We were two tall white boys and a short black man, and we walked along a dirt road in the midsummer heat. Matt and I were college students taking a summer to give something back. We were in the middle of East Africa, and we felt acutely out of place in every way.
Our assignment was to shadow and serve an African pastor named Mbithi-a wonderful, godly man-and gain in the process an enlarged appreciation for what God was doing around the world.
Most of the time when we were shadowing Mbithi, he was walking. Now understand, there's putting on your slippers and walking to the end of the driveway to get the paper, there's putting on your sneakers at lunchtime and walking around the office complex, and then there's walking- very far, briskly, and in suffocating heat. Mbithi was the overseer of around twenty-five churches in villages outside the city of Kitui, Kenya, and one gets to those twenty-five or so surrounding villages just one way: walking. Consequently, Mbithi spent much of his time trekking from village to village, encouraging the believers in each church to stay faithful to God, to study the Scriptures, and to preach the gospel with boldness.
Mbithi was small in stature, but he had huge calves, and I suppose it was either those calves or his fierce love for those little churches that enabled him to walk long distances at such a torrid clip. Whatever it was, we walked and walked, and when about ten miles down the road he finally suggested we stop for a breather, there was no protesting from the American teenagers. I ambled off the side of the road and up a slight hill. I stood for a moment and gazed out over the East African plains, not really thinking anything beyond hoping the moleskin on my right heel would keep a blister from forming there. In the moment that followed, something amazing-something unforgettable-happened to me. I heard God for the first time in my life.
As I stood there looking out over the land, I sensed God speak to me. His voice was not audible, but it was unmistakable. Here is what he said: You are not going to do the things you think you are going to do. You are going to serve me for the rest of your life, and you're going to love it. Oooh…just typing these words makes me tingly. The message was so vivid, surreal, and transcendent, and its ending was so abrupt. Remember in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker was cleaning up R2-D2 in Uncle Owen's maintenance shop on Tatooine? He pried loose some bolt that was stuck, and all of a sudden, to his astonishment, the image of Princess Leia projected from R2 onto the dusty ground. In wide-eyed wonderment, Luke watched and listened as this beautiful, white-cloaked mystery woman spoke of the things of the galaxy and pleaded for his help. And then she was gone. With trademark pubescent flair, Luke protested the hologram's disappearance-but it was gone, and he was alone with his newly awakened destiny.
That's exactly how Africa was for me. "Wait a minute!" I remember saying aloud. "Come back! Tell me more! What am I supposed to do?! "
Now, twelve years later, I am more sure than ever that God spoke to me on the high plains of East Africa. Since that day I have viewed the world, made decisions, and navigated my life through the lens of that experience. Many times along the road during this past decade, I have been inclined to question the authenticity of God's call on my life and the dreams he has placed within me. Each time, my Damascus Road experience has proven to be a touch point, a reference mark for my faith. Even when it seemed as if God wasn't fulfilling his promise, I could return to this one, clear, faith-activating reality: I know that I heard God. I know that I know that I know. If for no other reason, I know that I heard God that day because of what has happened in my life since then.
Truly, I am not doing what I thought I was going to do-far, far from it!-and I am serving God vocationally. Best of all, I am loving it!
I am a civil engineer by training, and engineering is a science. That is to say, it's not an art. In engineering, there is a right answer, and there is a wrong answer. You can go to the back of the textbook and find out whether the load distribution you calculated for a horizontal structural member is correct. (This, of course, is not the case with the arts, which is something I greatly enjoyed reminding my liberal, Marxist, feminist literature professors when they told me that my analysis was wrong and that Hamlet was in fact a frustrated bisexual who harbored a secret oedipal love for his mother.) I chose engineering as a discipline and thrived in that course of study because my mind works that way. Concrete concepts. Absolute answers.
You'd think it would follow, then, that I would need something more certain and tangible on which to hinge my life's direction. But in an ironic way, my African plains encounter has been my bedrock back-ofthe- book answer for the past twelve years. Ironic because it was precisely nonprecise: not absolute or concrete or real to people in any of the ways I would have wanted. Bedrock because, however implausible a touch point in other people's eyes, it is more real to me than the chair I am sitting in as I type these words. As I have pondered this paradox over the years, a confidence has grown in me: If I can't prove I'm right, you can't tell me I'm wrong. I'm not the dumbest guy out there, I'm not given to sensationalism, and I'm fairly healthy emotionally-and you can't tell me I'm wrong!
My point is this: I never looked back. I heard the very voice of God, and that is enough. Now I know where I am going, if only a general direction. There are lots of cases to be tried, political offices to be won, and dollars to be earned, but they all pale when compared to the brightshining call of God. I remember making this decision back in 1994: I have a dream, and though I know not exactly where it will lead or precisely how it will unfold, I know with conviction that it is from God and that it can, will, must unfold. I have a dream, and I will never look back. Come on…you've been there, haven't you? God touched you on the shoulder one day and gave you a dream. Maybe you were on a desert road in East Africa following a short, large-calved man as he walked from one tribal village to another. Maybe you were repairing droids on Tatooine. Maybe you were seeking God passionately or maybe you were running from him or maybe you were just living out your life, doing your best, and he came to you, and it was irresistible.
Whatever happened, God caught hold of you. Maybe you had never heard his voice before, or maybe you had been taught not to expect him to speak to you at all. Or maybe you had followed him all your life and cultivated the ability to distill with laserlike precision the still small voice from the clamor of daily living. Maybe he furnished you with rich details of the promised land and a road map to get you there, or maybe, as he did with me, he gave you a nudge and a smile and vanished into thin air.
However the scene played out, you believe that his call was real, you are zealous to fulfill your destiny in Christ, and you desperately want to hear from God to learn how to get there from here.
I remember returning to America at the end of that life-changing summer in Africa. After the obligatory week and a half of "cultural re-entry," I began to clearly see the road ahead. (In case you are new to summer missions, cultural re-entry is the period during which you feel righteous anger over the fact that there is one aisle in every American grocery store devoted entirely to chips, while people in the country from which you just returned still use an outhouse.) Yep, everything was different for me now. I was called. I would serve him now. I was going into the ministry. With a secret aloofness, I would smile knowingly and think of sitting through career fairs, appointments with the job-placement counselor, and find-your-true-purpose motivational speeches with the rest of the students for the next two years, confident that my destiny was sealed.
But here was the problem: I hadn't a clue how to proceed. So I was going to be in the ministry! Fantastic! The excitement of that prospect sustained me for a year or two, but eventually the dam cracked that had been holding back a flood of questions on the edge of my consciousness- and then the dam broke entirely. What specifically will I do? How will I get there? How will I know I'm on the right path? You know how it is: You start to look for a sign-a burning bush or an angelic visitation or a wet fleece. You spiritualize things: Maybe the weed whacker getting tangled in the lawn decorations last weekend was God sending me a message; maybe he was speaking to me through the unusually crisp, minty-fresh feeling of the new toothpaste I bought. You go through seasons when you feel God wildly; everything seems to be his leading, and the moment of embarking on your calling seems imminent. And you go through seasons when you feel absolutely nothing. You become sure that, like Moses and David before you, you are in The Desert, and you somberly resign yourself to the possibility that you may have to wander for years in order for God to teach you something. You sensationalize and rationalize and begin to drive yourself crazy, all in pursuit of this elusive sense of calling.
So the sublime self-assurance of my Damascus Road experience proved short-lived. If the sudden enlightenment I experienced that summer solved one problem, it created another. Now I no longer wondered what career discipline I would choose or whether I would pass the dreaded engineer-in-training exam, and if not, whether my life would end. But a whole new set of questions emerged. Questions about details, decisions, direction. It was all so hazy.
What exactly am I to do? "You will serve me for the rest of your life…" Does that mean I'll be a pastor in a local church? What about a leader in a parachurch ministry? But alas, I was on the mission field when he called me, so maybe that means I'm supposed to be a missionary! That certainly qualifies as serving him, right? Ah, but then again, all believers in Christ are called to serve him, so technically he could have meant that I would have a normal career and be a light in the darkness of my workplace. So maybe I need to be studying for the dumb engineer-in-training exam after all! Oh c'mon, that's not what he meant! Why would he come and speak to me in the desert when I was already serving him-according to this technicality-only to tell me the obvious? Okay smarty, so what did he mean then?
In retrospect, I remind myself of Gollum in The Two Towers when he was having a prolonged conversation with himself. My internal wrangling was somewhat comical, but it sure wasn't funny at the time! No, these were the questions of the cosmos to my twenty-year-old mind. I will serve you-yes, undoubtedly. But what are the steps to get there? The voice sort of disappeared before we got to that part. Give me commands, and I can obey them exactly; give me a map, and I can follow it precisely. I can work hard, focus, and sacrifice. But the ambiguity of "Serve me for the rest of your life" threw me because God didn't provide any subsequent commands or give me a road map. I went to Africa full of naive ambitions and good-hearted, boyish dreams; I came home full of the big questions of life.
These questions shaped my young adulthood. The next twelve years became a process of finding the answers. Sometimes the answers came as a result of a deliberate search, and other times I stumbled onto them as I walked along the path God laid before me. I can see now that all the while I was living into the calling God gave me. I have become persuaded that these big questions are the stuff of the pursuit of God, that he intentionally places them within us. It is in living into the answers and seeing the plan unfold that men and women of substance are forged. Some people never get past the questions, and that is a shame, because theirs become wasted dreams of God.
Determined not to let my God-dream ferment, I set out to learn how to be used by God. You know how it goes. You wait on the Lord. You confess and believe you are called by God. Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, you press on and pray hard and in dramatic goose-bump moments at the climax of powerful worship services, you cry out with all your might, "God, use me!" You pause, throw back your head, and then say it again, more passionately this time, drawing out the second syllable: "God, uuuuuse me!" Your uplifted hands tremble a little now as you fall to your knees and cry out once more, this time with a twinge of vibrato, "God, uuuuuuuuuse meeeee!!"
This brings me to the point of this book. Over the past several years, I have come to believe that the sincerely meant and dramatically expressed petitions of my early adulthood were entirely off the mark. In fact, it's clear to me now that my pleas for God to use me were nonsensical, and here's why. Passionately pleading for God to use us is like passionately pleading for fire to be hot or for water to be wet. God by his very nature uses people. Yet we have cultivated for ourselves an unwritten theology that we must persuade God to use us to accomplish his plans. It's as if he were determined to use angels or seraphim or the perpetually bowing elders to build his kingdom, and we try to convince him with our passion and our logic and our sheer resolve to let us do it instead. So we imagine that we twist his arm until he cries uncle and finally says, "Oh, all right. Go ahead and do some work for my kingdom if you must."
Friend, understand that serving God to advance his kingdom's dominion on the earth is not something we have to beg him to do; it's something he has already chosen for us. It is hard-wired into our very being to respond affirmatively to this choice of his. His call on our lives-the very call we have believed and cherished-confirms it.
Realizing this is at once reassuring and unsettling-reassuring because it requires us to believe that God is the author of our destiny, and his cosmic strategy and our personal fulfillment are miraculously interdependent; unsettling because it requires us to come up with a new prayer. If "God, use me!" is somewhat meaningless, it's at least earnest. Without this prayer and this framework of expectation to guide our decisions-" Once God hears that I really mean it, he'll launch me into my calling"-what are we to do? Where do we hang our hopes of one day walking into the calling God whispered in our ears so many years ago? Where do we direct our zeal for yielding our lives to his grand purpose? These are the questions I seek to answer in this book.
As associate pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, I have the privilege of leading our Saturday-night service. At the top of the demographic bell curve on Saturday nights are people in their twenties and early thirties. (I am thirty-one.) Every Saturday I speak to several hundred wonderful, godly people about God's plan for the world and how their lives fit into it. And nearly every other day of the week, I sit across a table at Starbucks from one person and then another and another, and I listen to them explain how I was talking to them personally last week. "Pastor Rob, as you spoke, my heart was burning. I know God has called me to _________, but I'm stuck in this job doing - _________ , and I just don't know how to get from here to there. Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe this is all I'll ever do."
I get the feeling that these folks expected that after God called them, he would beam them out of their current lives and into the grandeur of their calling. Once some time passes and they haven't gotten beamed up, they get discouraged and either tuck their dream away in the hope chest and go on with life as usual, or they turn away from the dream completely and leave it to shrivel and die. Talking with so many people of my own age bracket over the past several years, I have become convinced that this confusion about our calling is endemic to the next generation of the body of Christ.
In truth, I am also a product of my generation. Thankfully, we are not the generation we have been painted to be. I am convinced from talking to my peers day after day in Starbucks after Starbucks that we are not the brainless Kurt Cobain-looking slackers that MTV has tried to convince the public we are. We are people who are dreaming big, trying hard, and looking for the way ahead.
There are two reasons why it encourages me to hear people of my generation ask me what to do to live into their dreams. First, it confirms that they're not slugs. Granted, there is no shortage of oxygen thieves out there, but I have seen and heard enough in my young pastoral career to know that not all people my age are plopped down in front of a PlayStation. The second reason is that, amazingly, I have something to tell them. One of the joys of pastoring is walking through difficult times with the people of God. Encouraging the sheep to lean on Jesus and assuring them of his sufficiency is the chief job of a shepherd. Yet these conversations are often bereft of specific, practical guidance. Conversations about cultivating our calling are not like that. Calling is a subject on which the Scriptures are replete with sometimes subtle, always applicable insights, and that makes it a delightful subject to talk about over a vanilla latte.
The reality is that one day-and perhaps sooner than you think- our generation will take the baton and start running. And the way we run the race will determine how well the church fulfills its calling. This is the reality that's shaping my purpose in life. I am vested in the belief that mine is "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation."1 I think it serves God's people of every generation well to believe that this promise speaks to their day in the sun.
My hope in writing this book is twofold. First, that my elders who are running the race strong and sure will take heart and know that those in my generation are training hard in preparation for our lap around the track. We will be ready to take the baton when it's time, and we will not falter. Your work will not have been in vain.
Second, I hope that my own generation will realize that there are answers and there is direction to get us from here to there. You are not playing a giant roulette game, and you aren't in the hands of some capricious god who may or may not fulfill his promise depending on which way you turn at some unmarked intersection. God-who first tapped you on the shoulder and whispered in your ear-is faithful, and he will fulfill the dreams he gave you if you follow his guidelines. Your calling can be sure, and for the sake of a world that's living in darkness, it must be.
Ours is a pivotal generation-our watch comes at a crucial hour in the church's history-and we must be diligent and focused and do this thing right. We must run the race set before us, whatever that looks like for each of us individually. This means that you cannot grow weary in laying hold of the dream of God that is churning in your heart. I know you still have a thousand questions, and I can't give you the what or the when. But by God's grace, in this book I intend to give you the how- and that is the precursor to all the other answers. The insights I offer may not be very profound, but I offer them with the knowledge that they are scripturally mandated and they have worked in my own life. I trust by God's grace they will work in your life as well.