What Do You Mean, Called?

I am a Star Trek fan. Ever since I saw my first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I have been fascinated by the epic science fiction franchise of our day. (For the record, yes, I once heard that there is supposedly another epic science fiction franchise of our day, but I remain skeptical.) I believe I have seen every episode of every series at least once. I have every one of the movies on DVD, many of them on VHS, and some of them on DVR. When I was in Germany in high school, I even watched Star Trek: Generations in German. I have read many Star Trek novels, played numerous Star Trek games, and know well more than my fair share of Star Trek trivia. In fact, I am the proud owner of both editions of the Star Trek Encyclopedia, three different Star Trek technical manuals, Lawrence Krauss’ The Physics of Star Trek, and every Nitpicker’s Guide (look it up on Amazon) ever published.

I firmly believe that, next to the Bible, Star Trek has had the single most profound impact of any literary work on our society. Certainly, there are many things to learn from a series that tries so hard to be culturally relevant and scientifically sound (although, admittedly, there are numerous exceptions to at least the latter of these). And one of those things has to do with the call.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Brothers,” everyone’s favorite android, Data, goes berserk. After commandeering the Enterprise, he sets course for a distant world while the rest of the crew works resolutely to regain control of the ship. To stay on course, Data is compelled to isolate himself on the bridge, lock out engine and navigation controls, and devise a way to keep security from detaining him before he reaches the transporter room and beams to the planet’s surface, where he meets his long-lost creator, Dr. Noonien Soong. After restoring Data to normal, Soong explains that his confusion and behavior were the result of a built-in recall feature. In short, Data was called, and with a single-minded determination that would stop at absolutely nothing, Data came.

In ministry, this is a familiar concept. We are called. There’s something mystical, even magical, about saying that. It makes us feel wanted, needed, integral in the Kingdom. And I honestly think that’s all well and good. Surely, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, and Saul all experienced some of that. The problem is that we’ve all heard people who claim to be called to x, y, or z, and we know full well that they’re dreaming. Or they get six months down the road and suddenly scramble for the exit because God’s calling them to something new. Or… you get the picture.

When I was a freshly minted pastor, our church was in a precarious financial situation. And so were my wife and I. And so it was with great horror that, one Monday morning, I opened the treasurer’s record book to see that the grand total offering for Sunday was $76. With offerings like that, how could the church afford to keep the lights on, let alone pay me? I remember calling our district superintendent in a panic. And I remember him telling me that God was working: I was called.

To be certain, misconceptions abound when it comes to the call. But given that pastors, like Data, will deal with people, things, temptations, and an enemy trying desperately to get to them, disable them, detain them, and more, it is essential that we at least try to dispel some of them. So here we go.

What is the call?

Ever since the first day of Dr. Larry Hughes’ “Introduction to Ministry” class my freshman year at Bartlesville Wesleyan College, I’ve known that trying to define “the call” is akin to trying to nail Jell-o to a tree. When the good professor asked us each to share the story of how we were called, there was, of course, the kid who had been raised in the pastor’s home and just knew that he was to follow in his dad’s footsteps. There was the girl who wanted to help people. The dude who just loved his youth group back home and decided that youth ministry must be for him. And the kid who didn’t really know if ministry was for him, but was there to check it out.

As the sharing continued, I quickly realized that I was the odd one. It seemed that, for almost everyone else, the call was filled with warm fuzzies, and the ministry was the obvious culmination of a confluence of factors. It all made perfect sense. It was a far cry from my experience as the kid who was called at youth camp prior to his freshman year of high school but refused to acknowledge it, fighting tooth and nail for six months until, at a youth conference that December, I was practically forced by God out of my chair in response to a message by John Maxwell. Of course, in the years since that conference, the idea had grown on me, and God had given me a passion for ministry. But prior to that winter day in Cincinnati, OH, I had not wanted to be a pastor. At all. In fact, just one night before, I had deflected (read that, laughed off) the suggestion from my pastor, inwardly thinking him a madman. I was going to be a writer of epic science fiction. End of discussion.

So the call, for my classmates and I, assumed a wide variety of forms. As I said, trying to nail Jell-o to a tree. I remember, for a moment, thinking that this must mean that my call was wrong. But I had never experienced anything so real in my life, so I reasoned that the others’ calls must be incorrect. I didn’t really think that they weren’t called, mind you, but I figured that they must be mistaken as to its origin and form. God would surely correct their memories and understanding – or extend to them a real call – in short order. But then He didn’t. I searched through the various accounts of the call for common threads, but about the only thing common to all of them was that we had all ended up at BWC and in that class together. So I was left with one inescapable conclusion: the call could take any number of forms. And that was okay.

Prior to that day, I had always been aware that God had called people throughout Scripture. I was familiar with the account of Moses and the burning bush, of Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne room, and of Saul’s encounter on the Damascus road. I remembered how Jesus had bid several of his disciples to come and follow. But I had never really paid much attention to the variety of these calls and the many others in the Bible.

Consider, for example, Noah’s call in Genesis 6:13-21. The first thing that jumps out to me is that “God said to Noah.” The Hebrew word translated “said” is amar, which means “to utter [or] say” and is used in the Old Testament, with only a couple of exceptions, to mean exactly that (1). In other words, God spoke audibly to Noah. And then, He went on to give him an extraordinary amount of detail about what He had for him to do: he was to build an ark of gopher wood, covered inside and out with tar, 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high, with a roof, a window, an 18 inch soffit for ventilation, and 3 decks. He was then to fill it with his family, at least two of every type of creature, and every kind of  food that they would all need. God literally told Noah all of this when he was called. And that was the call for Noah.

Compare that to the call God gave Joshua. Again, in Joshua 1:1, we have “the Lord spoke to Joshua.” It’s the same word, amar, so again, God spoke to Joshua. But from there, things were radically different. God told Joshua that, in the end, he would conquer the entirety of the promised land, and He would be with Joshua every step of the way. But He never provided a detailed strategy or battle plan. In fact, in Joshua 3, as the Israelites approached the Jordan River to cross it, God said in verse 13, “When the feet of the priests who carry the ark of the LORD… come to rest in the Jordan’s waters, its waters will be cut off [and]… stand up in a mass.” That sounds cool, but if those priests were anything like me, as they stared at the Jordan River – which at flood stage was probably a couple hundred yards across and moving none too slowly – the question which was running through their heads was, “We’re supposed to do what?” How was God going to stop the mighty Jordan in its tracks and pile up its waters in a heap so that they and all the people after them would be able to cross safely? When God called Joshua, He provided disturbingly few details. And that was the call for Joshua.

To Gideon, God sent “the angel of the Lord,” a personal – physical – representative and messenger, in Judges 6:11. Samuel heard his name called in the night in 1 Samuel 3 and mistook it for the voice of his mentor, Eli. Isaiah had a vision in which he stood in the throne room of heaven, witnessed the cherubim and their choir of praise, had his lips and character purified by a coal from the ultimate altar, and only then heard the voice of the Lord calling, “Who shall I send? Who will go for us?” For Jeremiah, we’re told that “the word of the Lord came to me” (Jeremiah 1:4) and while the same word amar is used, I find myself wondering if it was as audible as it had been before. And who can forget when Jesus called Andrew and Peter, James and John, Matthew, the other disciples, and Saul?

For each of these, the call was different, but still spectacular.

But consider what the call was for Jonah. As far as we know, he was just always a prophet. For Daniel, the call was a natural progression in which circumstances simply thrust him into place. For James, the brother of Jesus, who assumed the leadership of the first century church when Peter was forced into hiding, we have no details at all of what the call was. And then there was Esther, whose account doesn’t even reference the name of the Lord. And yet, who can deny, as her uncle Mordecai pointed out, that her life was orchestrated so that she would be queen “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)?

Clearly, the call takes a wide variety of forms, and considering the people who were called in the Bible, it can be to a wide variety of activities. So it can be nearly impossible to succinctly define what the call is. But I do think that there are a few basic principles that we can glean.

Everyone is called.

The first is that, contrary to what we, “the called,” like to think, everyone is called. In fact, I believe that every single believer and unbeliever is called to a number of things. We’re called to remain in Jesus, fostering an actual, personal relationship with Him (John 15:5-7). We’re called to belong to Jesus Christ, recognizing Him as our master who wants us and treasures us immeasurably (Romans 1:6). We’re called to be saints or people who are holy or virtuous (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2). We’re called to be free from anything and anyone that would control us except God (Galatians 5:13). We’re called to a singular hope, expecting that if we trust and obey Jesus, things will work out in the end (Ephesians 4:4). We’re called to peace (Colossians 3:15). And we’re called to be priests or ministers who represent God to the people they meet (1 Peter 2:9). God extends these calls to everyone, regardless of job title, but not everyone will accept them. Some have no problem with being priests or ministers but want nothing to do with an exclusive hope or a holy life. Or vice versa. The thing is, only the people who accept them all will be saved. It’s an all-or-nothing sort of thing.

In fact, William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, put it this way: “’Not called!’ did you say? ‘Not heard the call,’ I think you should say. Put your ear down to the Bible, and hear him bid you go and pull sinners out of the fire of sin. Put your ear down to the burdened, agonized heart of humanity, and listen to its pitiful wail for help. Go stand by the gates of hell, and hear the damned entreat you to go to their father’s house and bid their brothers and sisters, and servants and masters not to come there. And then look Christ in the face, whose mercy you have professed to obey, and tell him whether you will join heart and soul and body and circumstances in the march to publish his mercy to the world.”

Indeed, everyone is called, and this truth actually has two very significant ramifications which I believe are important to explore. The first is that we pastors are not particularly special. How’s that for an ego-busting revelation? But it’s true. And while I am extremely reluctant to admit this, I do believe that this is profoundly important for pastors – present and future – to recognize, and here’s why.

Pastors struggle with pride, and right here and right now, I will confess to you that I do, too. I take pride in the fact that I am a smart, talented guy, and God apparently agrees because He called me to join the exclusive group of men and women who get to call themselves pastors and lead His Church. I’m special.

But the fact that everyone is called – especially that bit in 1 Peter 2:9 where everyone is called to the royal priesthood! – serves to knock me down a few notches by reminding me that, really, I’m not all that special because everyone has a similar calling. It’s just that most aren’t called “pastor.”

The second very significant result of this revelation that everyone is called is to put our job in perspective. Simply put, I as the pastor don’t have to do everything. In fact, I would submit to you that, if I even try to do everything, I am actually betraying my call in a number of ways, but so that you don’t think I came up with this myself, I need to tell you how I learned this lesson.

A couple of weeks after moving to Des Moines and starting my first pastorate, we sent around a sign-up for church cleaners. (I know, sign-ups are uncouthe in the land of the megachurch, but in our church, it’s how a lot of things get done.) My wife and I had entered the ministry with the presumption that we would help with whatever needed to be done, and so we signed up to take a turn. When the clipboard was returned at the end of the service, our name was crossed out, and someone else’s was on the end of the slot. We were both taken aback by the notion that someone would be so blatantly self-centered – wanting the glory for doing something, and yet too absorbed to sign up for an available week, but before we could sign up for a different slot, the very godly woman responsible cornered me in the church basement and said in no uncertain tone, “Pastor, I saw that you signed up to clean the church. That is absolutely not acceptable. You need to let us take care of that because we can.”

It was my Jethro moment, and while there have been plenty of times since then when we at least helped with the cleaning of the church, we haven’t put our names on the sign-up sheet so that no one would think we were trying to push them out of a job.

You see, this godly woman, who had been in ministry herself for many, many years, understood something that I still had not grasped: I’m called to pastor. That’s a specific calling. But everyone else is called to minister, too. And I must not get in the way of them doing it!

It’s as specific as necessary.

Speaking of specific callings, a second basic principle is that the call to pastor is as specific as necessary. As I already pointed out, there is a broad spectrum in the amount of detail that God provides when delivering the call. Every believer is called to love and witness – we’ll call this ministry in general. Fewer are called to lead, preach, or teach. And far fewer are called to pastor. I wholly believe that the call to pastor must be specific. In other words, as one of my professors in Bible college put it, if you can do anything other than pastor without going to hell, do it.

Why?

Consider the calling of Noah. As we’ve already seen, God provided Noah with an incredible amount of detail about how the ark was to be built. This was important for a few reasons. For one, no one had ever built a boat like this before. In fact, no one would build a larger vessel until the late 19th century AD, literally thousands of years later! So Noah was going to need instructions. But on a far deeper level, the construction of the ark in preparation for an unprecedented flood would be deemed absolutely absurd by any normal metric. So Noah’s neighbors would have laughed at the proposition. And Noah would have, too, if he hadn’t had the details.

The more extraordinary the mission, the more specific God’s call.

Now, that’s not to eliminate the need for faith. Noah had to believe enough to build the ark though he didn’t know how the flood would happen. Moses had to believe enough to raise his arms though he didn’t now how the sea would part. And Peter had to believe enough to get up though he didn’t know how the prison gates were opened.

Pastoring is not a normal thing. You will be mocked. You will face grumbling masses. You will have moments you feel imprisoned. On the good days, you will be tempted, ignored, and run ragged. And on the bad days, you’ll feel like Joshua must have felt in the aftermath of the first Battle of Ai.

It’s not a job – or a life – for everyone. So the call to pastor must be specific. And the tougher the pastorate, the more specific the calling must be. For instance, not everyone called to pastor is called to a megachurch. Or a church plant. Or an inner city church. Or a rural church. Or a dying church in need of a turnaround. Or…

You get the point.

It’s always supported.

The third basic principle is that the call is always, always, always supported. Always.

The nature of that support may vary from person to person, but there will always be correlating evidence of the authenticity of the call. For example, there should be corresponding flickers of effective leadership, a passion for the Word of God, a measure of spiritual maturity and godly living, and more than a few of the characteristics outlined in passages such as 1 Timothy 3, Titus 2, etc. And there should be at least one person with spiritual maturity, authority, and enough of a relationship with you that they can attest to the call as well.

In Acts 16:1-2, we learn that Timothy was “the son of a believing Jewish woman, but his father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke highly of him” (HCSB). In verse 3, the apostle Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him for the remainder of his second missionary journey, and in 2 Timothy 1:5, this same Paul notes his young protege’s spiritual heritage and expresses his own endorsement of the same.

Breaking these two passages down, we see that Timothy was recognized as a legitimate disciple. More, Lystra and Iconium were separated by some fifty miles of rather mountainous roads which the vast majority of people traveled on foot. To have people speaking highly of him in both communities implies that he was already rather accomplished as a leader, undoubtedly demonstrating the traits of the aforementioned leadership passages. And then we have the support of his grandmother, his mother, and Paul himself. Clearly, Timothy’s call was supported.

But don’t think that you have to have all of the qualifications and endorsements Timothy did before you can be called. In Exodus 31, God was giving Moses instructions for the construction of the tent of meeting. This tabernacle was to be the place where God met with people until Israel was established enough to build a more permanent temple. In Exodus 31:2, God announced that He had chosen Bezalel to oversee the process. It made sense because it took the next 3 verses to list the relevant talents this man had. But then, in verse 6, we read, “I have also selected Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to be with him” (HCSB). And then the account moves unceremoniously on.

In other words, in stark contrast to Bezalel, Oholiab had virtually no relevant gifts or talents before he was called.

But I would guess that, after he was called, those gifts and talents started to manifest themselves in fairly short order.

Now, I really doubt that Oholiab picked up the same skill set that Bezalel had. And I can’t imagine that I’ll ever pick up the same skill set that Timothy did. God doesn’t make duplicates of any minister. But I do think it is absolutely fair to say that God both calls the equipped and equips the call. And so if you think you have a call but still, when assessing yourself objectively, utterly lack any of the equipment to accomplish that call, you should probably reassess.

It’s persistent.

And the last principle that I have to offer about the call is that it is persistent. Sometimes annoyingly, infuriatingly, maddeningly so! Jeremiah spoke of it in Jeremiah 6:10-11: “The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it. But I am full of the wrath of the Lord, and I cannot hold it in” (NIV2011). And Paul agreed in 1 Corinthians 9:16: “Yet preaching the Good News is not something I can boast about. I am compelled by God to do it. How terrible for me if I didn’t preach the Good News!” (NLT).

Add to these the accounts of Moses, who actually fought with God to escape his calling; Joshua, who felt dejected and rejected following the Israelites’ defeat at Ai; David, whose covenant with God to establish his house and his throne forever was reaffirmed after the whole incident with Bathsheba and Uriah; Elijah, whom God pursued across the desert and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”; and even Simon Peter, who was restored even after he denied Jesus three times in the early hours of Good Friday.

This is not to say that God’s call is absolutely permanent. In Judges 3, God called Ehud to assassinate Eglon king of Moab and route the Moabite army. Then, in verse 31, we read of Shamgar, who attacked the Philistines “after Ehud.” But Ehud’s death isn’t noted until Judges 4:1, indicating that, while he may have been recognized on the street corner as “that guy,” his call expired after he dealt with the Moabites. Deborah and Barak literally disappear after their victory song in Judges 5. And in the New Testament, Philip was called to administer the distribution of food to widows in Jerusalem in Acts 6, but in Acts 8, after persecution erupted, he was called to evangelize in Samaria, then to the Ethiopian eunuch, and then to the people of Azotus and on up to Caesarea.

And it’s not to say that God’s call is absolutely irrevocable. King Saul’s arrogance and sin led God to call someone else to take his place.

But it is to say that God’s call is neither transient nor fragile. In the examples above, it endured resistance from the called; abject failure; grievous sin; exhaustion, depression, and fear; and outright denial. Elsewhere in the Bible, it survives ridicule, armies, mobs, beatings, and more.

The call to be a pastor is persistent. It doesn’t just come one day and go away the next. And it doesn’t just evaporate the first time something doesn’t go exactly as planned. In fact, it will often survive even terrible sin, compelling even the most broken ministers to strive for restoration and renewal so that they can get back to the job to which they’ve been called.

For instance, I recently read an article on Christianity Today’s website by Pastor Michael Cheshire about his friendship with Ted Haggard (2). Most will remember Haggard as the megachurch pastor and president of the National Evangelical Association who was caught up in a drug and sex scandal. Indeed, Haggard’s fall from grace was precipitous. However, Cheshire, who met Haggard several years after his fall, revealed that his friend had successfully navigated the restoration process and was once again leading a church which God was clearly blessing. Like David, Samson, Peter, and so many others, Haggard’s call persisted.

Who cares?

Which brings us to my point. For pastors, the call is not just an optional thing. It is absolutely essential. You see, as I noted above, there will be times when things don’t go well. There will be moments that you are tempted to throw in the towel. There will be days when you pull out your resume and start to polish it up.

And it’s on those days that the call may be the only thing that can power you through.

You see, without the call, it would be easy to submit a resignation and move on. But with it, no matter how bleak things may be, we always end up right back where Jeremiah and Paul were: “I cannot hold it in!” And “Woe to me if I don’t preach.”

Pastors need to experience the same kind of calling Data did at the outset of this chapter. It must be compelling, leaving us no option but to do exactly what it is that God wants us to do. It must be consuming, driving us to go to any and every length to accomplish the task to which we’re called. And it must enduring, standing the inevitable tests of time. That, my friends, is what it means to be called.

  1. http://strongsnumbers.com/hebrew/559.htm
  2. http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2012/december-online-only/going-to-hell-with-ted-haggard.html

     

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