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.

Should There be an American Church?

I’m taking a contextualization class in three weeks. In preparing for this class, I have been doing lots of reading on this highly debated topic. How far is too far for “contextualizing the gospel”?

However, I am still pondering this question. Should we have an African church, a Chinese church, a Thai church, a Latin American church, or even an American church? When we speak like this, it’s almost as if the church’s are in tension with each other.

When I read the New Testament, I find simply the church. Paul wrote the church in Galatia, the church that met in Colossae, the church in Ephesus. Revelation spoke of the church in Laodicea among the other six cities. I get the sense we have turned the church upside down looking to culture as our guide rather than first being an extension of God’s family. We often let culture shape the church rather than the church shape culture.

As a missionary with five years of service in Thailand, I am far from saying I have all the answers. More to the point, I have more questions than clear understandings. I wonder what are the universal indicators that the church exists. I see Paul establishing a church wherever he went with certain unchanging particulars, a DNA of sorts. They each had faith, love, and hope as part of their essence.

How does the church exist in a setting without being defined by its location? At the same time, how does the church become local in its setting? There will always be subtle differences from place to place as how the church functions. The church will look different in language, dress and style, but when does this cross the line from contextualization to compromise?

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.


Sponsoring our own John Mark’s

Recently, I heard a statistic that 95 percent of academically trained, that is seminary educated, ministers are out of vocational ministry after two years. We could look at the educational process to fix the problem, but I think we need more Barnabases. I know too many people that entered the ministry, got beat up in the rigors of ministry, and now are on the sidelines or in a lesser role. The burdens of ministry can overwhelm and damage the egos of the best of us as we care desperately for people and want God’s best for them. We need more people like Barnabas to help pick up the pieces and sponsor young people to have a second chance to thrive in ministry. Before I get into the story of Barnabas and John Mark, let me give some contemporary examples of what I mean.

I know one person who was close to me in Bible College who upon graduating took a youth pastor role in a church. When expectations and reality don’t line up (from both the young leader and the senior leader) discouragement often happens and the person wants to quit. This person was left beaten up and discouraged. It took another pastor who believed in him to give him that second chance. Another senior leader knew the potential of my friend and offered him a safe place to flourish. Now he is in another ministry context and continuing to follow God’s call on his life in an incredible way.

The problem is most of us don’t hit a homerun in our first attempt at serving in the church. We have unrealistic expectations from our own visionary ideas matched with incredible demands from senior leaders. When our reality fails to match our expectations, we are left discouraged. Often the young leaders are left wounded on the sidelines as senior leaders (and I don’t mean to be unfair to senior leaders as most of them do not intentionally wound their young leaders) look for the next person to fill the void and keep the church moving forward.

Let me come back to the story of John Mark. John, a young emerging leader joined Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey. They saw his potential while in Jerusalem on a mission from Antioch to help with the famine in Jerusalem (Acts 11-12). They brought him back to Antioch to help in the ministry there. He then accompanied them to Cypress (Acts 13:1-6). Since he was a cousin of Barnabas, he probably enjoyed going back to visit some of his relatives where Barnabas was from.

When the reality of ministry overwhelmed him, he left them at Perga in Pamphylia, and went back to Jerusalem on the next ship.

When it was time for a second missionary journey, Paul wanted to nothing to do with John Mark, the deserter…we can’t have him leaving us in our time of need he contended. Barnabas knew the potential they first saw in him and said he can make it this time. I love how Luke understates the dispute, saying it was sharp. They fought to the point that they went separate directions. The church planting hero went off to build the kingdom of God while Barnabas continued his ministry of encouragement and sponsored John Mark into maturity. Barnabas left his mark on John Mark in the same way he did on Paul, so that later in Paul’s ministry, he asked Timothy (II Tim 4:11) to send John Mark to him as he was helpful in the ministry.

Scripture leaves us guessing as to how Mark matured from a flaky, young leader into a helpful minister to someone like Paul. However, we can safely assume Barnabas played a crucial role in seeing John Mark grow into a successful and useful minister.

I know a young leader in Bangkok who served with us who but had too much responsibility placed on them. It overwhelmed this person as they weren’t ready for it yet, and then they cracked and left in a huff. The way this person left gave them a bad reputation and not being faithful to the ministry. Sometimes we see great potential in young leaders and place unbearable burdens on them before they are fully ready to bear the full weight of all those responsibilities. When they crash and burn, we can’t just leave them on the sidelines. We need someone who can help pick up the pieces like a Barnabas.

We need someone who still sees that God-given potential in them and helps sponsor them into a second chance. We need more Barnabases to help the John Mark’s in our world reach their potential and be helpful to the ministry.

The Space Between Calling and Actualization

As we serve in mission whether in a local context or a cross cultural context, we often get caught up in the questions of success. We all responded to the call of God, and to each of us the call meant great things for the kingdom of God. We all want to end up in the library filled with biographies of great men and women of God. We want our life to count for something big, and I think we can learn a valuable lesson from the life of Paul. We can learn how God took this guy who was on the fast track to top of the Pharisaical hierarchy before his path suddenly changed one night on the road to Damascus. The paradigm shift seemed fast in our mind, but God worked something out in Paul over a much longer time period. Maybe we can all glean something helpful from those silent years when God worked on him in that space between calling and the grandiose ideas he likely had like many of us do and the actualization of God’s plan in his life.

Paul, a hero to many, should give us all reason to pause. Perhaps in Luke’s account of his role in the spread of the church from Jerusalem to Rome, we see a guy who is bigger than life and in no way can we compare to him. Just read his accounts of suffering in II Corinthians 11, and the bio-pic depicting his story would get nominated for best picture and the actor playing his character would also be up for best actor.

What we miss in Luke’s account of the story are the details. We have to remember that Luke is telling the story of the church in what could be titled the Acts of the Holy Spirit, and Luke takes us on a journey, a journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the Roman Empire as laid out in his thesis in Acts 1:8. We follow Paul who goes from Jerusalem to Damascus where he encounters Jesus and his world is forever changed. He travels on three missionary journeys, each time expanding the geographic boundaries of the church before he is compelled by the spirit to return to Jerusalem in order to get to Rome. Perhaps another post could argue that Paul set out on a fourth missionary journey to Rome and that Luke gave a valuable amount of space to the time in which Paul traveled to Rome. But for now, I want to talk about what Luke left out of the story.

Paul received his calling in Acts 9 while on the road north to persecute the church, Acts 9:5-6. Jesus personally met him on the road and called him to the ministry. I doubt many of us have a similar story when it comes to knowing our calling. Paul clarifies his calling during two different speeches later in Acts; 22:3-10 and 26:12-18. We know Paul’s calling and his accomplishments, but we know little during that space in-between the two.

What do we do in that season of our life between the calling as a youth and the move into fulfilling the calling. I think of people like Hudson Taylor who moved to the poor neighborhood and changed his sleeping routines to prepare for difficult situations in China and learned all about medicine as an assistant to a doctor. I think of Taylor’s faith tests before he left shaping his ability to rely on God while in China.

When we look at the life of Paul, we see Paul as a mighty man of God, raising people from the dead (Acts 20:7-12) , getting people into the kingdom of God to the end (Acts 28:23-31), baptizing people with the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:6), casting out powerful demons (Acts 16:16-18), and even sending his apron around the region of Asia Minor to see people get healed by its touch (Acts 19:11). What we don’t see in Luke’s narrative is that space between the calling Paul received directly from Jesus and the actualization of his calling. According to Paul’s own words in Galatians, he spent 17 basically silent years before he played a major role in the expansion of the church.

Paul met Jesus in a powerful moment on the road to Damascus, and he received a confirmation of the calling in Damascus with an unsung hero named Ananias, Acts 9:11-19. Then Luke uses these words to gloss over a three year period, after many days (Acts 9:23)…

If we look at Galatians 1:17-18, those many days consisted of a time in Arabia. Paul leaves that time ambiguous beyond the bottom line of downloading the message of the gospel from Jesus (Gal 1:11-12). After the mysterious three years in Arabia (I wonder if he found any flying carpets or magical genie lamps), he returns to a most unwelcome audience in Damascus. He sneaks out of town and returns to Jerusalem to be met by a hostile group of apostles still suspicious of his motives. But Barnabas welcomes him with open arms and sponsors him to the apostles (Acts 9:26-27). He then goes back to his home town of Tarsus in Syria and Cilicia. He spent 14 years in relative obscurity (Gal 2:1) before Barnabas needed help in Antioch, an urban church with exploding growth. Barnabas went to recruit a guy he knew to be qualified to help him disciple the new believers in this multi-cultural city (Acts 11:25-26). Paul spent another year in Antioch as basically a support member of the team.

Another post waits to be written here on the subject of calling and sending. Paul was called almost two decades earlier to be a missionary and to take the message to the gentiles, but in Antioch, he was set apart for the work of God by the Holy Spirit. There is a necessary local church element that needs to accompany anyone’s calling. We are never called to go it alone. There needs to be an invitation and a sending in any mission venture.

In our instant culture as westerners, we want results now. Top-notch football coaches are fired one year later if they don’t produce. We want immediate results, and thinking about what Paul went through before he even began to fulfill his calling must go against the grain in our thinking. Our success-oriented thinking (and that is where we need to get a right view of success), drives us to think we gotta start now, or we are going to be behind the eight-ball. We need to live in that tension between striving for all that God has for us and waiting on his timing and preparation in our life.  For another curve ball to our view of success look at John the Baptist. He spent his whole life preparing for six-months of ministry in the wilderness, and Jesus says he was the greatest. Six months of ministry before everyone left his teaching to follow Jesus. John replied in John 1, I must decrease so he can increase.

I am not saying don’t do anything for two decades. By no means…I totally think the training that comes in Bible College or a ministry school has great value, internships and staff positions help shape us toward future ministry. Even get out there and pastor a small church in your early twenties. A.W. Tozer pastored small rural churches for many years before he became a significant voice when he pastored in Chicago. Don’t wait to get involved, but work in God’s timing and along with his journey…

The most important  process in the space between the calling and the actualization is how God sharpens our character and works on refining the important areas in our life. We need those times to have God work on our heart and spirit. God is always more concerned with who we are than what we do.

Grace and Commitment

The grace of God continues to confound me. This ambiguous and wonderful phrase means so much and does so much to color our understanding of the Christian life and yet we know it in such little detail. We throw around the word grace in Christian circles like it is going out of style. Sometimes, I wonder if we have allowed grace to lose its richness in carefree abandon.

Grace gets used as a euphemism for prayer before dinner—still my favorite is ‘rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub’.

We even use the grace of God idiomatically. When we want to judge someone else for the life they are living and the mistakes that they made in a time of poor judgment, we often stop and say, ‘but by the grace of God there go I’. The phrase has become so commonplace in our vernacular that we often overlook the times that the writer’s of scripture slip it in for emphasis. I want to highlight two more spots in Acts that made me pause and reflect on the immense necessity to have the grace of God with us. These two passages are pulled from the missionary journeys of Paul. The first comes as a concluding statement to the first journey while the second usage marks the beginning of Paul’s second journey.

The first missionary journey concludes like this in Acts 14:27: From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.

As we easily can miss this key phrase as we breathe between massive events in the story of the early church taking the gospel across boundaries and breaking into the gentile world. Churches are started all around the area outside of Palestine, and we can pass right over this as we prepare for the controversy meted out in the Jerusalem Council.  However, when I was summarizing the events of Paul’s journeys the phrase leapt out at me and grabbed a hold of me. These two stalwarts of mission work left Antioch committed to the grace of God. They now returned to that place where they were committed to the grace of God as they had completed the work. Let us hold onto that for a moment as I draw our attention to Paul’s second journey.

After the Jerusalem council, Paul felt urged to take the good news of the church’s decision to the young Gentile churches. Paul and Barnabas agreed to disagree about the potential usefulness of John Mark and went their separate ways. Luke stayed on the path Paul went and states again that Paul was commended to the grace of God in Acts 15:40. I wish Luke explained a little more what this meant. I feel like we are not getting the full picture here.

As I think about starting churches in Bangkok, and crossing barriers of culture and custom to birth something new and connect Thai people to God, I want to know what the grace of God that Paul and Barnabas were committed to is all about. Is this a special grace that allows us to take the message to people who have not heard it before? Does this grace empower them to overcome obstacles to the mission journey? Does this grace include the power of God that accompanied them?  Is it a mere knowledge that the grace of God is what we all need to come to know God as Paul bluntly states in Ephesians 2:8, it is by grace.

I think of Zechariah saying to Zerubbabel as he looked at the overwhelming prospect of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, say grace, grace, Zech 4. It is by the grace of God that the temple will be rebuilt. In the same way, it is by the grace of God that the church was built through the ministry of Paul. In some strange way, Luke intuitively connected the grace of God with the journeys of Paul. In no way can we expect to do anything or be anything significant without the grace of God. It is not us who do the work, but the grace of God in our life and in the community where we work that sees anything worthwhile accomplished. Let us hold onto the grace of God in the same way that Paul and Barnabas did.

Reputation in Society

I find an oft overlooked verse in Acts 19 descriptive of how we should conduct our life in view of watchful eyes. “You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess,” Acts 19:37.

I have been told since I was a youth that when people know I am a Christian, they will watch me like a hawk. They want to know that my life matches up with my belief system. Gandhi said, I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians. Somehow people judge our God through the window of our life. That is the present reality.

Some find an easy path to denigrating other religions in order to make Christianity look better. If they can show a weakness in the other religion, whether Buddhist, Islam, atheism or other religion, then Christianity will look stronger. If we stoop to anything approaching this idea, we will turn off the people we are aiming to reach before we can get our story out.

In Thailand, if we denigrate Buddha, we lose our chance to tell the story of Jesus. When we talk up the person of Jesus as the wonderful savior and the one who can take our karma on his back to give us freedom for an ongoing bondage to karma and reincarnation, we have a chance to speak about the one we love. When we speak with love and with a positive tone, people listen. Not everyone responds favorably, and some in positions of influence may work to make our mission more difficult. But we have stood on solid ground when we do so.

What Paul did in Ephesus and all we need to do is demonstrate the kingdom of God to people. We have the almighty God on our side. If we just allow him to be seen in and through our lives, who wouldn’t want that. When we have something fantastic, we just need to let people see the goods. We don’t even need to get into comparisons.  God will dwarf anything else with his amazing wisdom, goodness, love and power. If we merely show off our God and live a life worthy of our calling as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:1, we’ll make great inroads to society. The church turned the world they found themselves in upside down. People wanted what God offered so strongly than those trying to hold onto the status quo were passed by in the blink of an eye. Gamaliel said early in the life of the church that we can’t fight what is from God, Acts 5:38-39

38Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

The divine nature of the church and the kingdom of God can speak for itself. Luke allowed Gamaliel’s statement to sit as a prophetic and foundational statement to the beginnings of the church. Within 3 decades the church had impacted an entire empire, establishing local congregations throughout the Roman world. One reason the church went so far so fast comes back to the fact they didn’t set out to destroy other religions, but to let God and the message of Jesus take off with a bang. They lifted Jesus up, exalting him above other gods. They didn’t try to take down the other gods to put them under Jesus. We see Paul coming back to this in Ephesians as he reignites the love for Jesus that brought the Ephesians to follow God. The first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians reads like Paul putting the name of Jesus in a rocket ship to blast into the sky and hold the person of Jesus as high as possible over any other gods or religions as possible.

Maybe we have erred in making the religion too much about the doctrines. Don’t get me wrong, the early church fought to maintain doctrinal integrity, and what we believe holds importance. What I am saying is that in the west if we set up the premise around what we believe, then people can find fault with what we believe when our life falls short. We are inevitably going to fall short, and our aim is not a perfect life, but a life moving toward Christ. People saw in Paul and the early church a life changing affect of God coming into their lives. God should impact our world.

In the end, all we need to do is let people see God through our life. We don’t need to stoop to bad mouthing the way nonChristians believe. In this area, our reputation should be exemplary in the community. Our goal is not to be liked or popular. Jesus was not the most well liked person at the end of his life. He was contrarian and went against the grain. He said we would receive the same persecution in the world that they gave him. It’s just that our persecution should come from our faith in Jesus and not our behavior towards other’s faith.