in fact, presumably not – although my heart was probably more in theological teaching on the mission field (I’d recently returned from two years in Papua New Guinea) than the local church in New Zealand. I’d just been to Auckland and spent a getting-to-know-you weekend at the theological college Dad had studied at 15 years previously. And then, a week or two later, shortly before the applications forms were due, I was in my office at work one winter Saturday morning – it was before the days of remote access, and the office was sunny and home was not. And as I sat there working, I had an overpowering sense of God’s call away from the direction I’d been heading.
It took the form of the story of Abraham and the command to sacrifice Isaac, and then God’s intervention to provide the lamb. God honours the willingness to pay the price, seemed to be the line, but does not now require it to be paid. I have had only perhaps half a dozen episodes in which I’ve been confident of God’s leading in my life, so this took me by surprise. I’m not sure that one can, this side of eternity, ever be 100 per cent confident about leading, but in this case – much as I initially resisted it – I was left in no real doubt. It certainly wasn’t the leading I was looking for or hoping for. I prayed about it for days, and then had to confront the awkwardness of informing family, friends, home group, and people at work of the puzzling change of plan.
Do I regret it? A little of me does. So many of my extended family – and now my wife’s – have been in fulltime ministry, and for all its trials and sacrifices, they are roles that offer huge satisfactions too.- Materially, life has been more comfortable not having gone into ministry, and I’d never have married my current wife, or had these three precious children, had I gone the other way. But it would have been foolish, and worse, to have resisted for long such a clear sense of leading. And I’d seen the sadness of ministers my father had known – including the minister of our local church at the time I was born, who later lived nearby – who had later dropped out of ministry completely, perhaps even out of the faith.
And yet, and yet. The general call still comes to each of us to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus, on the path of costly discipleship. I’m all too conscious of how inadequate my discipleship has been. There are excuses – family, lack of leadership, busyness of work for many years – but they are no more than excuses. And the time when I will stand before the judgement seat of God draws closer. I give thanks for the atoning blood of Jesus, which is my hope. But, beyond that, how will I discharge the trust and call given to me?