May 27, 2018

Answering the Call to Serve

Passage: Isaiah 6:1-8

Answering the Call to Serve – Isaiah 6:1-8

One of the questions often asked of those who answer the call to serve is: what made you decide?

Each of the prophets and leaders whose lives and words are recorded in the Bible made that decision based on an experience of the presence of God when they heard the voice of God expressing a desire to communicate to the people of God a message. When they answered the call to serve, they were responding to a specific situation in a specific time. The words they were given to speak came from the heart of God. Some were called by name such as Samuel and Jeremiah. Others saw visions that prepared them to answer God when the question was asked. Isaiah was one of those who saw a vision of God sitting on a throne attended by seraphs declaring the holiness of God. Isaiah’s reaction to his vision is probably not far from what our reaction might have been if we had seen what he saw. He could not believe that he was seeing the Lord in all his glory and he had not been struck dead. Then one of the seraphs flew to him with a live coal and touched his mouth. At that moment all his fears left him as the seraph spoke to him words of comfort, hope and healing. Instead of dying for his sins, he found that he had been cleansed and given the opportunity to do something in return for God’s gracious gift to him. So when the seraph asks for a volunteer to go on behalf of God, Isaiah finds himself answering the call with the words: Here I am, send me!”

Isaiah had no idea what he was volunteering for but he knew that he had been blessed by God and wanted to offer himself in service in whatever way God would choose to use him.

My own journey to answering the call to serve came when I was still in high school. I was sitting in the back row of the choir loft. There was a wall behind me and no one sitting close to me that day. During one of the prayers, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I instinctively turned to look. Of course, no one was actually there. I puzzled over the event. For some reason, I decided to speak to my minister about the incident. His response was that I had felt the hand of God. What exactly that meant was not yet clear but he told me to be open to listening and watching for where God would give me another sign. Later that same year I was struggling with Physics. While I followed all the steps the teacher instructed, all my experiments turned out completely opposite to what was expected. Even the teacher was baffled and could not find a reasonable explanation. I quipped to a friend that if I didn’t pass physics, I would go into ministry. He thought that reaction to be rather extreme. Why I said it, I have no real idea except to believe it was God continuing to urge me to answer the call to serve. I did pass physics but the call to pursue ministry did not go away. From that moment on, I began to prepare for ordination.

A very wise theologian called St. Augustine of Hippo once said: “If you can do anything but ministry, do it.” Augustine was not trying to discourage people from answering the call to serve God and the church as priests or pastors, but he was concerned that those who answered the call were being drawn by God to serve and that there was no part of them that could choose to do anything else. As I was preparing to be ordained as a minister of word and sacrament within the Presbyterian Church in Canada, I asked myself that question at least once a year. As long as I could truthfully answer that question with no reservations in my heart, I knew I could continue along the path that God was showing me. And I have continued to ask myself that same question every year that I was actively serving in a pastoral charge and even when I was serving in Para church ministry with the Canadian Bible Society. I knew that I could only be effective in my calling if I was truly committed to serving God first and could continue to see that I was where God wanted me to be.

My first posting out of school was to the mission charge of Petawawa and Point Alexander. I was expected to stay 2 years, the superintendent hoped I would stay 3 and I ended up staying 4 years. I was told that my task was to grow the congregation at Petawawa or close it. God led me and the congregation to plan for a new building in a new location in town. I didn’t have the first clue how to go about such a task but it worked. We put in our sweat equity along with the help of skilled tradesmen and the project came to fruition. The congregation continues to be strong to this day but when the building was complete and the dedication took place, I moved on. God wanted me somewhere else.

Back in the early 1980s, Daniel Schutte wrote the song “I, the Lord of sea and sky”. I first encountered that song when I was sent by friends on a spiritual weekend called Cursillo. On Saturday night I had my own vision from God. I wasn’t touched by hot coals and made clean as Isaiah was, but I awoke with the words to Psalm 51 running through my head. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (vv. 10-12).

At the closing service of worship, I, the Lord of sea and sky was one of the hymns. I have loved it from that moment for it spoke to me of a great need in my life if I was to continue to answer the call of God to serve as a minister of word and sacrament. I needed God to create that clean heart and put a right spirit within me if I were to continue to be able to truly answer the call to serve as I had been called. I knew I needed the presence of God in my life and that the gift of the Holy Spirit was critical to anything I might ever hope to do in the service of God and the people to whom I may be sent.

During my time in Morrisburg I met fellow clergy whose passion to serve God and truly answer the call to serve led me to some wonderful opportunities for personal growth. But I also struggled through this time and almost quit ministry but God had a plan for me. My experience in building the church in Petawawa led me to be called to church extension work in Edmonton. My task was to help the congregation to self-support and prepare them for expansion. After 6 years the goal of self-support had happened but the congregation chose not to expand.

A flyer arrived at the church advertising for a District Director with the Canadian Bible Society. I felt God leading me to make the decision to apply. I was chosen and so began a wonderful 10 years of travel and adventure raising funds for the translation of the Bible into the languages of the world, working with all denominations of the Christian church in teaching and preaching and culminating a major fundraiser across Canada in which more than 100 cyclists traveled more than 8,000 kms over 64 days and raised more than $500,000 dollars. I could not believe that I was chosen to coordinate this effort. It took more than 2 years of planning and one full trip by car from coast to coast as well as cycling the event itself.

What was I to do next? Where was God calling me to serve? With no clear direction I struggled to know what to do. In the end, I decided to be a handyman and offer what skills I had to assist seniors. For 6 years I happily worked for them. But God had another plan for my life.

In 2012 I decided that I would throw away my clergy collar that I had had since the time of my ordination; later that year I found myself searching again for a pastoral position. Try as I might, I could find no reason to deny that God was calling me to serve this 3 point charge. People have called me crazy and insane for doing it; but I believe that this is where God wants me and so I answered the call to serve. My time here will come to an end one day and I know that when that day comes, that God will assure me that I have answered the call to serve and that he will reveal where and what I am to do next. I may become a handyman again working for seniors. And if that is what I am called to do and that is how I am to serve, then I will be delighted to do it. The only plan I have had for my life since the first time God laid his hand on me is to seek for his will and endeavour to answer the call to serve whenever it comes and wherever that may take me.

May the God of peace ever give us his Holy Spirit and guide us through this life!