When it comes to calling/vision, I used to erroneously say things like, “Don’t listen to what other people have to say. After all, they weren’t there when God spoke to you.” How wrong I was. I repent.
“TO BE OR NOT TO BE?”
As I celebrated my birthday last week somehow I found myself going through some old emails dating back to 2008. I almost got ordained as a pastor that year. Almost. God spared me inflicting this upon myself… and on y’all 🙂
Back then I was still practicing medicine as a military captain with the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire and had survived a fatal road traffic accident, in which I lost two of my colleagues, barely three weeks into our peacekeeping operation. The miraculous circumstances surrounding my deliverance convinced me beyond any shadow of doubt that GOD had spared me, yes, but for a purpose beyond Medicine. I wanted to give the rest of my life totally to the preaching of the good news and the good life in Jesus Christ and raising younger leaders to do same. If my fervour for God and His kingdom had been a 7/10, it cranked up to 9.5/10 after the accident. Understandably, after such a near-death experience I became crazier for God, with white-hot intensity and with such a sense of urgency about life and mission.
In the midst of all the crazy schedule of doing my medical and military duties for the U.N., I would go to the Universite de Bouake at least twice a week to teach, go into the community to minister–like visiting someone the rebels had captured and jailed, seeing to the total transformation of the dignity of Salimata (picture on left) by getting her dentures, raising capital for business for an AIDS patient etc.
My favourite thing was to preach during our Ghanmed 5/Ghav 10 church services and at local churches. It is little wonder then that the head pastor of one of these churches strongly felt I should be officially ordained as a pastor. After all, I was doing the work anyway—perhaps even better than those who had the official recognition as such.
Everyone was excited—from my Commanding Officer to ‘the least of these.’ A date was set, preparations and decorations were made; my clerical collar (that stiff, white dog collar that reverend ministers wear) was procured, my measurements were taken for my special-collared shirt to go with it… refreshments for the party…
Everyone (and everything) was ready except the most important people in my life: my wife, my best friend and one of my pastors. It is their emails I referred to earlier. These three people had no doubt God’s hand was upon my life and that God had a calling for me but none of them was convinced it was either the time or the place for ordination as a pastor. I was deeply conflicted. On hindsight, they saved my life—and by extension, that of many people.
I must confess I’m a skeptic when it comes to Western Christians’ understanding and practice of anything communal. Unfortunately having been schooled in Western ways and lived in North America myself I have become even more individualistic than my home (African) culture. So I longed for a breath of fresh air when I picked up Mark Labberton’s book, Called, but I was cautiously optimistic. “What does an American writer, from a generally individualistic society, have to authentically and practically offer toward communal calling?” I wondered. I was not disappointed.
The author not only clearly agreed with my observation about individualism but also my concern regarding how community is needed to accurately decipher a call of God on one’s life: “Community should be a natural cornerstone of life as a Christian disciple; we’re meant to be a part of the community of God’s people. After all, Christian disciples can’t live faithfully by themselves, and we seldom hear the call of God alone. Biblically, the call of God is inextricable from the community of God’s people, yet the church in the United States is rife with evidence that the church seeks and avoids community, just like the culture around it” (80).
DON’T TRY THIS ALONE
“We seldom hear the call of God alone?” Wow! Indeed, this is the way Sherwood Lingenfelter puts it in his work, Leading Cross-Culturally: “To have effective, compelling vision for ministry, the kind of vision that will motivate people to follow, the Christian leader must have a deep and intimate walk with Christ and listen to and be filled with the Holy Spirit. But even more importantly, this vision must be tested in the community of the body of Christ, refined by the participation of the body in shaping it, and then mobilized by the body in prayer and action.
Back to Labberton: “The process of understanding the Spirit’s guidance is best done in community. It isn’t a private act of discernment but one that emerges as we live in relation to brothers and sisters who help lead us to listen to our own hearts and to listen for God’s. To do so wisely and not self-servingly or distortedly, we need friends in Christ who share in this process of listening and trusting. Together we are the dwelling place of the Spirit” (140).
Oh! How many people, especially young people, would’ve saved themselves, and myriads more, heartaches, disillusionment and destruction had they tested their ‘calling’ in the crucible of community. Man, don’t try this calling thing alone without a discerning community. And community is “where two or three come together in Jesus’ name.” That may very well be just you and your spouse. If I sense a ‘call from God’ that my born-again, Spirit-filled wife strongly disagrees with I will have to take a serious pause for profound prayer and further consultation. And how much better when my spouse, plus my accountability friend and my spiritual director are all in sync!
Strong ‘Type A’ personalities like me find this assertion that calling is best discerned in community very hard. But that is the way to go, God’s way. I’m eager to share what else God’s word, Labberton and others have to say about this in my next blog. For now, go ahead and tell me what you think so far.