She described her experience owning the campground as; “seven years of hell”. She said that God told her to come to Tennessee and buy the campground. It was a calling. So what happened? Did she get the message wrong? Was there a mix-up in the divine communication system? Or, is it that we just don’t really understand this mysterious concept; a calling from God.
When we spoke to the owner of the campground, Betsy and I were on vacation in the Great Smokey Mountains. I didn’t see any smoke, but I saw a lot of rain. Maybe they should call them, the Great Misty Mountains. It certainly was damp. We camped at a private campground near the very touristy town of Gatlinburg. Our campground was deep in the woods with a stream running right next to our camper. At first it was wonderful, listening to the tinkling of the water over the rocks. But the nonstop rain caused the stream to sound more like a jet engine. Which of course, is exactly what we hear every night in New Jersey. It was just like home.
We met her when we checked into the campground. Right away she just opened up to us. Maybe it was because we told her we were in the ministry? Maybe it was because Betsy and I are both good listeners and we encourage people to talk about themselves? Or, maybe it was because we were in the right place at the right time? Anyway, she told us about how good her life was in California, and how lousy it’s been since her family bought the campground. And she was convinced that God wanted her to minister in Tennessee. But nothing had worked out so far. She was openly frustrated because of her rock solid belief that God wanted her and her family to relocate to The Great Smokey’s. That forces the question; does God want her to fail?
I’ve had similar conversations with many people over the years. And I have asked the same questions. Is it me? Am I the reason for my failing ministry? Did I misunderstand the message? Is God punishing me? Is my suffering part of some greater purpose that God has in mind?
I think those of us who experience a calling from God see our missions as being a part of a greater purpose. I also think that people in general see our lives as being engaged in some titanic struggle to achieve an astounding purpose. Joseph Campbell wrote about the Journey of the Hero, an examination of hero myths from around the world. He found that everyone told stories that follow a similar story line. They all involve an epic journey, with challenges faced and help received along the way. Campbell concluded that we are all connected somehow to a universal unconscious that causes us to see our lives in a similar way regardless of culture. For a while I bought into his thinking, but not anymore. The Journey of the Hero just describes everyone’s life in broad terms. We start out on a journey, we face struggles, we receive help and we win some and we lose some. The interesting thing about this is, we see ourselves as the hero, the center of the story. The Journey of the Hero revolves around me, and the world stops and watches while I pass through.
What if the tie that binds our stories is not so heroic? What if our dreams of greatness are just a way of boosting our self-esteem? What if the world doesn’t stop and watch as we pass through? An affirmative answer to any of these questions may mean that our calling from God is not real. Now that is a scary thought.
There is a story in the Book of Acts that comes to mind (Acts 8:9-25). Simon the Sorcerer is a typical miracle worker of the day. He hears the Good News preached by the Apostle Phillip and he believes. However, he sees people receiving the Holy Spirit from Peter and John and he offers them money to be able to do the same thing. Peter is none too pleased and chastises him. So what’s the problem? Simon wants to be important in the eyes of the people around him. What is wrong with that? After all, this describes the motivation of every person who has ever tried out for American Idol. And I’m guessing that is a pretty substantial number. Ministerial candidates all start out with the same excitement when we enter the ministry. We all have visions of doing great things for God. There seems to be a fine line between being a humble servant and being an insufferable egotist.
God called me into the ministry while I was in the balcony of my church, during a sermon the subject of which I still can’t remember. I just knew that God was speaking to me and told me it was time for me to enter the ministry. I was already thinking about it, but God’s voice pushed me over the brink. I entered Seminary just after Betsy and I had bought a house and had our first child. We had two more children while I was attending Seminary. I juggled home/family/work/school/church. I was on a mission. I had a calling from God. Nothing was going to stop me from accomplishing what God had in mind for me.
So, how did I know the call was from the Lord? I have no idea how to describe it. Words are just so inadequate. However, I do have some criteria that I have developed over the years the help me when I seem to believe that God is speaking to me and is leading me to do something. After all what I think is a message from God could be my ego having a good time at my expense. So think of this as Bill’s 30 second philosophy of deciphering divine communication.
1. If it’s what I desperately want, it is not from God. I desperately want to be rich; God has told me to forget about it. I didn’t want to enter the ministry because I knew that I would be poor the rest of my life. God told me to enter the ministry. Too often people think that it’s God’s will for them to be wealthy and comfortable. How convenient. This is not how it works in the Bible. Moses, Gideon, Paul and many, many others received a call to serve The Lord, and didn’t want to answer it. God had plans for them that didn’t match the plans they had for themselves. The same goes for me. I think I know what God’s plans are for me. I’m probably wrong.
2. The vision doesn’t have to be big. I started out in Seminary dreaming of saving the world for Jesus. Instead, I’ve found that I have had an impact on the world, but it is very, very small. Now I’m ok with this. I’ve found contentment in God’s plans for me, rather than my enormous earth shattering, and totally unrealistic, visions.
3. Ninety Nine percent of the time, God lets us make our own choices. Returning to the lady I met in the campground. Maybe God called her be a minister, but maybe God didn’t tell her how to do it. Maybe, God allowed her to decide the particulars of the mission she would engage in. Perhaps, it wasn’t God who told her to pack up her family and move across the country to this campground. Perhaps, she was the one who made that choice. God gave us unique personalities for a reason. We make our own decisions, and we impact the universe in our own unique ways. God calls us to serve. We decide how.
I know a wonderful woman who is now in the last days of her life here on earth. She truly lived a life worth living. She was kind and respectful of everyone she met. She helped without asking for anything in return. And she kept at it long past the time when most people would have sat and rested on their laurels in their comfortable home. When she leaves us, she will be mourned by a great many people. Because she loved us, and we love her in return. Now, that is what I call a Calling from God.
God bless you,