Saturday, June 29, 2019

When a calling becomes a career and a career becomes a calling

So, I was visiting with some friends the other day. They were folks from the church, and they were describing one of my pastoral predecessors (now deceased). They said that one time when they were talking with him about ministry he told them that ministry was a career, a job like any other. They pressed him, insisting that it must also be a mysterious, divine calling that drives his ministry. He insisted, although he did enter ministry with some sense of God's direction, it was a career choice.

I don't know what to make of these stories. I tend to doubt that most previous pastors were as bad or as wonderful as people described them. But, when you sit around people's tables and they tell you stories about previous ministers, they are often not simply telling stories. They are trying to communicate something more. In this case, my friends were trying to communicate what they have shared with me since I arrived in North Platte. They were trying to tell me that they had seen that God had placed his call on my life, that they believe I had embraced that call, and that this calling was evident by the approach I took to my ministerial tasks.

There are times when ministry has to be approached as a job. You have to pay your dues, put in your time, do the grunt work of ministry that nobody notices or remembers. Other times, when you have just escaped a difficult board meeting, or when you are trying to keep going through what feels like the rejection of a family that has left the church, you plod. You show up. You grind out a sermon. You make your visits. You teach your classes. You do your job. For me, ministry is the only career I have ever known.

Having said all that, my friends are right. If it was JUST a job, I would not be doing what I do. I do feel called.

What I did not say to them is this: my calling here has a lot to do with them. When I interviewed and candidated for the position here, it was a struggle to decide to come. More than once, there were times I really wanted to step away from the call to come to North Platte.

I loved Hot Springs and many of the people there. It was not a town I wanted to leave, nor did I want to leave many of the people of my congregation.

I was not sure I wanted to live in Western Nebraska.

I felt badly about having my wife reboot her career.

On the day I preached my sermon to come here, and before I accepted the position, we had a church potluck. As I ate, here came this chubby old farmer, red-faced and in his overalls, to speak to me. He asked to pray for me and my discernment of God's call, which he did. Then his eyes filled with tears as he finished and he placed his hands on my head. He said that he believed that God's Holy Spirit had called me to be this church's pastor, and that his hand was upon me and my life. Tears and snot and sweat dripping from him, he made a half-hearted apology for our awkwardness of our encounter, and then dismissed himself. Between that encounter and the nearly unanimous vote to extend the call to come here, I remember telling my wife that God's call was apparent because of the red-faced farmer who laid hands on me and anointed me with his sweat and tears.

Since I have come, we have become closer. He calls me with health updates. He drops by with produce and poultry from his farm. I have prayed for him and he for me. And now he is dying.

We almost lost the man who laid his hands on me and anointed me for the pastorate of North Platte this week. His blood sugar crashed. The hospice nurse came and got him back on the right track. Later his wife chatted with me. They were ready for me to come visit. I wasn't sure how I was going to fit the visit in this week, but I made it work.

That day, the drive out to the farm, worrying about getting lost, finding my way down dirt roads, that was a job.

Sitting at my friends' table, walking through their fields, taking pictures of their smiling faces and hard working bodies, listening to stories of how they have come to faith and shared it with others, talking about God's faithfulness even in the face of death and dying, and listening to how much a man loves all of his John Deere tractors, well, that is a calling. And, the best part of being called at that.

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