After the curtain falls on our celebration of Christmas, Howard Thurman reminded us in his poem, the work of Christmas begins: “To find the lost, / To heal the broken, / To feed the hungry, / To release the prisoner, / To rebuild the nations, / To bring peace among brothers [and sisters], / To make music in the heart” – to take up God’s work of rebuilding the broken walls and lives of the human community.
That’s our calling as Christians. Wise men were called to the Incarnation by a star, shepherds by angelic choirs, and we are called by God to the work of Incarnation today. It’s a humbling and amazing call, and it’s meant for each one of us as members of the body of Christ. As I’ve tried to live it intentionally for nearly forty years, it’s a call I think I’ve learned a few things about.
The first thing I came to realize is that my call is a gift from God. Any person’s call in life is a gift from God. It’s not something to seek or attain, not something to earn or deserve. It is pure gift, like your dna is a gift from your birth parents. And like our genetic makeup, our call from God is built into us from before our birth. What St. Paul understood about himself, that “it pleased God in his kindness to choose me and call me, even before I was born” (Gal. 1:15 NLT), he also understood is true about every member of the Church.
This kindness from God – “grace” is the original word used there – is something I haven’t earned and don’t deserve, something that has come to me irrespective of all the false steps and dumb mistakes I keep making. And while I can choose to ignore it, I can never run away from it. I know because I’ve tried. Twice in my career I tried to leave parish ministry for some other work.
Once, I consulted a life coach. The other time Sheryl and I went on a career-development retreat that included in-depth interviews and a battery of psychological and personality inventories. It all pointed to the unavoidable reality that I’m called to ministry, particularly to teaching, preaching, writing, and leading religious activities. People who know me will nod in agreement.
Your story is not very different from mine except in the particulars. What God said to Jeremiah, God says to every one of you, “before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer. 1:5), not to be a prophet like Jeremiah, perhaps, nor a church planter like Paul, nor a parish minister like me, but to play some role, your own role, in the perfecting of God’s creation. You have a call in life that is a gift from God, part of your identity since before you were born.
The second thing I came to realize is that my call, my purpose in life, is not about me; it’s about God. I used to get a catalog from Day-Timer with the message: It’s All About You. Day-Timer told me that because the company wanted to sell me its products. God, I’ve learned, never says that to me or to anyone. What God did in the Incarnation was not about me or you or anyone else. It was about God and about God’s plan for the whole world.
In Christ, God was restoring the whole world to its original integrity, rebuilding the broken walls of this world so it would serve again as a solid and inclusive home for all people, whether or not we consider ourselves among God’s chosen people. You and I have been called to serve as ambassadors for God’s healing of the world (2 Cor. 5:19-20).
At one time in my life as I was making a difficult job change, I made a commitment to listen to how and where God was leading me. The first big thing that happened was that God led me to a job that was exactly right for me in that moment. The second big thing that happened was that God led me to a church community where I could be nurtured as God’s calling grew and developed in me. And the third big thing that happened was that God led me from there to seminary and parish ministry.
At first I couldn’t see beyond my next job and the development of my career in publishing. Soon I learned God’s call wasn’t about that at all. It was about something I could not begin to see but that God envisioned for me. It wasn’t about me and my plans; it was about God and God’s plans. And to fulfill God’s plans, I had to sign a blank check. I had to commit to following where God called without knowing the cost or where it would take me.
The third thing I realized was that my sins and mistakes don’t lessen or invalidate God’s call. Just as God’s call is in my spiritual genes, it’s also in my nature to foul it up from time to time, and there I’m in good company. As St. Paul wrote, everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Everyone makes mistakes in completing what God has called us to do, and God uses us anyway.
Paul knew about that. Someone recently reminded me that Paul was a religious terrorist before he was an apostle and church builder. He invaded people’s homes, dragged them into the street, and threw them into jail because of their religious beliefs. He was an accomplice and conspirator to murder. Today we might call him a Semitic jihadist. That did not stop God from using him to spread the Church from Jerusalem into the Western world.
Chuck Colson knew about that, too. As assistant to President Nixon, Colson was one of the most powerful men in the world. Then he got involved in the Watergate scandal and was sent to prison. That might have been the last we heard of him, but he became a follower of Christ and founded a prison ministry that reaches into more than 150 countries and has blessed millions of people. Nothing Chuck Colson did wrong could lessen or invalidate God’s call and plan for his life.
No defect of ours is so bad, no mistake so grievous, that it can invalidate God’s call and plan for us. No fault of ours is fatal to God’s will for us. We have only to write that blank check. We have only to commit ourselves to follow where God calls us without knowing where that call will take us.
The fourth thing I learned is that what God calls us to do, God equips us to do. Last autumn a bunch of you – more than thirty – took a spiritual gifts inventory here at Williamsville. You learned to identify the spiritual gifts that are part of your God-given makeup. Without exception, I believe, those who took the inventory found their spiritual gifts are a natural reflection of who they are and that using their gifts is something they do naturally. Your gifts are the equipment God provides so you can fulfill God’s call in your life. How will you choose to use them?
I don’t know how God is calling you, any more than I could have known that my job change was going to take me to seminary. I may never know the final purpose to which God calls me or how God is using me for that purpose. But I believe clues to my purpose in life are found in the spiritual gifts God has given me. And I believe if I identify my best gifts and use them in the best way I know, I will be cooperating with God’s call, though I may know nothing of it. Do you believe that about yourself, and do you really trust it? Do you practice it?
The last thing I’ll mention is there’s a prize waiting for me and for all of us when we live out our call as fully and faithfully as we’re able. “Forgetting the past,” Paul wrote, “and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven” (Phil. 3:14 NLT).
It would take a year of Ruminations for me to try to explain what that prize is, and at the end of that year I would have made only a small beginning. Today I’ll simply say it’s the blessings of life in “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” that “will be put into your lap” (Luke 6:38). It’s the fruit God’s Spirit produces in us for the world: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). It’s the experience of living abundantly that the Incarnation is about (John 10:10).
“Live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy,” Paul urges. “For he called you into his Kingdom to share his glory” (1 Thess. 2:12 NLT). God calls us to live under the reign of God and to share God’s glory. It’s a call that’s for me, and it’s a call that is for you.