Faith at Work Article 10-7-08
“The liberating power of the persistent call of God”
I live in a college town surrounded by rolling wheat fields, with some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. The rhythm of the seasons surrounds us. The fall harvest with its waves of golden grain and the familiar wheat cereal aroma fills the air and scintillate the senses. The winter undulating whiteness, like giant ski hill moguls provides a natural playground for children, families and college students. Springtime leaps to life as the wheat, the peas, the lentils, all respond to the life force of the sun warming the soil and bringing a freshness that only God’s new creation can yield.
Our college town is the home of a major rural, land grant state university. The nearest major city is 75 miles away and the majority of the state population is on “the west side,” over 200 miles away, yet the students come, some 17,000 of them come. They come, to get an education, maybe to get away from home and learn to live on their own. They come to socialize and party, liberated from the confines of their parental overlords. Some come, on a journey of faith, perhaps for an extended time of perspective and reflection, to consider the future directions for the rest of their lives.
I, too, came to this rural, agricultural, university town, my family in tow, after 10 years of ministry in a large church in California. For me it was a relief to escape the pressures of a congregation that psychologically never broke the two-hundred barrier. For my wife it was to support the family and me. For our sons it was a mixed blessing: for the elder, it was a painful extraction, beginning his junior year of high school, for our younger, it was a chance to find friends and community, to bloom and grow. Yet, by God’s grace, we as a family remain closely connected, an maintain our own kind of long-distance support group as we’ve all gone through college or graduate school in the last few years.
God’s Call in My Life?
For the last ten years, I’ve been a college church pastor. I’ve had the opportunity to share in discussions about career/calling/work, and yes, even going into the ministry. I’ve led retreats, bible studies, and mission service projects, all which presented opportunities for students to engage in self-examination and sometimes gut-wrenching choices. During these times, it has not been uncommon to hear a college student ask the question, “What is God’s call for my life?”At those moments, there is a sense in which time stops, the world grows dim, and that most important question in the world echoes across the universe--God’s call, in my life.
Perhaps you’ve been there; you’ve heard the question, and in a way that resonates more deeply than you thought possible, you’ve even asked the question yourself. “What is God’s call for my life?” Students may have raised the question about themselves in your presence, but haven’t you ever wondered if in reality the question was directed toward you, and it was the voice of God challenging you to re-examine your life’s priorities and vocational path? What is God’s call for my life? Am I content with what I am doing? Am I merely putting in my time? Am I making a difference in the world for others?
For many this wondering about God’s call is not even a question. Some don’t care and will never ask. Some have already solved that riddle and are pressing forward in their journey. But here, in college town, the career, calling, work question is often asked, and a few sincerely seek to align their life’s work with God’s will. Every year here thousands of students graduate and look for jobs. Frequently, students will take one of two possible paths. First, they will consider what academic courses they do well in, declare a major , then apply for jobs with the highest pay for their relevant education, often choosing the job closest to friends and family. Second, students choose a college major and a career almost by accident, maybe following the path of friends, or choosing a default course of action because “I’m no good at math,” or “I don’t like languages,” or “it was easy, but I really hate what I’m doing.” Now and again I’ve heard a student say “I want to be the best physical therapist (teacher, engineer) for God that I can be,” but not very often.
The Call of God and Work
For some in the institutional faith sector (churches) the call of God is important, but mostly they want to make sure their pastor or their missionary has really felt that call. Other people of faith consider their work their vocation. Work is the activity and setting in which they live out their faith convictions on the cutting edge of everyday life. For many others, work a job, it pays the bills, “I can turn it off when I go home at night.” There are too those tentmakers, whose work supports their real mission, somewhat like St. Paul of old. They support ministries financially, they adopt children, they host bible studies, they lead and participate in short term mission projects, they teach, they continue to study and grow, serving throughout their lives. I have had the privilege of knowing and working with some of these saints, including airline pilots, business people, professors, and engineers.
Then there are those like me, who, in the wave of the “Jesus revolution” of an era gone by, sensed a call of God into the ministry, with a passion for seeing people come to Christ, grow in their faith, and impact their world as “little Christs” (christianoi) making disciples in fulfillment of the Great Commission. However, somewhere along the way, we grew disenchanted with the contrast between what we had learned in Biblical studies and theology and the reality of the American institutional church. I recall two very bright fellow seminarians who, upon negative first-church experiences decided to regroup: one went to medical school, the other to law school.
Well, you might reply, not everyone is called to the ministry, or, of those who are called, few are chosen. “Further,” you might add, “did you expect Christian ministry to be a Disneyland?” (Maybe that’s a problem with going to seminary in Southern California, and taking youth group kids to the Magic Kingdom as an annual activity). Granted, in the church more directly than the workplace we are dealing with sin, and Scripture repeatedly reminds us that we will be saved through suffering.
Sin and Suffering
Sin and suffering don’t seem nearly as real to a young man or woman hearing the call of God on a retreat, at a large conference, or while reading the Bible alone on a sunlit grassy knoll in the Springtime of one’s life. I found the vicissitudes of ministry to be deeply rewarding, but equally challenging, perhaps overwhelming, as I constantly held the high standards of the resurrected Lord and the calls of scripture before me. Like St. Paul in Romans seven and eight, I struggled with the pneuma and the sarx, the spirit and the flesh, and constantly wrestled with two demons: expectations of myself, and expectations of others. Sometimes I was pleased, but as a romantic idealist, I was often disappointed. Disappointed that I didn’t pray more often, disappointed that I couldn’t lead more people to Christ, disappointed that my ability with words often got me in as much trouble as it did bring benefit to me and others.
Then too, I couldn’t understand how people could hear the Word of God, and treat it like an editorial opinion that they simply disagreed with. Perhaps it was my own perception, but in the “rating wars” of the crowd’s response to sermons, it also seemed that the more challenging a passage of scripture was, the more people despised, or gave low ratings to the sermon. God loves me? Great! A sermon on tithing? Lousy. A challenge to step up and get involved helping our community? Don’t even go there. Lest I sound like I’m simply grousing, I won’t continue the Jeremiad against American Christianity. Suffice it to say, I began to wonder if there wasn’t an arena in which to exercise my gifts where there seemed to be a greater correlation between theory and practice, between receiving and giving, between passion and perception, between service and need.
Service, Engagement, and Meeting Needs
In the very university community to which I was called, I began to sense a definitive change in my passion and focus. I sought to engage the congregation with the university and the community, and my local church provided a place to begin. This congregation was committed to serving others regardless of race, color or creed, and my new directions began to take shape there. Between Crop Walks, Community Action Center, a resident counseling center, and hosting the Martin Luther King Day festivities, I was given the freedom to explore my own calling and work through its implications.
As far back as my college days I was involved in tutoring and training struggling readers. In seminary, I rode my bike across town to assist in tutoring children in mathematics and reading. Working with youth groups in all of my pastoral positions, I saw the potential in the hearts and passions of church people to serve, and minister to others. Somewhere along the way I began to consider that congregations could make a great difference in bridging the gaps between the educational haves and have-nots, but I felt I wasn’t properly trained for this kind of venture. I realized I was now moving beyond the parameters of seminary training. I needed further education, credentials, bona fides, if I was going to reach people in a context where religious people are often highly suspect.
However, I pressed on in ministry, even seeking to recruit others to the Great Call. My recruiting efforts seemed to bear little fruit. For example, not too long ago I asked one of our college students if she was interested in full time Christian ministry. She showed real promise for ministry and had a genuine heart for service. Her response: "Are you kidding? Spend that much time in a church?" On another occasion, meeting with college students from our congregation after a national mission conference with 17,000 other students, I was surprised that only two out of our 10 considered going into the ministry. Those two had added caveats: "but first I have to work a while to save up enough money to enter the ministry." What happened to "leave you nets and follow me?”
Perhaps the word "calling" means what it implies. Not everyone is called. Not everyone hears the Voice. Not everyone who has ears to hear, really hears. I never actually thought I'd spend 36 years studying and serving full time in pastoral ministry. I just kept trying the best that I could, given the limitations that I had, to follow God's leading, with a very patient and loving wife and family.
What caused the metamorphosis? If I believe in the sovereignty of God, there is no question: God spoke and I responded. If I believe in the yearnings of my heart, then God changed my heart. Another interpretation is that I got tired and gave up. Perhaps my idealism grew into cynicism, and I grew frustrated with others’ responses to what seemed to be the clear, direct, Word of the Lord. Too often people hedged their remarks with bland affirmations and cultural accommodations to justify a failure to allow one's life to be conformed to the image of Christ and the call to serve.
Is there a simple answer to the question "How did you go from being a seminary trained pastor to pursuing a Ph.D. in Literacy Education at 53 years of age?"
From a psychological perspective, one might conclude that my impulsive nature, my hard-headedness that helped contribute to the end of my first marriage, barely out of seminary had something to do with a career change. Perhaps my desire to go deeper, to learn more, to struggle harder, to enlist others in the Great Sacrifice was unrealistic. Another interpretation is that my personal, self-styled effort at controlling my universe, leading to drinking as a form of escape, finally brought me into the rooms of AA was the turning point. As my sponsor told me, I was just arrogant, and I needed to be faithful to God’s call in my life, not calibrate it to my interpretation of others life choices or their opinions of mine.
One might argue that what tipped the scale was the several abusive church cultures, where I was the baby boomer pastor trying to bring about change with the younger folks, while at the same time trying to please the older folks, only to find my Self lost in the process of cross generational wars and scapegoating. Maybe those long years of suffering were part of the metamorphosis. Sometimes I think it was a desire to see the kind of growth and change that was evident in young people also occurs in elders, who, too often seemed to have abandoned the journey or simply parked to picnic alongside their path.
One clear word was a liberating comment from a literacy professor telling me "we teach God's truth (how people learn to read and understand) in a secular setting" That simple comment set me free; I could effectively contribute to God’s work in a context in which I would prosper. Undoubtedly, the prayers of many people who, early on and throughout my life, told me "you really belong in a college atmosphere,” also made a difference.
As time went by, I continued to interpret my calling and refine my responses. Gradually I acquired some wisdom, integrating my experiences with an understanding that helped me align my gifts, desires, and native talents with settings in which I would best fit. Increasingly I found myself wanting to work with those who are passionate about learning, growing, and change.
Cognitive psychologists and learning theorists point out that change is painful, difficult to bring about, and often is only surface and temporary. Hence the convert, the recovering alcoholic, the poor reader, all have in common a sense that they have "hit bottom," and are seeking a way out--a way that they are unable to make on their own, and need an external Help, Power, guide or mentor to set them free. Only when people realize that they way they are living life is not making a life worth living do they begin to desire something better, and become willing to consider a new way.
For me, beyond recovery, beyond the institutional conundrums of the American middle class, and the complacent, comfortable church, the answer began to emerge as an effort to bring about change from within. However, I could not change from within without going outside, into the world that most church people live in all their lives, to seek and find a new way. For me, this way was three blocks away at the nearby by land-grant state university. It was there on campus, that the desire to address people's real and felt needs in reading, understanding, and applying literature (sacred and secular truth) to real life became clear.
As a kind of trial balloon, I took a summer graduate course in “Middle School Education.” I loved it! I began to dream of possibilities and the next phase of my life journey was underway. Alongside great heroes of the faith, new names, concepts, and findings emerged that kept swirling around with two biblical passages: “In the beginning was the word” (John 1:1) and “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). In literacy terms, levels of literacy development, comprehension, and research-based teaching and learning strategies rose up alongside of names such as Vygotsky, Friere, Au, Duke, Pearson, and Bakhtin. Struggling readers and English language learners became groups that I also noticed were not very numerous in the average American congregation.
I began to study the demographics of our community, and found that we were one of the top five school districts in the state, with only 17% of our children “below basic” reading level (the state as a whole has 30% below basic reading level, the nation, 33%). Basic reading level, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, is summarized as follows:
Fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should demonstrate an
understanding of the overall meaning of what they read. When reading text
appropriate for fourth-graders, they should be able to make relatively obvious
connections between the text and their own experiences and extend the ideas
in the text by making simple inferences. (retrieved October 7, 2008 from http://nces.ed.gov)
“Below basic” reading level essentially means that students are not able to demonstrate an understanding of the overall meaning of what they read.
Our community’s stellar statistics took on a new meaning when I calculated what 17% of the 1,000 or so elementary students actually meant. Roughly 170 children in our rural college community were basically unable to demonstrate they grasped the meaning of what they were asked to read!
A Blind Spot
Where are these non-reading children? Do you see them? Can you imagine a mega-church with 170 non-reading children? Some might say “I’d love to have 170 children whether they could read or not,” but they forget the related challenges. How would you teach wiggly third, fourth, and fifth graders, when you couldn’t ask them to read a passage, either to themselves, or out loud, least wise understand what they read? The national statistics for adult literacy are no better.
I believe we in our churches have a blind spot regarding non-readers. In fact, we have a kind of filter, because we emphasize and assume relatively high levels of reading ability. With our strong emphasis on reading the Bible, bulletins, hymns and songs in our churches, I think we actually exclude people from our midst who are struggling readers. I began to ask “how can people read the Bible (church bulletins, hymnbook), if they can’t even read?” Generally, people were startled by that question, but not enough to want to step up and try to help address the problem.
Letters, Words, and Action
During my Ph.D. studies one of the most powerful courses I took was the “diagnosing and treating of reading variabilities.” Out of this course emerged the beginnings of a vision, to train volunteers to work with struggling readers to improve their reading abilities, performance in school and thus potential future options for life choices and work. I called this effort READ (Reading Education And Development) for LIFE (Literacy Instruction For Everyone).
I shared the READ for LIFE concept with a few professors as well as leaders in my congregation, and without exception received positive encouragement. The only caveat came from those cautioning me “don’t let it interfere with completing your Ph.D.” At that point I considered integrating the development of the nascent literacy program with writing a dissertation, but the alignment was not to be. Even so, I proceeded ahead, completing a pilot summer program and a year’s work with college student tutors and children of the community before I realized I was in a new world. No longer was I consumed by church matters, and in fact found the less time I spent “doing church” (in the institutional programmatic sense), the happier I was.
However, just as Jesus said “no one can serve two masters,” so too, I found I could not finally pastor a congregation, direct this emerging literacy tutoring outreach program, and research and write a Ph.D. dissertation. So, grateful as I was for the tolerance and support of my congregation, I resigned from pastoral ministry in order to continue the journey in new directions. With great effort, and no little help from my committee chair, I completed the Ph.D. this summer. Emphasizing literacy as a foundation to freedom, among those who are interested I note how John the Evangelist valued reading and writing in his gospel: ”Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. ” With great effort, and no little help from my committee chair, I completed the Ph.D. this past summer.
This Christmas I will go through commencement and receive the venerable hood of one who has attained a notable level of academic success. Currently I am directing the literacy outreach program, seeing wonderful progress with both our students and our college tutors. I also tutor athletes at the university with a new high tech computer program that is helping them read more effectively. I sponsor two young men in AA and I am in the seeking employment phase, knowing that the next round of professorial positions are just beginning to open up for start dates next Fall (2009). Our house is up for sale, my wife has a position at the University with her newly earned Masters Degree, and soon I will work simply to “pay the rent” as we wait for the next big step in our lives.
What is the calling of God in our lives? Is it a clarion trumpet sound awakening us to action, like reveille for soldiers at dawn? Is it a formulaic aligning of our nature with our desires to find the “just right job” that pays the bills and makes us reasonably happy? Or, is the call a ubiquitous presence, like the rolling hills of the Palouse, that beckon us away from the artificial business of life, to find the rhythms of the plowing, the planting and the harvest, the vivid colors of the soil, the stark whiteness of the snows, the emerald oceans of the wheat, and the amber goldens of the grain. Sometimes the call is remarkable, and we are so amazed we change our course and move forward. Sometimes the call is in the doing, and the necessary work, which when completed brings a sigh, perhaps of relief or gratitude. Then we pause again and ask “what next, O Lord?” and before we know it the next is now and forever, and then the call, the purpose, the happiness, the service, will all come together and we say “Amen,” and “Amen.”
Some manuscripts may continue to
The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Jn 20:30-31). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.