KAMPALA, UGANDA – I was recently sitting under a large mango tree here in the heart of Africa, as good a place as any, apparently, for Providence to put an arm around a needy shoulder.
It was Ash Wednesday. And a rather rotten day. A Canadian newspaper editor had just emailed me to give, in his words, “the lousy news” that my fortnightly dispatches, which had spanned several years and countries, were ending due to budget cuts.
Thud. I felt like I just lost a family member. What made it all the more interesting, if that’s the right word, is that this day was the 20th anniversary of when I left home, at age 20, to do what every young man and woman must do: chase their future.
As life seasons go, it was a day to reflect. Until I was called from that private moment to a meeting where I was given a new, rather stretching assignment that will give my overseas work another new tenure and dimension.
“Here I am. Send me.” That ancient and open mindset of Isaiah, the one I managed to express in some fashion 20 years earlier, more from anxiety and fear than anything, once again proved to be a reliable compass in strange territory.
I’m hardly alone in discovering and rediscovering this truth. Who of us have never lost or surrendered some sacred cow, only to be, sooner or later, surprised by something else? Life may be lived forward, but it’s understood backward.
As this all relates to vocational calling, though, why do we fall so easily for the notion that our work gets its greatest value when directly related to church ministry?
Recently, to launch a missions week here at the Ugandan Christian university where I have the good fortune to live and sit under mango trees, a top administrator, a westerner who’s accomplished and rightfully respected, told students “there’s no greater calling” than serving in the clergy.
Demonstration of the Gospel, a formative church document preceding Constantine’s fourth-century Christianization of the Roman Empire, said the same. It divided life into the sacred and the so-called secular: the “perfect” spiritual life of priests, monks and nuns; and the “permitted” life for everyone else, second-class citizens with second-class service.
But really, there’s no such thing as “secular.” There’s only the sacred and the profane, the perversion of the sacred. Getting up in the morning and putting on the sandals of everyday life is not unlike what Jesus did, and that in itself is holy.
This was the fresh thinking of Protestant Reformers. But that too was abused when “calling” began to mean anything. One 17th century group, the Diggers, wrote “Judges sell justice for money and wipe their mouths like Solomon’s whore,” never bothered by it, and saying, “This is my calling.”
And so, somewhere between these old, lingering distortions, the Church is left with Isaiah’s willing “Here I am. Send me.” Send me into journalism…or into accounting, teaching, farming, law or anything, including church ministry, where I can become what You intended, and burn a holy light. Send me across Canada or Africa or the Milky Way for that matter. Just give me the assurance that I so desperately need, that You’re my pillar of fire ahead.
Amidst confusing voices, that’s the liberating message that youth in Africa or Canada or anywhere else need to hear. Love God. Follow the desires He’s given you.
And pray that when you look back on life’s seasons, in 20 or 40 or 60 years, you won’t forget those sacred times when that arm gently came around your shoulder.