Just Like Kayaking

I found myself sitting down in a dining area of my alma mater this past Spring Break. Across from me sat a former professor of mine who I have been honored to count as a friend, advisor, and confidant throughout the course of my four years there. Seeing that I was in the area nearing the end of my first year at seminary, we decided to reconnect to see where each of us found ourselves before both of us ran off in different directions.

I found him leaving his office on his way toward the dining area. His back was turned, but the khakis and polo shirt betrayed his identity even though I hadn’t seen his face yet.

As he turned from locking up his office, I noticed that he had grown out his facial hair from the last time I had seen him, so that his glasses seemed to rest just over a slightly tousled beard. I did a double-take. The last time I had seen him, he had been more convinced of the clean-shaven persuasion. Time had certainly passed over the course of the past year.

He, on the other hand, smiled as though meetings between the two of us nowadays were still a pleasant regularity. Gesturing down the hall, he asked, “Shall we?”

Accepting his offer, I joined him as we made our way across the campus, shooting the breeze until we had gotten our drinks and sat down in the far corner of the room.

“So,” he said after taking a sip from the coffee he had ordered, “Tell me about Candler. What have you learned?”

I laughed.

“Well,” I started, “Graduate school certainly is a different animal from that of undergrad.”

He nodded, smiling. The steam from his drink condensed on his glasses, concealing his eyes for a moment. I paused, waiting for him to wipe them off. Doing so, he gestured for me to continue.

“You know,” I said, “I think seminary’s taught me within and without the classroom that I’ve got a lot more growing to do.”

“How’s that?”

“You’ve gone kayaking or canoeing on occasion, right, sir?”

He chuckled. “I was an adrenaline junkie for the first half of my life. Still am in some respects! Of course I’m familiar with kayaking and canoeing.”

“Well, almost 95% of the time, I sense that my life has been on this river on which I have been kayaking. And I’ve been making progress, but for the last two years, beginning with senior year, I feel like I’ve been pulled out of the current and have watched a bunch of friends and peers get swept downstream with chances to work in churches and other amazing ministries. I’m glad for them. I just wonder whether Jesus has left me in academia. Sure, classes have been great and thought-provoking, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing out on what I’m meant to do.”

My professor and mentor fell silent as he chewed on what I was saying. After a few moments, he asked, “What do you think you’re supposed to do?”

“Work in a church, hopefully.”

His eyes flicked up from the floor, locking with mine. “Why?”   

“Because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last four years of my life studying for. Because I feel ready to take on the challenge of a ministry position and yet nothing seems to be coming my way.”

I paused. “Because… that’s what I’m called to do? This May will mark the fifth year I have studied ministry in particular. It all just seems so anti-climatic and I can’t help but feel disheartened.”

Shaking his head, he replied, “You’re conflating calling and vocation. A vocation enables a person to fulfill their call. But having your vocation be your call in every season isn’t exactly guaranteed.”

I took a sip of coffee. It seemed so straightforward, and yet, part of who I have trained myself to be resisted wholeheartedly embracing it in the moment. I think it’s because it’s hard for a person, place, or thing with a trajectory one way to change.

It’s possible. It’s just difficult based on the inertia we build up over time.

“Who knows,” he said, “Perhaps your ‘call’ in this season is to just be a student. Or maybe it is just to wait for wherever God leads. There are multiple ways to go kayaking, you know.”

We continued to chat for the rest of an hour. As the hour reached its end, he and I began walking toward a presentation he wanted to sit in on. As we reached the doors of the lecture hall, he paused and turned to say a last word.

“Don’t allow yourself to buy into the idea that calling is vocation. When options begin to foreclose, or you feel like you’re being left behind by your friends who have jobs in those areas, it can be easy to fall into despair and even doubt that you’re even supposed to be doing what you’re doing.”

I nodded as I turned to make my way across campus to meet up with someone else. It would be easy to accept the concept intellectually. The issue was more of a heart problem for me. I think it will take some work, but with God’s help, I can begin to reclaim some of the places in my heart that I have allowed weeds to take over.

Probably means I need to learn to be content with just floating along in life for a bit, trusting that things will work out one way or the other for the better.

I think, for a little bit of time, there’s good here too.

As You Go

The Santa Ana winds have been whipping through the area recently, tearing pockets of heat from within layers of clothing. During the day, people march from place to place, their bodies bowed and bundled. At night, the temperature drops to those familiar to the earlier spring or late autumns of New England. For most, being outside is an inconvenience to be avoided by ducking inside a building on campus or their apartment.

For most, being outside is an inconvenience to be avoided by ducking inside a building. For some, that option isn’t open to them.

One evening, I found myself on my way to a conference that was a number of towns away for a job. The event I was supposed to attend was last on the day’s agenda, and, to be honest, I had some mixed feelings being on the job late Friday evening.

Soon after leaving campus, I found myself sitting at a traffic light in the car with a friend. I turned to look out my window. Outside was a man, wrapped in an assortment of worn sweaters, jackets, and scarves. His beard poked out from underneath his hat which was drawn completely over his ears. His breath formed an opaque wall between us, obscuring his face. And on his back was a duffel bag stuffed with any sort of thing. He could have been every man, given the circumstances.

The light at the traffic stop turned green. My friend turned the wheel and the car continued on its way. But halfway into the turn, I saw that another person had appeared on the sidewalk, riding a bike. He or she, too, was bundled up – a vibrant scarf was wrapped snugly around their neck, with one end trailing behind their person and the other tucked within their peacoat.

They must have said something to the raggedy man, for he turned toward the biker as they came to a stop. As the two disappeared from my view, the biker took off their scarf and handed it to their acquaintance, then hoisted the man’s duffel bag onto their own back before continuing to walk with him down the street.

As I turned to face forward in my seat, I whispered under my breath a quick note of thanks for the biker in the cold. What a way to advance the Kingdom, I thought, I wish I was doing that.

But something stopped me to reconsider what I had just said. Something related to the biker and the raggedy man and this conference that I was attending seemed to demand I reconsider my initial thought. I closed my eyes to think.

When Jesus sent out his twelve in Matthew 10, he told them:

As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.[1]

For me, the very notion of leaving for some place for anything and forgetting something of mine is horrifying. What if something were to go wrong? What would I do?

Ministry is somewhat like that. You can never truly prepare for what lies around the corner. Why should I have a false sense of comfort?

At the same time, I think that Jesus’ instruction has a positive element to it as well. The reason why the twelve were not given any additional resources to take is because they might need to realize that they are enough on their own to carry a message of hope, truth, and love. No number of translations of the Bibles, commentaries, and how-to manuals in the back seat of the car will help in a moment of need. What people often need is not a model but a person to walk alongside them in the midst of crisis. I’m sure that the biker did not leave their house with the foreknowledge that a raggedy man waited for them.

If the mission of God is reconciling all of the world to himself, I don’t think the church needs to worry about going overseas to lean into it. Enough need is right outside their own doors. While some of the church may worry about the saving of souls, the missio dei is also about the establishing of the Lordship of Christ over a redeemed Creation. This mission is needed to be lived out day by day, both on an individual level and a corporate one. And yes, proclamation evangelism does play a part. But so does healing, serving, seeking justice and reconciliation for the marginalized and oppressed, making peace, and other related fields.

“Compassion,” stated Frederick Buechner, “Is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”[2] How we do anything and why we do it affects the Kingship of God in relation to others.

One of my supervisors and mentors by the name of Chris once told me to always place a qualifier before the word ministry, since anything done out of service to another is ministry in the end. Everything – large, small, and everything in between – is a form of ministry when we do it out of compassion and love. Martin Luther argued as such when he wrote:

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels…God with all his angels and creatures is smiling – not because the father (or mother) is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.[3]

Whether living into the mission of God for you is done by making Americanos in the neighborhood Starbucks, changing a tire on a customer’s car, driving to a conference for connecting people to resources, or by stopping to offer to walk a mile carrying a man’s bag, God sees it and adds permanence to our work. The time may come when we are meant to serve in other capacities, but for now, we are called to serve where we find ourselves today.

I opened my eyes and glanced at my watch. An hour had passed. All around, red tail lights filled the whole of the windshield. To our right, a man in a SUV stared blankly ahead and began munching on something stashed in his door compartment. My friend glanced over and remarked drily, “Oh, you’re awake. Welcome back. Ready to save the world, Mr. Elofson?”

I shook my head briefly. “You know, I don’t think I’m called to that right now.”

“Well, good. We’d have to get out of this mess first.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes before my friend spoke again. “What do you think you’re called to now, anyways?”

“Playing my small part in something greater. A greater leadership role requires a greater character – something I am lacking. But now, I get the opportunity to begin building connections between people and resources. I think that’s more than enough missional activity for me.”

“What about feeding or serving the homeless? Don’t think I didn’t notice you earlier.”

“You know, I think Christ calls us to serve where and when we are. To love others as you go. If I should chance across someone in need, I’m sure Christ will call me to help then as well. Don’t think I’m limiting myself to serving in only one or two ways.”

He nodded in agreement for a moment before smiling and gesturing toward the traffic in front of us. “The only problem I have with that is this is killing your notion.”

We both laughed. My friend reached over to the radio, “Might as well enjoy the time we have now.”

“Yes, indeed.”

 

[1] Mat. 10:7-10, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Frederick Buechner, “Compassion,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, Rev. and expanded ed., (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 18.

[3] Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed., ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 158-159.