When Your Calling Feels Like Death

By Mandy Smith

Doing God’s will, even in ministry, isn’t always fun and flourishing.

What makes you flourish?

It’s a helpful question to ask when discerning our calling. It assumes that God’s call grows from our gifts and passions, that we experience blessing as he works through us to bless others. And that’s scriptural and true.

But what about when our calling feels not like flourishing but like dying?

Yes, I’ve known seasons when following God felt like life and growth. Times when praying for someone brought transformation, when obeying the call to start something new brought growth. But I’m not in that season right now.

Right now it feels more like obedience. Like setting aside what I’d like to do and choosing instead to do what he asks. More like endless spreadsheets and emails and starting big challenges and less like seeing lives transformed. Seasons like this mean stepping into places that feel unsafe, that make me look foolish, daring to care about broken things that may never be fixed. God dares me to pray for release for the person who seems beyond hope. Personally, I’d rather not go there. I might be disappointed.

Yes, I believe that God leads us into life and growth. At times, though, I believe he prunes us.

We have admiration for martyrs—people who die publicly because of their faith. We know their stories from the Bible and church history. But what about the kind of martyrdom that slowly draws the life from us, not in an execution, but from a daily choice of being poured out like a drink offering?

In today’s ministry, we easily equate our work with life fulfillment and career goals. So what do we do with these words of Jesus?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

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How could it be that following the Lord’s prompts took me to a place where answers were scarce and God seemed absent?

In a culture that loves to measure success, how do we accept the example of the prophets? They were called to say and do faithful things to an unhearing, uncaring crowd, hammering on hard hearts. Prophets were called by God to feel his own pain, to long for things they would never see.

Dare we risk equating our story with the martyrs and the prophets, as ordinary as we are? It may be the only way our own story can make sense. The stories of martyrs and prophets may help us set aside other stories we’re tempted to believe. Twisted stories like these:

  • When you’re not seeing fruit, it’s because you’re doing it wrong.
  • When prayers aren’t answered, it’s because you’re unfaithful.
  • When ministries elsewhere seem more successful, it’s a sign something’s wrong with you.
  • When you don’t see God making all things new, it’s because God has forsaken you—or maybe doesn’t even exist?

How could it be that following the Lord’s prompts takes us to places where answers are scarce and God seems absent? 

This kind of discomfort can become a moment to discern if we’re in the right place. Sometimes lack of outcomes may be a sign something should change. As leaders we can use discomfort to motivate those we lead (or to guilt-trip ourselves) to try harder and longer: “Ministry is hard. Try harder.” But when we’ve discerned those things and still our work is hard, when we’ve prayed for release and no change comes, it may simply be that this is the life obedience has led us to.

This life of obedience will likely call us to do things we don’t actually want to do.

We may be called to say goodbye to people we’d rather be with, to be with people we wouldn’t choose.

We may be called to stay in places we’d rather leave, and leave places we’d rather stay. He may call us to long for healing for someone who may never be healed, to pray for someone who may never be “fixed.”

Giving up our time and energy and control all feel like death. We may not admire these deaths as much as martyrs’ physical deaths, but what is a life if not our will and time and energy? This is living sacrifice.

According to Paul, we carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that his very life may be visible in our bodies. While we live a life that daily becomes less and less our own, Jesus’ own life becomes more and more evident, not just in a sermon we preached but in our bodily witness. As we become less, Jesus becomes more.

During this season of serving a particular couple named Teo and Lily, I vented to a wise mentor about my pain. I had felt the Lord so strongly in the prompt to care for them. But caring for them meant working toward miracles I rarely saw, hoping for changes that hadn’t come. How could the prompt that grew from his presence lead me away from his presence? I thought those who made sacrifices for him would at least get the pleasure of sensing him with them. My wise friend smiled kindly and said, “It seems you think your pain is your own.”

Could it be I was feeling the Lord’s pain every time Theo wondered how he’d care for his disabled wife every night she slept on concrete? Could it be that by daring to care for this couple I was being shown a tiny corner of God’s heart for every way this world is lonely and cold? Perhaps he was giving me a glimpse of Jesus’ obedience to step into this broken, sinful world. The suffering face of Jesus on the cross had always made me feel guilty. I didn’t want to be reminded that he suffered for me. Now I knew he suffered with me. That he suffered with Theo and Lily and every lonely, poor, weary person around the world and throughout history. Jesus’ obedience to the Father had taken him into intense suffering. And now I knew that his physical pain was only part of the suffering.

While this may not bring the pleasant flourishing our younger selves imagined when we first followed this call, a life of obedience certainly brings another kind of flourishing. Day by day, we slowly die to our own preferences. It may feel like being buried. But with Christ’s example we see that burial as a planting of something hopeful in the soil, something that dies only to burst into life. So we learn to live out Jesus’ own story:

“I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today

The Power of Prayer and Presence

By Cheryl Paden

Valerie joined our writers’group with the enthusiasm of a bee after nectar. She instantly became everyone’s encourager and energized us to write and to send out our work for publication. We rejoiced with her when she published her first article, and we thanked God for the birth of her long-awaited son, Jack.

Jack was six weeks old when doctors diagnosed Valerie with cancer. We all began to pray for healing. She started treatment and suffered from the side effects. After losing her hair, she glued sequins onto an oversized pink handkerchief. She bounced into our writers’ group that night and announced, “No one will notice that I am bald, they will only see my beautiful new bandana.”

We laughed as we watched her exaggerated modeling techniques and admired her new look.

At the close of the evening Valerie added, “I feel a cold coming on; as long as we are praying to heal the cancer, pray for that too. Might as well pray to heal everything.”

We agreed, and our praying continued.

We attended our annual writers’ group retreat at the St. Benedict Retreat Center. Valerie left the meeting to go visit with Father Thomas, the retreat center’s director. She explained that she wanted to ask him for prayers for her healing. As Valerie and I walked together that evening she confided, “I can just feel the love of everyone’s prayers. It is an amazing feeling. It’s wonderful!”

Valerie’s condition continued to worsen. We continued to pray, but the miracle we asked for would not happen. I called Valerie to ask what I could do. “Just come hold my hand.”

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So I did. I sat at her bedside and held her hand. She whispered to me about her fears of leaving two-year-old Jack.
Valerie died the next day. Our writers’ group attended the funeral. The prayers for healing—at least our idea of complete, physical healing—were not answered.

Valerie’s words, “I can feel the love,” I believe was God’s response to our prayers. Our requested miracle of healing was not answered, but we loved our friend through her illness, and I believe she knew that.

Years later, when I suffered from my own illness, I spent time in the emergency room, doctors’ offices, and completing medical tests. Unable to attend work, social functions, or keep to my regular routine, I sat at home, fretted, and waited for medical answers. For that entire month, no one knew the details of my situation.

Then I remembered Valerie’s words.

I went to my keyboard and emailed every friend that I knew to be a prayer warrior and asked for prayers. By that afternoon, the burden of the illness had lifted. I still did not have the medical answers, but I felt the love of God and of my friends.

Through shared prayers and through simple presence, I learned the significance of what Valerie conveyed to us: Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

This article was originally published at: graceandpeacemagazine.org

Feet

By Frederick Buechner

“HOW BEAUTIFUL upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings,” says Isaiah (52:7). Not how beautiful are the herald’s lips, which proclaim the good tidings, or his eyes as he proclaims them, or even the good tidings themselves, but how beautiful are the feet—the feet without which he could never have made it up into the mountains, without which the good tidings would never have been proclaimed at all.

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Who knows in what inspired way the heart, mind, or spirit of the herald came to receive the good tidings of peace and salvation in the first place, but as to the question whether he would actually do something about them—put his money where his mouth was, his shoe leather where his inspiration was—his feet were the ones that finally had to decide. Maybe it is always so. When the disciples first came upon the risen Christ that Sunday morning of their confusion and terror, it wasn’t his healing hands they touched or his teaching lips or his holy heart. Instead, it was those same ruined, tired dogs that had carried him to them three years earlier, when they were at their accounts and their nets, that had dragged him all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, that had stumbled up the hill where what was to happen happened. “They took hold of his feet and worshiped him,” Matthew says (28:9; italics mine).

Generally speaking, if you want to know who you really are, as distinct from who you like to think you are, keep an eye on where your feet take you.

This article was originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

Does Praying for Missionaries Make a Difference?

By Dr. Clark Armstrong

Does praying for missionaries make a difference?

There are always testimonies to support in some dynamic or dramatic way that, indeed, prayer does make a difference. But I want to testify today that it makes a daily, sustaining difference also. Our top daily prayer supporters are my wife, Connie’s, parents. But Hannah Babin, the little girl in this picture, was six when we came to her church in Baton Rouge on Home Assignment in April 2014 and now she is ten. She told us and her mother, Heidi, that she was going to pray every day for us and she has faithfully kept her promise.

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As we reflected on this past year, we are amazed that neither Connie nor I have needed to see a doctor other than for routine checkups. Nor have we been really sick. We are in our sixties and this is unusual among our peers.

We have driven (well, Connie is our main driver) in the worst traffic in the world in Manila, Philippines without any fender-benders or incidents. We have found every church building or location we needed to find over this time in places that have no addresses and where, therefore, GPS is almost useless.

We had a really tough time on one day in April, and we were tired and burdened and overloaded. We always know that God has Connie’s parents and a host of others who we may not know by name praying for us every day. But that night I said to Connie not to lose hope because a ten-year-old girl in Louisiana is praying for us today.

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If God could raise up a young prayer supporter like that, we should take courage that he will never leave us nor forsake us. How could he fail to answer the prayers of a sincere girl? Our hearts were strengthened, and I proceeded as professor to proofread the thesis that had to be done by morning. I finished at 5:00am and rose at 7:00am to live another ministry-packed day. I am convinced that that student graduated this year because of Hannah’s prayers.

I have no conclusion to arrive at other than daily prayers have been holding us up. Thank you, Mom and Pops, Hannah and the Babin family, and all our other prayer supporters. Anything that has been accomplished through our lives this year for Christ and his kingdom was made possible and is equal to the credit of your uplifting prayers. To God be the glory! We are a team and we could not do it without you all!

–Dr. Clark Armstrong is Professor in Asia-Pacific Nazarene Theological Seminary in Manila, Philippines.

When Your Calling Feels too Small

By Alison Dellenbaugh

Success is measured in obedience.

Lately, I’m hearing a lot about “calling” and following wherever Jesus leads. And I’ve been right there on the front row, soaking it up. Meanwhile, my church is focusing on what it means to really be a disciple, no matter the cost.

When we hear these calls to radical discipleship and bold leadership, a lot of us have our spirits pierced and want to sign on–as we should. “Here I am. Send me!” we say with Isaiah. “Anything! Anywhere!” We’re ready to lay down our lives, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus into even rough waters. Go to Africa? Start an orphan care ministry? Plant a church in the inner city? No matter how big, Lord, we’ll do it!

But what if God asks us to do something small? That can be the hardest calling of all, especially for those of us who feel passionate about following him with abandon and making a difference in the world.

I’ve told God I’ll do anything he asks, then waited for the next assignment. And he seemed to say to me, “Will you be faithful to keep writing these church announcements?”

Um, of course, Lord, but…don’t You have anything more? Harder? Not so safe?

For you it may be something different. “Will you stay in your current position? Work in the nursery? Serve in the local soup kitchen instead of Haiti? Lead another Bible Study with only the same four people?”

Last year, I felt strongly that God was calling me into a new ministry, though I had no details. I expected a door to open any day, but instead I saw doors close. After a few months, I cried out in prayer late one night, asking God to please call me somehow the next day! And first thing the next morning, I was asked to do a new ministry task. A task that seemed small. A task that turned out to be tedious and stressful, requiring several volunteer hours a week, very much behind the scenes. Given the timing, it almost felt like a divine joke.

Yet the same day I got the assignment, one of my devotionals was on Zechariah 4:10, which says in part, in the NIV, “Who dares despise the day of small things…?” Or in the NLT, “Do not despise these small beginnings.” Message received.

I determined to stay faithful in what I was given, and I sought God hard along the way. Eventually I was relieved of that task, but meanwhile nothing new presented itself, and my husband, who wasn’t even seeking a new ministry opportunity, was given a big, daring one! At least in Zechariah the small beginnings paid off. Mine weren’t seeming to lead anywhere.

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During this time, a Bible study asked for my definition of success. I pondered what would make me feel successful, and it hit me: Success isn’t achieving a particular result. Success is obedience and faithfulness to God–doing whatever he wants me to do, wherever he has put me.

It isn’t measured by what I accomplish relative to what I think I should have accomplished, but by how I respond to God and whether I’ve done what he’s asked. Even if what he’s asked seems less worthy than what I’d hoped to give him.

I say, “But God, I could do this for you!”

And he replies, “Yes, but will you do what I asked?

If we accomplish great things in Jesus’ name–apart from his leading–they’re hollow and they will not last. If we do small things, unnoticeable to other people, because of his leading and out of love for him, those things will have eternal value. We’re often proved the most in the smallest things–the momentary choices to follow, step by step, high or low. Of course we should be willing to die for him, but also to live for him however he leads, even if it’s not what we’d envisioned. A bigger ministry might bring us joy or allow us to more fully use our gifts, but it won’t bring us more success than following him in any other calling.

Still, we’re all frustrated when we feel we have more to offer, or gifts that are not being used. When what we’re doing doesn’t match our passions, we may fear God’s letting us go to waste. But God, who started a good work in us and will be faithful to complete it, is growing and shaping us for his purposes in those moments. I heard Jill Briscoe say at a recent conference that sometimes we learn more of God when we work outside our gifts and passions. Indeed.

I didn’t go a day that season without learning more of God. Had he given me a bigger ministry when I expected it, would I have sought him so hard, or would I have shelved deep reliance on him until I had another perceived need? Would I have seen the opportunity as a sign of his goodness and love, forgetting he’s good and loving even without that? I likely would’ve thought I’d earned it by my super spirituality. And I might have found my security in that, instead of learning anew to find it in him alone.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m still praying for God to open new doors, even as I do what he’s called me to today. But meanwhile I have this confidence: As long as I’m obedient to God, I’m pleasing him regardless of what I’m doing, how important it seems, or even the fruit it bears. And that’s no small calling at all.

This article was originally published at: Christianity Today

Gifts from Worshipping in a Multiethnic Urban Church – Part 2 of 2

*This is part two of the article published in the previous post.

Most churches I’ve been to are designed for someone just like me.

As much as I enjoy the Caribbean flavor of our worship, it is a constant reminder that our service and programs are not designed to reach me—they are designed to speak the heart language and meet the needs of other people in our community.

That’s how it should be, of course. But it strikes me that for all of my life I’ve been part of churches that were actively accommodating to people just like me—people my age and my race and my socioeconomic status. And I never thought of our worship and programs as “how we do church.” I thought of those things as “how people ought to do church.”

The implications of this lesson don’t stop with my past church experience. It’s become clearer to me in recent months that the vast majority of ministry resources, even Christian resources more broadly, are produced with “me” in mind. I’ve enjoyed a privileged status for a long time and never really realized it. I feel it as soon as something isn’t tailored to my tastes.

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The gift that comes from worshipping in a service that isn’t designed for me is that it reveals the depth of my consumeristic relationship with church. This is not a fun lesson, but it’s an important one.

Diversity doesn’t just “happen.”

We thought moving to one of the most diverse cities in America would mean that we would find comfortable diversity everywhere. Boy were we mistaken. The longer I live in New York City the more striking it is to me how segregated the city is. Neighborhoods and even blocks divide along ethnic designations. Schools can be monocultural even in diverse neighborhoods. It’s harder than I realized to find churches in the city that are committed to radical diversity.

All our social and civic systems work against ethnic and socioeconomic integration. It’s possible I knew that intellectually before now. But living where we live and worshipping where we worship has driven the point home: diversity doesn’t just “happen.” It takes deliberate and uncomfortable intentionality. It takes a group of people who are happy to hear all the church announcements twice—once in English and then again in Spanish—happy to sing all the songs in two languages. It takes a group of people who are willing to sacrifice their preferences so someone who sits near them can hear God speak to them the way they need to hear him.

I suppose the real gift of worshipping in a diverse urban church has been the tangible hospitality. While our service is not designed to appeal to my tastes, I am frequently moved by how accommodating people are to make sure my family feels welcome. We have been the recipients of great grace and kindness. That grace and kindness has made this vast new city feel small and familiar.

This article was originally published at: City to City.

Gifts from Worshipping in a Multiethnic Urban Church – Part 1 of 2

By Brandon O’Brien

When we moved from Arkansas to New York City, we settled in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. Our decision to live in Washington Heights was determined primarily by economics. I just could not imagine paying so much rent for so little space somewhere like the Upper West Side.

So, completely naively, we moved into the Heights and immediately became ethnic minorities.

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In addition to being white in a predominately Dominican neighborhood, my wife and I also have two adopted children. Both of them are ethnically different from us and from each other. We are quite a sight. And we’ve received our fair share of stares in the last several months—not just in the Heights. But the one place we feel totally normal is at church.

We worship in a new church called Christian Community Church of the Heights. Our service is bilingual—with music and announcements in both Spanish and English and a sermon delivered in English and translated live for Spanish speakers. The congregation is majority Latino but very diverse. In fact, the congregation reflects the ethnic diversity of the neighborhood (60-something percent Latino and 40 percent “other”). There are as many or more trans-racial couples as same-race couples.

Being surrounded by diverse families is a gift in itself, for a family like ours. We’ve received several other gifts by worshipping in a multiethnic urban church. Here are a few, presented as lessons learned. I’ve learned, for example:

Hips can be used in worship.

I’ve raised my hands in worship. I’ve bent my knees in worship. Doggone it, I’ve even clapped and swayed. But never before have my hips been tempted to involve themselves in worship. And it shows: they are very bad at it.

There’s a serious point in here somewhere. Style of worship is more than a matter of taste. Different musical forms open different possibilities, even theological possibilities. For example, I’ve sung the song “Blessed Be Your Name” in many churches in the last fifteen years. In all of them, the tone of that song has varied from reflective, even repentant, to triumphant. But when I sing it over a Caribbean bass line and rhythm section, a new possibility opens up. The song becomes positively celebratory.

In this case, musical style is a reflection of deep values and cultural personality. Our Dominican brothers and sisters know how to party, and they know how to bring that party to church. I never thought I could sing, “You give and take away” with a smile on my face. The fact that I can do it now is a gift from my diverse congregation.

*This article will continue in the next post.