Waking Up To My Calling

iphone-god-calling

I have told this story over the years in different venues from churches, to chapel at my alma mater to the class I teach at LPC—Multicultural Evangelism. But now, might be the time to share the story here, a little background on where I came from, and how I got to where I am. Oh, and to add in a missing piece to this story that has haunted me for a couple of decades–who was that speaker at camp?

I love sharing the crazy way that God worked with me or in spite of me to get me where he wanted me, the mission field. I still get chills thinking of how incredible God is at getting us to the places he wants us to be. I am blown away when I reflect backwards on the pathway God used to place me in the middle of where he wanted me—his calling.

The story of calling is an interesting thing. We don’t often define calling well, that mysterious thing that grips our heart and compels us onward in God’s mission. Calling is that thing we return to again and again when questions, doubts, and concerns assail us. We come back to a confidence that God has a purpose in what he is doing in and through us. Yep, “Calling” keeps us going.

My calling came to a distinct point of grabbing my heart 20 years ago, the summer before my senior year in high school. And I remember it vividly to this day. Sometimes, there are moments that simply burn themselves into your mind, memory burn. The distant memories surrounding my calling stick with me like it was yesterday.

At 17-years-old, I went to summer camp for the first time with my new church, the Foursquare church in Woodstock, IL.

You might ask, Why did I go? The same reason many teenage boys go to camp, because a cute girl invited me. This was reason enough to approach my football coach and ask out of two-a-day practice ahead of my senior year, ahead of my time to shine as a varsity starter. I gulped, gathered myself, and asked coach if I could get out of practice. It was not his favorite idea of the year, but he relented and allowed me 24 hours.

Yeah buddy!! I was on a solo mission as I drove my beater of a car the three hour drive into the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin to arrive at Spencer Lake Campgrounds. Tired, frazzled, worn out, but excited, I made it to camp. No matter, I had energy reserves ready to kick in. Quickly, I found the kids from my youth group at the line for dinner. That cute girl, however, was strangely difficult to locate. No worries, the dudes were around, and we were able to pass the time by being stupid guys.

Fast forward to the evening service. Worship was awesome. I sang, danced and praised my heart out during a hot August night in 1994. Anticipating a great message for missions.  That is when the disappointment set in.

The speaker was a guy that I had heard the previous Sunday at my church, twice. As I retold this story over the years, beginning with a graduation brunch with the then President of our movement, all I remember is that an old guy was speaking at our camp, an old guy who spoke twice at my church. I had no excitement for what he was going to say. Don’t get me wrong, I like the stories our elders have to share, but I was not looking forward to story time. I wanted passion, fun, and something that connected with where I lived as a teenager.

Now, my tired body, pushed to the limit by football practices, had nothing left. The adrenaline high of seeing my friends, of jumping around in a worship service, of being in the presence of God drained out of me. Quickly, I went from being alert, tuned in, and full of life to a drowsy boy. As soon as the speaker started, I knew he was giving the same message he gave at my church, a good message, a solid message on missions, but the same message. I was ready for something new, but had little ability to stay awake for the same message again.

The next thing I knew, I was jerking my head up, yanking myself awake. I couldn’t sleep through the only night of camp I went to, could I? The answer: Yes. I gave up the battle of trying to stay awake. My head stopped bobbing up and down, stopped pulling back awake, and gave in to the battle of sleep as I folded my arms over my lap and drooped my head down. And I was oblivious to the world around me for I don’t know how long, maybe 45-60 minutes.

When I started coming to, dragging my sleepy head back into the world of the living, I heard the speaker beginning to call people to a response. He was wrapping up his message and concluding it with a call to mission. The speaker was calling people into two categories. One were going to be like ducks and another like beavers. The ducks would be those that would fly, would travel, would brave long distances to take the gospel to other peoples. At the same time, the beavers would stay back home, building, gathering, and compiling resources to support the ducks in mission. Both were needed. We needed those that would go, and those that would send.

But I was still catching up to the story. I wasn’t sure what this related to. In fact, I was still quite groggy and felt super confused. I was not from Oregon and did not know my zoology super-duper well. I wanted to ask what does this have to do with mission and evangelism. I was lost  in the middle of the analogy when suddenly the middle became the end.

The speaker began to call people forward in response to what God was doing in their hearts. He called those who felt the burden to go, to be like a duck to one side of the platform. Meanwhile, he called those committed to support, to resource, like the beavers to another side of the platform.

I couldn’t help myself as I was drawn out of my seat toward the front. I couldn’t say emotion of a great service grabbed me, no, this was bigger than that. I felt compelled to go forward and stand with the ducks, the group committed to go, to be on mission with God. There was no doubt in my mind where I should stand, although the cobwebs were still in my head keeping me from fully grasping what was happening. But I was there. I responded to the call for missions with my friends.

However, I completely rearranged what God was saying. I didn’t want to accept the going as the call and wanted to be a missionary to my people, to my city.

Long story short, I avoided the mission’s call to the best of my ability. I avoided the girls in Bible College with a call to missions. I ducked my calling without even knowing it. In my mind, I was staying on track to be a pastor, a church planter to Chicago, a missionary to my city. My plans made such good sense to me.

But all of this changed when I met my wife shortly after graduating Bible College.

When things started to get serious, she informed me of her calling to missions. Immediately, my heart dropped. I thought, how could this be. I worked so hard to get by without getting in a relationship with a missionary. She wanted to lay out the framework for how things were going, make sure her calling didn’t get derailed.

She gave me three options:

  • We could continue dating, and if things progressed, we could date while she served overseas for a year and get married when she comes back.
  • We could continue dating and if things led to marriage, go overseas together for a year.
  • Or, we could break up.

And the story ended happily ever after as we ended up going together as a married couple.

Soon I discovered this was my calling. Soon I came around to understand that I fulfilled what God spoke into me that night when I slept through the message. I became the missionary, the duck who would fly far to take the gospel to distant places. I ended up on God’s path all along even though I worked hard to get around it, to juke Him. He would not be juked or jived. God took me where he wanted me to be.

I found that it doesn’t matter if we forget our calling, as long as we stay close to God we will get where he wants us to be.

Now, for years, one thing plagued me. Who was the speaker? I usually remembered the different camp speakers who impacted my walk. I was good with names, but not this one. As a punk high school student who knew nothing about anything, I totally missed the significance of who this was. I went on my way never giving a second thought to who it was that spoke into my life. I could not tell you who that divine contact was for the life of me.

I told the story again and again merely calling him some old dude. But now, after years of serving overseas and now teaching on the subject, I wanted to know who it was. Who was this man that gave me a passion for missions?

Where could I turn to find the answer? I asked around to those from my church, to others who might know with no results. Finally, I sought the answer from the former camp director’s wife. I messaged her on Facebook and after several attempts, she sent me the answer. When I heard who the speaker was, I was floored. I could not believe it.

Don McGregor.

Yes, the one and only, Don McGregor. I was clueless at 17 who he was, but as a student at Bible College, I found him fascinating when he spoke in one of my classes on leadership. I still remember things he said there.  To this day, I have stored away some of the nuggets on leadership I learned from this giant in missions. But our interaction was short-lived. It was not for a much longer time later that I met him again.

In our last year as missionaries, we met the then, 84-year-old missionary statesman at a conference. He quickly became one of my heroes. As one of the pillars of Foursquare Missions, he blazed a path that still has fruit throughout Asia. Oh, and in his mid-60s, he spoke at my little camp, the night I awoke to my calling.

Tell me this. What was your calling like?

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The Reluctant Missionary

I get asked many times, how did you get to Thailand.

My story as a reluctant missionary begins with a girl. A cute girl came into my life and started me in a whole new direction, or if you read the previous post, onto the correct path meant for me all along.

Since I totally rationalized away the calling God put on my life to be a missionary to my people, I avoided the things that could get me entangled in overseas stuff. Namely, I kept clear of girls in Bible College who told me that had a calling for missions. Ironically, I am in missions now, and am not sure how many of those girls are. I did great to stay away from the girls planning a life in another culture. I made it four years through Bible College, not getting caught in any of their traps. So what happened?

When I moved to South Orange County to lead the student ministries at New Life Christian Fellowship in Laguna Niguel, a cute yet reserved girl caught my attention. Even though she started to fall for me, she kept rock solid in her life goals. She did not want any guy…no matter how cute, to sidetrack her from her calling. That is why she sat me down early on in the relationship to say that she was called to missions. She said, we had three options.

  1. We could date while she served for 1-2 years overseas.
  2. We could get married and serve for a short time together before coming back to pursue my calling in church planting.
  3. Or we could break up.

Did I say, she was determined, firm in her way, strong, oh yes, I did say that.

Well, fast forward to getting married, and going overseas, choosing option 2. After we begin sending back updates and photos, people that went to youth group with me responded with excitement. They were beyond thrilled to see me fulfill my calling. Wait a minute, my calling? Maybe they did not understand, I was following Tina’s calling. Well, they explained more. They told of how I stood up at camp. They still had the pictures of the group of us from our church that stood at the camp together. There were 14, and I was the only one doing it, they said. Finally, finally…it all flooded back to me. I was following God’s calling too…

Wow, talk about a realization that completely blows your mind.

Now, I see the faithfulness of God. Even when we forget our calling, as long as we keep following God, he will get us where he wants us to be. Pretty awesome.

My Specific Calling

As I look back over my childhood, I easily see God planting seeds of a calling in my life. My heart lit up when I listened to the missionary stories my dad read around the dinner table. Stories of sneaking Bibles into China, stories of aged men serving behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, and stories of sacrifice from all parts of the world. Other stories from newsletters written to my parents rooted deep in my soul as I grew in appreciation of those who stuck in the trenches despite attacks and violence.

The missionary mind began to take shape in my life early on, but soon I understood that to be a heart for missions. I grew in respect for the missionary but had little inclination that I might be one when I grew up. Yet the missionary fervor burned inside of me.

Yet there was one point of certainty, or was it. Along our journey, we get these signposts or mile markers that help us understand better where we are going or at least where we have been. Even then, we still have ambiguity and confusion.

For me this moment came during a camp meeting. I worked my way out of football practices for one night of camp, so I drove up solo to meet up with my youth group and participate with one day of the week-long camp. That one day happened to be mission’s night for the camp. I loved missions, but did not look forward to this night. Don’t tell anyone, but I heard the speaker as he spoke at my church the Sunday before camp. I was the sound guy, so I got an extra special privilege of hearing him twice already. Shhh, but I might have fallen asleep during his sermon.

I fell asleep until he started to set up the response. He began talking about ducks and beavers, the famous animals from his state. Ducks represented missionaries. He made the call, and even though I wanted to be a pastor, was compelled to go forward. I quickly rationalized that the pastor story was to continue to illuminate my calling but with a bent. I would be on mission in my own country. This continued when I heard the stats that the US was now receiving more missionaries than they were sending for the first time. I had the ammo in my tool belt.

About a year later, another sign post popped up when I received a prophetic word. Our church had Helen Volonis speaking, and she always brought a word for some of the people in the room. Now, I was in one of the quandaries when a prophet comes through the church. Part of me wanted to duck down. Don’t pick me out, don’t embarrass me in front of everyone…I don’t need everyone looking at me for this. But on the other hand, I was always overlooked in these meetings…doesn’t God have anything for me…

Well, that day, he did.

She spoke over me that she saw me travelling overseas like a missionary. She went into more detail, but I quickly dismissed the word as way off base. I thought, really, I wanted a word, and this is what I got. I couldn’t fully accept or reject the word, so I put in my back pocket to see what might happen.

Yet, in that back pocket it remained as callings turned into rationalizations and words disappeared into the deepest regions of my memories. I still loved missions, but did not see myself crossing borders.

All of that changed when I met a girl.

Anatomy of a Calling

Callings from God leave us with so many questions. Namely starting with how do I know what my calling is?

Well, I want to start with a generalization to calling. We are all called to Jesus in discipleship. Part of discipleship means we are to serve: serve the church, God, and our neighbors. Yet, the Bible gives narrative examples of calling which lays out more of a particular purpose of life for God. Hmmm, do these examples mean that all of us should have a calling to a specific place, people, or task? Maybe not, or maybe. But God does call us all to himself, and at times he calls us to a season of something as he did with Paul seen below. He does call some if not all to a particular thing. Let’s unpack some of the callings through scripture before unpacking my own story.

Here are some of my favorite narratives. We see the narrative of Samuel hearing a voice calling him. He mistakes that voice for the priest in another room of the temple. After the third time, finally Samuel learned to hear the voice of God and step into his calling to lead God’s people.

In another setting, Moses met God by a burning bush. Perhaps, one might say, he was really missing the subtle calling impressed on his heart. David’s calling came through a prophet. A prophet who wasn’t sure who he was going to enlist as the next king of Israel, yet finally, the youngest boy, huffing and puffing as he ran in from the sheep pen, becomes the new leader for the nation of God.

Then we have the calling of Paul with this strange vision in Acts 16. Paul sees the Macedonian man calling him to his region to preach the gospel. This calling gives the understanding of temporal and specific callings. I am not sure if we all have a specific calling such as this or not…but I expect that God has special designs for all of our life.

Knowing God’s Calling and All that Entails, Would You Say Yes?

The mystery of knowing God’s guidance haunts even the most fervent of God’s people. I remember this question coming from many angles in the discussions of my MA classes at Wheaton. Students want to know how to know God’s guidance.

In my last post, I investigated the issue of knowing God’s guidance as seen in the life of Paul…

…now let’s look at a story that gives us some perspective from the Old Testament, one of the pivotal stories in the history of Israel.

God’s people still look back on their shared history to say we are a people who have been redeemed from slavery and brought into the Promised Land. The Exodus story marks a turning point or maybe a beginning point in the life of the Israelite people. Their shared history of bondage and rescue gets wrapped up in song, Psalms 78. They teach it to their kids in school as they learn the Pentateuch. They remember it well every Passover, one of their biggest ceremonies each year. No matter the struggle and pain, the shared history of the wandering in the wilderness indelibly shaped the identity of God’s people.

Now let me frame it this way…

Looking back we see the shaping work of God’s hand, but looking forward in Exodus 1-3, would we see the Hebrews saying yes to this process if they knew what God was demanding of them?

Do you think these people would have said yes to God if he told them what would happen? They barely wanted to go as it was…aside from the plagues, they got upset with Moses for even suggesting that they go and worship for a few days as Pharaoh turned the screws on them.

God posed the call to them that he was going to rescue them and lead them to the Promised Land. What if he said, I will take you out of Egypt where you don’t have it so well, but at least you have food and housing. I will lead you into the desert where everyone over 20 will die as you wander the desert wavering in your faith for 40 years until I humble you to become the people I have designed you to be. You will face snakes, drought, famine and war. I’ll send you food and water, but you’ll get bored with eating the same thing. Who would have said yes to that call?

Not me…

Nonetheless, this story of wilderness wandering and God’s constant provision shaped the people of God to be who they are today. Even the teachers of the law harkened back to their shared story and what their fathers ate in the desert when dialoguing with Jesus, John 6. Stephen reminded his accusers of their story touching on the wilderness experience before jumping ahead to the temple story.

Sometimes the biggest things God uses to shape us and mold, he finds best not to tell us about up front.

I am not saying he causes the misery and rough times, but he uses them to make us who we are.

As I think about calling and direction, I can take courage that my story will unfold in the best way God has for it. As we continue serving God in Thailand, he will make us into the people he wants us to be.

Is there a story in your life, where you felt you were following God and it didn’t go according to your plan, but it turned out  to make you into the person you are today?

Stumbling into God’s Calling

Sometimes we get a picture of the ancient heroes having a more clear and precise way of following God than we have today. We hold people like Moses, Samuel, and Paul on pedestals without realizing how similar our walk with God is like their walk with God. I am recently finding myself in this situation again as I wonder how I ended up in Thailand for so long without having any clue before I went overseas.

My wife and I left comfortable Orange County, California for the tropical, concrete jungle of Bangkok with a one year commitment to serve alongside the Foursquare church and help with evangelism and training. In the back of our minds we were willing to stay for a second year if we felt good about that after being in Thailand for some time. However, a second year quickly turned into a third year and now without blinking we are about to begin on a fifth year. Somewhere along the way our timeframe conflicted with how God calls us. We committed for the benefit of our own comfort abilities and to give expectations to our support network.

As we transitioned into a second and third year of ministry, we began a transition in our mind of how God calls us in timing and calendar. We began changing our language as we talked with people, and saying God has us here for this season of our life, and we don’t know when this season will end. In my humanity, I feel a bit foolish as I bumble my way into following God’s calling. Why didn’t I know more clearly what he was saying to me?

Without getting into how Moses and Samuel worked out calling and timing, let’s look at Paul, our hero in cross-cultural ministry. How did Paul, the super, evangelist get so far so fast. He must have had an inside track to God’s direction and timing that we miss in today’s advanced age of technology and innovation. Or maybe Paul was more like us than we are ready to admit.

I am thinking of one narrative of Paul’s journey that helps shed light on this issue. When Paul and his companions were on their second missionary journey, they worked out direction and guidance not too dissimilar to us. Paul, along with Timothy, Silas and Luke, went around strengthening the churches (Acts 16:5) and went into Galatia and Frigia since the Spirit of God prevented them from entering Asia. I love how Luke just cruises over that huge question to us as he writes his narrative…What does that mean, the Spirit of God prevented them from going…Was it Paul’s idea to go into Asia, or did he think he was following God’s call?

Okay, but Paul just missed it once here in this fascinating little exchange between Paul visiting the churches from his first journey to entering new ground (Acts 16:6-10). I am sure his companions who looked up to him the way we do today thought , okay Paul, but you are right most of the time. We’ll keep going with you.

But wait…

A second time Paul tried going somewhere new with resistance from the spirit, the spirit of Jesus this time (just Luke’s way of expounding on the spirit multiple times or tripling up as he loves to do to keep the trinity in view). Paul attempted not East this time, but north into Bithynia from Mysia. Again he was blocked. Oh boy, what did Paul do wrong, and how did he miss it twice? Was he getting arrogant, or does God not always give us every detail along the way? What must of Paul’s helpers thought?

Finally, one night as they waited restlessly for direction, Paul received a vision with a man from Macedonia calling him. What must have the morning meal been like the next day? Paul excitedly rushes in to get everyone ready. Guys, guys…I’ve got it now. I can imagine the others on his team rolling their eyes at him. Which way do we go now, oh man of faith and power.

I bet Paul’s meetings are a lot more like ours than we ever give him credit for. We over romanticize the book of Acts and wish we could have similar experiences, when we usually live out the same life with God as they did.

For me, I knew that I knew I wanted to plant a church in Chicago, but the door just has never opened to this point. In the meantime, a door has clearly opened to minister in Thailand. How do I hold these areas in tension. I don’t know, but I just keep following God one day at a time. Maybe I can get someone like Luke to tell my story one day with all the details coming together to make sense in the grand narrative God is writing over the redemption of humanity.

 

Wisdom in Waiting

I want to come back to a thought slipped into a recent post about Paul’s calling. A great book on Luke’s narrative of Acts got me thinking about mission calling. Let’s look at the idea of calling in Paul’s life again.

Paul’s mission calling consisted of two necessary components. Paul received an invitation to mission from Jesus in Acts 9, but Paul did not go until he received the second facet of his calling—the sending. In Acts 13:1-4, while the church fasted and worshipped, the Holy Spirit said to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work I have for them. Many years earlier, God shared the big plans he had in store for Paul, even in his sending, he went out as an assistant to Barnabas. Likely, as most of us do, Paul had big ideas for changing the world. However, he waited his time before going, and didn’t skip steps on the way.

There is wisdom in waiting. Let me come back to this idea in a moment. When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, his world changed. He went north to destroy the church, but returned ready to help build the church. Even though he received a paradigm shift of epic proportions, Paul need the appropriate time to process all God was doing in him. Before his encounter with Jesus, he was flying up the ladder to great things among the Pharisees, and then we don’t see him doing anything of significance for a longtime. Part of his paradigm shift must have included a patience and waiting on God to do the leading rather than leading his own life and looking for opportunities to advance his position like he did at the beginning of Acts 9 by going other Sanhedrin to receive letters to persecute the church. Now God looked for him and found opportunities for Paul to advance the name of Jesus.

In mission, the calling is the easy part. The invitations are numerous, especially too young people in that prime window of opportunity between 18-24. In my context of Bangkok, we are perpetually live in a cycle of inviting people to come serve with us. There is always more work that can be done and more hands on deck will help accomplish the mission of God in this city.

At the same time, we have seen some people come through here with an eagerness to enter into the calling they received from God without waiting for an accompanying sending. The role the local church plays in missions is vital. In the same way as the Antioch church sent Barnabas and Saul, we need local churches sending those called by God. Balance should be the watch word. I understand some churches are afraid to send their best and brightest overseas, because the local ministry has so much need too. Yet some churches let everyone go with little oversight. If a young person feels a burden for another country, they just go with a slap on the back. As young people, we need to have the blessing and support of our local church in order to succeed long-term. If we want more than an experience, we need to have a church backing us the whole way.

Let me give a few points to how our local church plays a significant role in our ability to succeed.

  1. Financial support. Without the financial support of a local church or partnering ministry team, one severely limits their long-term potential. I know people who just come to participate in the mission without fully tapping into a support base, and their long-term viability has limits. I understand the role of faith, and that is an issue for each person to work out between God, but if God wants us to be somewhere, he will make a way. Notice in Acts 18 after Paul arrived in Corinth, he worked at tent making until Timothy and Silas arrived. Then he devoted himself to the word and prayer. He became fully engaged when others supported him. The local church or a partnering support team makes it possible for a missionary to dedicate their time and energy to the mission that God has called them to.
  2. Prayer support. When we know that our church, and many others, pray for us regularly, we gain a confidence that God is going before us to make a way for the ministry. I have told people in our church that we know God is praying for us. We feel God’s presence when our church family lifts us up in prayer. In this way, our church celebrates with us when we do well, and lifts us up when we have struggles. And who doesn’t have struggles on the mission field.
  3. Sharing in the benefits. Our local church gets to share in the benefits of the ministry happening halfway around the world. They work to keep us well, as we represent them in mission.
  4. The little things…email greetings, birthday cards, packages, presents; little decorations for holidays all help us feel connected with our home as we live out a calling in a different context.

If we want to succeed, the support base that sends us plays a pivotal role. There is wisdom in waiting until God’s timing and sending. Don’t short circuit his plan by leaving to soon…