I WAS CRYING MY EYES OUT during the final few miles of my trek into town. John Mark McMillan’s “Future/Past” was blaring through the car stereo (if it was 1999, it would have been “History Maker” by Delirious?), and as I was singing along at the top of my lungs, a heavy Texas thunderstorm started coming down right on cue.
I couldn’t have asked for a better backdrop as I, at last, exited the freeway following a two-day journey from Durham, North Carolina. Just a week prior, I had graduated from Duke Divinity School and was on my way to begin my first year of pastoral ministry in Houston, Texas. My Honda Civic was stuffed to the top with the contents of my entire life, and it felt like I was literally driving into my calling.
When the McMillan tune went into its musical interlude following the bridge, I, with a full-on ugly crying face, just started shouting:
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit” (John 15:16 NIV)!
Since childhood, I’ve always gravitated toward dramatic self-narrative. My favorite TV shows growing up were “Saved by the Bell”, “The Wonder Years”, and “Doug” from Nickelodeon. From as early as 8 years old, I imagined myself to be Zack Morris or Kevin Arnold or Douglas “Doug” Funnie, narrating my own life as an epic quest toward finding significance.
So when my youth pastors said God was calling me to do something great, it was like receiving the script for my own personal epic. It felt as though my entire life was culminating in this drive to Houston.
So when my youth pastors said God was calling me to do something great, it was like receiving the script for my own personal epic.
Eventually I parked my car and wiped the tears and snot from my face. John Mark’s song had come to an end. I stepped out of my car and was greeted by the sticky Gulf Coast humidity. And I began pastoral ministry.
Four months passed. Let me tell you what walking out my calling as a pastor has looked like on a regular basis.
I sit in on a lot of meetings. A lot of meetings. Finance meeting. Staff meeting. Board of trustees meeting. Staff Parish Relations meeting. Worship planning meeting. Communications team meeting. Stewardship meeting. Church council meeting. Young adults ministry meeting. Coffee bar team meeting. Pastoral care meeting. Executive team meeting.
I read and respond to a ton of emails. The quest for “inbox zero” is a herculean one. By the time I respond to all my emails, a dozen more have arrived. Leading prayer meetings is great at times, but awkward and uninspiring at other times. “Popcorn prayer” can only carry a Methodist prayer meeting for so long. I spend hours in Microsoft Word. Sometimes, I’m typing up sermons, but most of the time I’m trying to figure out how to get the formatting right for a memorial service bulletin. OK, that was just the one time, but seriously, can somebody please show me how to create equal margin spacing when using two columns in landscape mode?
My overromanticized notions of walking out my calling have been met with the unspectacular. I wanted each day to be a fresh new episode of “Breaking Bad”; instead, I got a steady stream of C-SPAN. I wanted each day to be 50-yard line tickets to the Super Bowl; instead, I got ESPN3 replays of independent minor league baseball. I wanted each day to be a gourmet meal at a five-star restaurant; instead, I got a steady diet of rice and beans. And then I ate leftover Chinese food with my wife, and everything changed.
My overromanticized notions of walking out my calling have been met with the unspectacular.
My wife and I are newlyweds. As of this writing, we are still in the honeymoon phase. Every Friday night, we have a date night. Being new to the city of Houston, we try to indulge ourselves with the city’s finer restaurants, museums, and sporting venues.
One Friday evening, however, we were tired. So we said, “Let’s just eat yesterday’s leftover broccoli beef and call it a night.” With all due respect to the broccoli beef worshipping community, in that holy sacred moment, date night became unspectacular.
But it was no less significant. Because in reality, although date nights are a weekly highlight in our relationship, everything we do is living out our wedding vows to one another. So taking turns feeding the puppy during lunch, transferring the dishes from the dishwasher to the cabinets, walking downstairs from our three-story floor to pick up the mail or take out the trash, all these mundane acts are just as significant as a planned Friday evening date night in living out our covenantal marriage vows.
All these mundane acts are just as significant as a planned Friday evening date night.
Similarly, my call to be a pastor is not only fulfilled in significant events, such as baptisms, funerals, mission trips, and powerful sermons, but also in my daily habits and attitudes. Responding to daily emails with sincerity, listening well and contributing to each meeting I’m a part of, consistently showing up to lead prayer meetings no matter how they turn out — in all these seemingly unspectacular ways, I live out my calling as a pastor.
Furthermore, Christian vocation was never about about my feelings of significance!
We have enmeshed Christian calling and vocation with the American ideal of self-fulfillment. Our language about calling has been superimposed over the underlying cultural currents of questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The phrase, “I feel like God is calling me” needs to be spoken of in light of biblical patterns of calling. Biblical call narratives portray God as more of an intruder than an affirmer of feelings. Amos was minding his own business as a shepherd in the fields of Tekoa when he was called to be a prophet. Saul had no intention of being a gospel preacher to the Gentiles. Moses was hiding out far away from Pharaoh and the nation of Egypt during his burning bush encounter. Their calling was not born of their own imagination nor a desire for self-significance, but of a God who impeded on their plans, and graciously called them to join in God’s.
Biblical call narratives portray God as more of an intruder than an affirmer of feelings.
I need to daily remind myself of the words I spontaneously yelled on my drive into town. In every moment of pastoral ministry, whether mundane or dramatic, I am living out a summons from God, not a need for self-fulfillment. The measure for living out my calling isn’t how significant I feel, but hearing the Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”