No Call – No Connection
There are many good reasons we plant new churches and develop new ministry efforts, such as:
- To serve marginalized and under-noticed folks in our community.
- To catch a wave of change moving into or out of our neighborhood.
- To respond to new generations with new priorities and needs.
- To pay attention to something we haven’t paid attention to before.
- To take advantage of geographic proximity to a social and cultural hub, like a college campus, a growing apartment complex, a shopping center, etc.
And many more.
These are the types of reasons that well meaning leaders use to motivate their ministries to move out missionally into new territory. But we cannot forget: where there is no call – there is no connection. While we all would hope for an expression of the Body of Christ in each of these intersections of community and cultural life, before we plant we have to ask, are we called?
Recently I learned a helpful lesson from a friend who is a minister and community organizer. He shared that, in ministry and non-profit terms, there is a significant difference between a partner and a service provider. Partners know one another, love one another and share their mission together. Service providers furnish what the other doesn’t have or can’t do. In the former, the relationship is mutual and the field is level. In the latter, there is an inescapable power dynamic of giver and receiver which always inhibits meaningful relationships.
Moving missionally into new places and new relationships has to be in response to a call.
A Simple definition of Call:
- Profoundly loving someone you haven’t yet met
- Profoundly loving work you haven’t yet done
- Profoundly loving places you haven’t yet been
A call is the pull in our souls that draws us to people we wouldn’t otherwise know and to places we wouldn’t otherwise go. How do we know we love people we’ve never met and places we’ve never been? Because we know that we are fundamentally incomplete without them. Simply put: we need them. Not in a superficial, self-serving way. We need them in a deeply personal and spiritual way. We recognize that there is something about how we have been knit together that longs for their friendship.
In the Gospels, Jesus reaffirms the two most important commandments are “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And…“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39, NRSV)
We often communicate our love for our neighbor as an expression of loving God with our heart. This is easy to do since heart and love are so naturally associated. We say we have a “heart” for this group of people, a “heart” for this particular place, a “heart” for this particular injustice or suffering.
What if we followed the second commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves, as an expression of our desire to love God with our souls? Perhaps, one might argue, this is merely semantics, but I don’t think so.
As contemplative theologians have taught, not only do our souls long for communion with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but our souls are not complete until we experience communion with our neighbor. Answering a call to love our neighbor is an expression of our desire to love God with our soul.
Consider how that would change how you communicate within your ministry. For example, a church that sits across the street from a major university might begin a college Sunday school class and ask for volunteers who have a heart for college students. What if the leadership instead asked “Does anyone experience a unique joy and sense of purpose when spending time with college students?” By moving the attention to our soul, we can help one another better understand how God is calling us.
Answering a call is not going and giving to another who receives what they did not have before. When we answer a call, we are searching for a missing part of our soul that only the other can fill. We mutually receive one another in the wholeness of life and spirit that is mediated by the Spirit of Christ.
This begins not by trying to identify the missing part of our soul, but by identifying others who will journey with us.
Henri Nouwen challenges an egocentric, overly-individualistic discernment of call by reminding us that we are being sent out two-by-two. Referencing Mark 6:7, when Jesus sends the twelve out in pairs, and Matthew 18:19-20 when Jesus promises his presence with two or three who are gathered in his name, Nouwen’s point is that no one of us can bring good news on our own. The good news is Jesus and Jesus is proclaimed through community.
Nouwen writes “it is Jesus who heals, not I; Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I; Jesus who is Lord, not I. This is very clearly made visible when we proclaim the redeeming power of God together. Indeed, whenever we minister together, it is easier for people to recognize that we do not come in our own name, but in the name of the Lord Jesus who sent us.” (from In the Name of Jesus, pp 58-59).
Practicing discernment with the people you love and trust is the precursor to exploring the people and places in the world you need to meet in order to complete your soul.
Discovering our call is difficult spiritual work. The normal state of our existence is disintegrated and dismembered. The world dismembers communities and fragments individual lives. We know the culprits all too well: entertainment, money, power, security, comfort… on and on. Each pulls apart, bit by bit, the pieces of our mind, soul and heart. Wholeness is a foreign concept to most of our neighbors who are alienated from one another and from their true selves.
In No Man is an Island Thomas Merton teaches that a result of this fragmented self is that we are constantly changing our minds to conform to the shadow of what others expect of us. In response to this he writes, “Others have no right to demand that I be anything else than what I ought to be in the sight of God.”
This begs the question, if I pursue my call in order to become who I ought to be in the sight of God, shouldn’t my neighbor be free to do the same? To put it another way, in pursuing my own call, do I enable or inhibit my neighbor from discovering themselves in God’s mission in Christ in the world?
Love that demands conformity of the other is no love at all, but an insidious form of control. However, love that frees and empowers the other to be fully themselves, as God desires for them to be, is the greatest form of love.
As Bonhoeffer puts it in Life Together, we must meet the other “only as the person that [he/she] already is in Christ’s eyes.”
And so we find the counter-intuitive, almost paradoxical, nature of calling. Discerning call is less discovering who I am and what I ought to do. It is about loving and encouraging my neighbor, honoring their freedom, that they might discover who they are in Christ. Their wholeness will become our wholeness as we share more completely together communion with God and neighbor, loving each other with all of our mind, heart and soul.
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