Called to be you

Vocation/calling is a concept that often plagues us. Some might be tempted to dismiss the idea as relevant only to those who are to work in “full-time church ministry”. Others of us may spend anxious hours worrying over the possibility that we somehow missed our vocation, failing to hear God’s call at some point and so doomed to a second-rate life.

The Bible does indeed contain many stories of individuals who heard and responded to a “call” from God to go and do something specific. But, this doesn’t exhaust the idea of what we might understand as “calling/vocation”. It is something that seems to manifest itself on both broad, general levels as well as the more specific. We are “called” to be human beings in the image of God, followers of Christ and pointers to the new creation as well as to our own individual roles.

Once again, our individualistic culture tends to encourage us to think of vocation in individual terms – it is all about me. We also can get caught up in focussing too heavily on its possible relation to tasks – what we are to do. Whilst it is true that tasks and our personal roles matter and can be considered part of vocation, they do not tell the whole story.

The first notion of vocation in the Bible comes in the creation story in the opening chapters of Genesis. Human beings are made in God’s image and tasked with looking after the Earth. Now, we might easily recognise the instructions given by God as a kind of vocation, but what about being in the image of God? Is our nature our vocation?

In one sense, we already are in the image of God; it is part of who we are. Yet, in another sense, it is something we are to aspire to be; it is something we can fall short of. By our choices, we can either become more truly that which we were created to be, or allow that image, that vocation, to wither and become difficult to recognise.

Being in the image of God is a common human vocation, not just an individual one. It is something for all of us to learn about and seek to maintain and grow in to. There is a strange paradoxical sounding element to this, but it is one that re-emerges in the New Testament and is important to begin to grasp; we are to become what we already are.

Moving into Paul’s letters, we often find passages that base their reasons for doing or not doing certain things on this kind of argument. For example, in Colossians 3:1ff, Paul says that as believers have been raised with Christ they ought to think and behave in ways that reflect that. Similarly, in Romans 8, the readers are said to be in the realm of the Spirit, yet are still encouraged to live accordingly. There is a sense in which Paul is encouraging people to become more fully that which they already are.

Ethics and the idea of character formation are certainly not to be excluded from the concept of vocation. God is not interested in simply getting a bunch of tasks done and recruiting us to help. Our calling, first and foremost, is to be or to become more like our God as revealed in Christ by the Spirit’s power. This is a common calling that we learn about and live out together.

All of this comes before we even start considering the idea of individual calling to specific roles. We have a foundation of our calling to be in the image of God and to become what we already are in Christ that we need in place to give our own individuality, our own particular vocations a solid platform.

What if we feel that we haven’t ever had a “call” from God? Well, as we’ve seen, there are plenty of things to get on with being and doing which are all part of our common vocations. Nobody can say they are truly without vocation as that would say that God asks nothing whatsoever of them.

One possible reason that we might not sense God calling us to something is that we are doing ok and don’t need a drastic change. Another might be that the “call” is more subtle, perhaps, or coming in a way that we don’t recognise as a vocation. For example, perhaps you find certain tasks easy and can take it for granted that you can do them well. Maybe you have a real passion for something which has encouraged you to spend more time doing it. These could be ways in which God is revealing to you who you are.

Rather than being suspicious of our desires, maybe we need to reconnect with them to discover more about the people God has made us to be. Not all desires are sinful by any means. Many can reveal facets of our personalities, areas of concern where we may be more effective, or latent skills waiting to bubble up and be discovered.

It is important to remember too that vocation need not be tied up with earning money. In many cases this will be the case, but it is not always so. For a start, some of us may be called away from paid employment to do other things. Moreover, it is possible to have more than one “gift” or “vocation” and use them in different contexts, some of which may be employment related whilst others are not.

If we equate vocation with paid work or a lifelong career then we risk getting very frustrated at God. If we are waiting for a particular life-changing task that we have been made to do then we also risk missing the point. God is calling us first of all to be someone. Yes, that does involve doing, of course, but it prioritises character over tasks. It is also something we can and should be getting on with every day, not just waiting for a bolt from the blue to orientate our lives in a new direction.

Perhaps, as with our vocation to God’s image and Christ’s likeness, our own vocations can be discovered as we find out more about our nature. We are made to be human – we are called to be human. We are in Christ and part of the new creation – we are called to act like it! What has God made you to be? He is calling you to be you.

© Joe Lenton, February 2013

Pride & Prosperity

Isn’t it wonderful when life is going well? Prospering financially and in many other ways can be extremely enjoyable. It can even help to dull the pain and memories of the bad times. Yet, paradoxically, we can be highly vulnerable during the good times.

Things were going well for Nebuchadnezzar when the story starts in Daniel chapter 4. He was a highly successful leader. In fact, he was the most powerful man of his day. He could have anything he wanted, when he wanted.

Perhaps some of us are doing rather well at the moment. Maybe we’re healthy, enjoying life and feeling pleased with what we’ve achieved. Perhaps we are well-off and able to treat ourselves to all kinds of nice things. In comparison to many others in our world today, of course, most of us are very wealthy, whether we recognise it or not.

Such times are great and can rightly be enjoyed. God isn’t against pleasure or wealth. However, there is a real danger that we think these things are ours by right. We can drift into taking things for granted, or worse, we can think it is purely down to us.

We can all slip into thinking that it is simply by our power, by our abilities that we have gained prosperity and that it is for the sake of our social standing or reputation. We can forget that these things are gifts. Prosperity is a gift, not a “given”.

In Deuteronomy 8 we hear a warning given to Israel not to forget God when times are better, once they have settled in the promised land. We may wonder how on earth they possibly could. They have been through so much and had a massive turnaround in fortunes, going from slavery to prosperity all thanks to what God has done for them.

Yet, God knew and forewarned them that it is too easy to forget the Giver when there are so many gifts to enjoy. It is too easy to overplay our role in getting where we are today. It is too easy to leave God behind, like a pair of old crutches we only needed when our leg was broken.

We can all forget how we came to achieve success. We can forget the role God has played. We can forget that God gives things to bring glory to Himself and to enable us to advance His kingdom, thinking instead that we have earned these things purely for our own enjoyment and to make us look good.

So, God sends warnings. He warned Nebuchadnezzar in strong terms, firstly through a dream and then again through Daniel when the dream was interpreted. Nebuchadnezzar was terrified by the dream. He wanted to know what it was about. His fear suggests that at some level he already had a suspicion or instinct that it was a difficult message for him. When his religious entourage is unable to help he sends for Daniel to interpret the dream.

Daniel interprets the dream, not surprisingly with a little fear himself as this was not good news to deliver to the most powerful man in the world! But, there is a way out, this dream doesn’t have to come true. Daniel tells him that he could yet avoid this nasty chain of events. Nebuchadnezzar could turn to God, turn from doing wrong. He could stop oppressing the poor and weak, instead of being a proud, self-interested and ruthless man.

12 months later, Nebuchadnezzar looks on his prosperous life and turns not to praise God but himself. The warning has not been heeded, the grisly story predicted in the dream begins to unfold and Nebuchadnezzar goes mad and is made to look a fool.

Yet, even then there is a possibility for change, a way out. When Nebuchadnezzar finally turns his eyes to heaven, when he finally gets a heavenly perspective and praises God, he is restored to health and prosperity.

It wasn’t a certain thing that he would find himself back in power with abundant riches. God graciously chose to make that happen. His change of heart didn’t guarantee a good, easy life for him. But, it opened him up to receive the future God had in mind and it served as a vivid example for others.

It was predicted that Israel would face trouble, destruction of some kind, if the people forgot God. It was predicted that Nebuchadnezzar would suffer being humbled under God’s hand if he forgot God and made it all about himself. Sadly, both stories follow the same pattern. There is a warning, but it isn’t heeded and terrible things result.

These stories, amongst others, serve as warnings to us. If the times are good, that is great. But, don’t forget God. You aren’t the centre of the universe and you haven’t made all this happen all by yourself.

We need to be ready to heed the warnings. We need to look to heaven, to get the heavenly perspective before God chooses to humble us. Nobody is beyond being humbled. God can choose to bring any of us down to the ground with a bump, if need be. For some reason God sometimes chooses not to or at least to delay it. But that doesn’t mean we are immune. At some point, we will reap the consequences of our thoughts and actions if we don’t change and turn to God.

Besides the warnings, there is a positive example that has been set for us. Despite having unimaginable power and untold heavenly riches at his disposal, Jesus chose to remember where it all comes from. He chose to use it all for the sake of God’s kingdom and remain incredibly humble, giving thanks and praise to the Father. With his help, so can we.

Similarly to the story of Nebuchadnezzar, the warnings God gives us do not need to lead to something terrible, they do not mean we have to remain under judgement. No, these warnings are opportunities. We can choose to take the opportunities given to us, to grow and turn to God. Our Father is waiting to help us, waiting for us to turn back to Him.

Whatever good gifts we receive, let’s enjoy them and be thankful. Remember, good gifts come from a good Giver. They point us to Him – they are not ends in themselves.

© Joe Lenton, February 2013

The Stranglehold of Fear

Is fear ruling your life? Are you trapped by fear but don’t even realise it?

Fear is sometimes quite sneaky. It tries to hide behind other feelings or even behind rational thought. When we decide not to pursue a particular course of action we may have come to that conclusion through careful, logical thinking. So, why do we sometimes then feel an odd sense of relief or guilt about our decision? Is it because we were actually afraid and have found a way out, avoiding the path that seemed frightening? Unfortunately, sometimes this may take us away from what God has for us.

Clearly there are times when we discern correctly that a new course of action is not appropriate. Rational thought and feelings of uneasiness may play a positive role in helping us to discover the right way ahead and God’s guidance. However, we can also end up avoiding things out of fear and using our feelings of unease or our “sensible” logic to give us an escape route.

It is simply not the case that God will always ask us to do things that we are comfortable with right away. Moses asked God to send someone else. Jonah ran away. Ananias is at first reluctant to go and meet the newly converted Saul. Neither, of course, does God always send people to do things that terrify them or they don’t feel equipped for. God may move us to carry on with things we are already comfortable with. But, sometimes God may want us to try something new and possibly something that seems scary.

There is a strange tendency that human beings have of being unwilling to let go of the familiar. It is strange because it can extend to clinging on to something unhealthy rather than letting go and receiving something far better. It has been documented that many prisoners struggle to cope with renewed freedom on leaving prison and re-offend to regain the now familiar routine of prison life. Similarly, some victims of abuse or kidnap develop an attachment to the person abusing them and are fearful of moving on even though it would mean freedom from abuse and a better life.

In the UK we have a couple of common sayings that help illustrate the point: 1) At least we know where we are…., 2) Better the devil you know… These sayings show that even if we know our current situation to be unsatisfactory we are often unwilling, too scared, to move on to pastures new.

We see change and immediately risk listing mentally (or verbally to any poor soul who will listen!) all the potential negatives. This can even lead to us playing out scenarios in our minds where things get worse and worse until all of a sudden we can justify to ourselves how this one decision could lead to our whole life falling to bits. If we were to take a step back we might realise that this “script” is not too dissimilar to an episode of a TV farcical tragic comedy. There may be some truth to our concerns, but we then blow them up to something we imagine is sufficient reason to prove that this course of action will definitely end in our demise so must be avoided at all costs.

If we want to follow Jesus, however, we need to learn to cope with change. We are supposed to change, becoming more like our heavenly Father. Yes, we may well be afraid at times; but fear is not to be our Master. We can learn to press through the fear and come out the other side, instead of allowing it to dictate which way we go.

Think of what God said to Joshua as he entered the promised land. It was to be a huge challenge to him as a leader and to the people as a whole, but God said “be strong and courageous” not once but 3 times (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9). He was not to be frightened but brave because God was with him.

In Acts 4 the believers pray for boldness to declare God’s message in a situation that would instil fear in most. In Romans 8:15 Paul writes “you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear” (NIV). In 2 Timothy 1:7 Paul tells Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity” (NIV). God’s presence with us means that we do not have to be constantly afraid of what might happen.

Fear can be conquered by faith. If we choose to focus on God and His presence with us by His Spirit instead of on “what if….” lists of negatives then we can begin to live free of fear. God looks after us as His children and we need to learn to trust Him. Only if we put our faith in Him, not just believing He exists but actually relying on Him day by day, will we gradually win the battle with fear.

We do not need to worry about our lives, about our food, clothes and other things. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all these things will be provided as we need them (Luke 12:22-31). This can help to free us to serve God and go where He calls instead of hiding behind fear and refusing to change.

Perhaps today or this week we can begin to redeem those two little words “what if…”. Maybe instead of allowing them always to be followed with negatives and reasons not to do something we can turn them into words of opportunity. “What if” we step out together with God – what amazing things might happen if we conquer our fear together?

© Joe Lenton, January 2013

Different Journeys

People are all different. We have different skills, personalities, experiences, preferences, thoughts, etc. There are many different ways to be human. Those differences do not mean that one person is “more human” than another or that one culture expresses humanity better than others. We express our humanity through diversity as well as sharing common traits.

When we add to this the fact that Christian faith is a dynamic faith built on interpersonal relationship, we should not be surprised that Christianity is expressed in a wide variety of ways. Just as many people might know and interact with the same person, but in different ways, we shouldn’t be surprised if other people’s relationship with God differs slightly from our own.

Yet, for many of us this can still be an issue, sometimes causing anxiety. I would like to suggest a couple of reasons why this might be the case. Firstly, perhaps we have tried to reduce the Christian faith to a formula. Maybe Christianity has become too much about learning a set of doctrines, with doctrinal accuracy being seen as the touchstone.

Now, it is important to say that doctrines do have a part to play. It is important to learn something of the story of the gospel and to learn truths about ourselves and God. However, perhaps we think that it is possible or maybe even necessary to get all our theology “right”.

When theology is done from a cultural standpoint (which it always is as we can’t think without using our own cultural filters), there will always be aspects that are incomplete (because of the limits of any human culture) or mistaken to some degree. No single human thought system is capable of laying down a definitive system of teaching that is 100% correct, or 100% exhaustive, nor would it be possible for it to be 100% transferable to all cultures.

We can forget that our own culture has been involved in creating the statements of faith and doctrinal systems that we or our denominations adhere to. This doesn’t mean that they are useless or utterly wrong, but it does mean that we should expect that theology done in a different cultural environment will be different. There will be key aspects that cross over the cultures (as there are key aspects that help identify us all as “human”), but some things will not be understood or expressed in the same way.

Spending time in other cultures can help us to learn and become gradually  more comfortable with the fact that others can eat, speak, dress and act in many ways differently to ourselves, yet still share the common bond of humanity. Similarly, if we spend time with different expressions of Christianity with an open mind we can begin to see the common bonds we share, as well as the differences between us. Some of these differences may well be “bad” and might warrant addressing. But this is far from being the case for all points at which we differ.

This brings us on to the second point. Perhaps partly due to the influence of consumerist, capitalist, materialist cultures around us, it is easy to become very individualistic. Couple that with a sense of cultural evolution that sees a superiority in the current age and you can easily end up with a position whereby we project ourselves as the norm by which all else is to be judged.

Much of our fear of others and our standing in judgement over them has less to do with whether they are actually “right” or fellow children of God and more to do with our desire to make ourselves feel more secure. We want to think that we are right. We like to think that our experiences are “normal” and so we judge others’ experiences against our own. So, we come to expect that “true” Christianity is one that embraces the same teachings as us, expressing its faith the same as us, with people coming to faith in the same way we did.

However, we, whether as individuals or even larger communities, are unable to account for the full diversity of humanity, nevermind the infinite complexities of the character of God. So, we are mistaken if we think that Christians should all look, think and act exactly the same. It is not possible and arguably it is not even desirable. God created us with differences, so we shouldn’t expect all of them to be wiped out and the children of God to become homogeneous, bland clones.

We also risk having very short memories. Many of us have had complex faith experiences including all kinds of struggles with our relationship with God and times when we have radically changed our mind on various doctrines and ideas. Yet, we get impatient with others if they fail to see our point and change within 5 minutes what took us many months or years of painful working out.

It is great that we want to share the good things God has shown us and that we want to help others to know God better and to have more fruitful lives. However, let us remain patient as we share with one another. Each has a journey to travel with God. It is not the same as yours. Some people might never have experiences you have had and vice versa.

You see, we are all different. We share one faith, one Lord and one God. Yet we do so in  a variety of ways that illustrates both the amazing complexity and joy of being human and the incredible depths and wonder of humanity in relationship with its God.


© Joe Lenton, January 2013