April 13, 2014
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
I don’t know if you remember the film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which was based on the book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. When it came out in 1985, evangelical Christians flocked the theaters to protest the movie’s portrayal of Jesus. Actually, I probably never would have seen it but for the protests. They made me curious, and in seeing the film I discovered that they missed the whole point of the movie. What they mostly objected to was the last hour of the film. In it, a beautiful, childlike angel appears before Jesus as he hangs in torment upon the cross. She tells him that his suffering and death were not what the Father had intended. He still could choose to live a normal life. He comes off the cross, marries Mary Magdalene, has children, and lives a good life. It’s not till the end of his life that he realizes, after a visit from his former disciples, that a normal life wasn’t his calling or purpose. His calling was to die on the cross. It’s then that we realize the angel was really the devil in disguise. Jesus cries, realizing his mistake, and prays that he would have chosen differently. Suddenly finds himself back on the cross. It was all a dream, a temptation to choose a life different from the one he was called to live. He dies in faith because he knows he has been true to his calling. The book and the film really were all about the personal struggle with God’s call for us.
The evangelical Christians had missed the point. They thought it was blasphemous for Jesus to choose a normal life, but he never did. He was tempted to, but in the end he chose God’s calling.
The scene in the movie that really caught me, though, was in the beginning. Jesus is by the Sea of Galilee, and he realizes that he is called to be the messiah. But he doesn’t want to be the messiah. He knew what it would lead to. He lies on the sand, head in hand, struggling with a piercing headache—the result of his saying no to God. He struggles and struggles, and then finally concedes. He will follow. And his “yes” changes everything. Not only are the headaches gone, but his life has purpose and meaning. It becomes effortless and joyful, despite the pain.
What I love about this film and book is that it presented a spiritual reality, which is that we all struggle with God’s call. Too often stories about following God make it seem as though God’s voice is clear, and that the choice to follow is easy. It isn’t.
I talk a lot about following God's call because I believe that is the center of the Christian life and service. But I also realize that following God's call takes two things that are really, really hard: a willingness to struggle and courage. The struggle is that we don't necessarily know what God wants, and even if we do, it may change our lives in ways we don’t want. Courage is the willingness to go forward even if we're not sure what will take place. Let me take these one at a time.
First there is the struggle. The fact is that everyone who seeks God's call struggles with it because God never speaks in a normal voice. God most often speaks through a combination of interior voices and exterior events. Instead of trying to describe it to you, let me share with you a struggle with God’s call that started in the pulpit of Calvin Presbyterian Church back in 1983. Calvin Church held a worship service that year celebrating the reunification of the northern and southern Presbyterian churches that had split at the time of the Civil War over the issue of slavery. The Southern church supported the confederacy and slavery. The northern church did not. In 1983 the two separate denominations: the Presbyterian Church in the United States (southern) and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (northern).
The Rev. Dick Anderson, the pastor of Calvin Church at the time, put together the celebration service, and asked one of our members, Steve Cramer, to help with the sermon. It was then that Steve first heard the call of God to become a pastor. While preaching he had a soft notion that he may be called, but he dismissed it. Still, he was surprised afterwards when members of the church complemented him and said, “Have you ever thought about being a pastor?”
Over the next few years Steve did things like preaching sermons on occasion, teach classes on the Bible, and read voraciously on biblical and theological topics. All along he kept getting a nagging sense of “you should become a pastor.” But he kept dismissing it.
There were good reasons for him to dismiss them. He had a good job at the time, but he didn’t have a college education, and you need a college degree to get into seminary. He had started college in 1974, embarking on what would eventually become an almost thirty-year plan. He wouldn’t receive his degree from the University of Pittsburgh till 2000 after taking one course per semester for all those years.
Also, Steve had a daughter in college, and a son on the verge of it. His wife, Karen, had a good career as a first-grade teacher at Connoquenessing Valley Elementary School. Going to seminary would mean quitting his job, going into debt, and possibly uprooting his family. He also had one other concern: Karen was adamant: “I will not BE a pastor’s wife!” By the way, never challenge God by saying, “I will NOT,” or “I will NEVER!” More on that later…
Unfortunately, the sense of call wouldn’t go away. He wasn’t Jesus struggling on the beach with headaches, but he was Steve struggling with a constant nagging that wouldn’t go away. He was able to dismiss the call as long as he didn’t have a college degree, but once he got it in 2000, it became harder to dismiss. Still, he could because he had a good job that provided a good pay. Why give that up?
Then the bottom fell out. I’ve often told people who are being pursued by God that if God is really calling then, and they keep saying “no,” God will find a way to eventually get them to say “yes” by making their present life impossible. That happened to Steve. He was selling crushed rock products used for constructing roads, buildings, and so much more. He had a large territory, and was doing well. If you remember the end of the 1990s, it was a time when politicians and people were looking to expand our basic infrastructure, and road construction was part of that. Then 9/11 happened, and all the money that had been going to roads and bridges were now going to the military. Steve was called in by his bosses and given a new job opportunity in the Harrisburg area. The only problem was that it meant moving there.
Remember how Karen didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife. Well she was even less excited about moving to Harrisburg. Steve had little interest, either. They had a great house in Zelienople, years of memories, two kids in college, and Karen was several years away from retirement. Why give up her job with probably little possibility of getting a teaching job in Harrisburg? Steve didn’t want to do a commuter marriage, anyway, so he told them he couldn’t do it. So they fired him. What do you do when a job with good pay suddenly gets pulled out from under you, and you have two kids in college?
Being let go from his job plunged Steve into a struggle. What should he do? He applied for several jobs, but did he want to continue working in those fields? He had two kids in college. Did it make sense for him to also go to graduate school? On a lark he had previously applied to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but it was with a clear caveat: it was a vehicle to eventually getting a Ph.D. so that he could teach religious history, not to become a pastor. He was also clear: even that probably wasn’t going to happen.
Steve told me that in the midst of it all, he had a Jonah in the belly of the fish moment as he sat in his basement, head in hands. He had struggled, like Jonah, with God’s call, and he had run from the call to be a pastor his whole adult life. He was on the verge of tears. Shaking them off, he got up, walked upstairs, and picked up the mail. There was a letter from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He opened it and it was an acceptance letter offering him a full scholarship. Wo!
Steve talked with Karen about it, and she told him that it was fine for him to go to seminary as long as he understood that it better not lead to him becoming a pastor because, “I will not BE a pastor’s wife!” By the way, remember this one lesson: whenever you declare that you WILL NOT do something God is calling you to do, there’s a good chance you’re going to do it, whether you are Steve or Karen. More on that later…
So Steve decided to go to seminary, but only to get a master of theology degree, not a master of divinity degree (the one that pastors get), so that he could go on from there to get a Ph.D. and teach somewhere. Steve did a great job at seminary, and finally finished all of his coursework for the degree. When it came time to turn in his master’s thesis, he walked into the administration building of the seminary. Instead of walking the paper to his professor, Dr. Allison, he took a left turn down the hall to the head of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, Dr. Barry Jackson. He told Barry that he felt called to get his master of divinity, and wondered if he could transfer his credits, including his master thesis, toward that degree. Barry figured it all out, and Steve was soon a master of divinity student. Karen’s reaction was supportive, but if he decided to become a pastor, she was not leaving her house or Calvin Church. The ice was melting…
Steve eventually graduated and began to look for churches. Much to Karen’s chagrin, there weren’t many local ones. They looked at churches in places like Montana. Certainly not places where Karen could stay in her house and at Calvin Church. Steve came and talked to me about this one day, wondering how to navigate the need to find a church, yet also keep Karen happy. I mentioned to him that if he was called to be a pastor, Karen had a call, too, and it wouldn’t necessarily be as a pastor’s wife. It would be a call in her own right. In other words, God would find away to work it out so that both could end up in a place God wanted them both, and where they both felt was right.
And then it happened. In 2008 Steve was offered a position as pastor of Crossroad Presbyterian Church on Route 910 in Gibsonia, a twenty-minute drive from his home in Zelienople. The position was only 2/3rds time, and wasn’t enough money to make moving attractive. They’d have to stay in their house. Not only that, but Karen could stay at Calvin Presbyterian Church, singing in the choir, serving on the Worship and Arts Committee, and being just as involved here as she had been. What was also great was that the congregation at Crossroads understood and were supportive of Karen.
In 2008 we got to do something really fun and unique here at Calvin Church when we not only ordained Steve to be a Presbyterian pastor, but also his daughter, Eliza. She had simultaneously gone to Princeton Theological Seminary, graduated, and gotten an offer for a church in Texas. We were able to ordain both at the same time.
A funny thing has happened since then. Steve, as all of us knew he would, has done a very good job as pastor of Crossroad. But in the meantime, Karen started getting involved at Crossroad and decided she liked the people. Slowly she felt called to become involved there. Two years ago, amidst us snickering kindly at how God works in ways we don’t want God to work, Karen decided to join Crossroad Presbyterian Church. We still have a place reserved for her here at Calvin Church for some future date, but Karen is now a pastor’s wife. Of course, not that this is really her identity, since all of us who know her know that she can’t really be defined as anyone’s wife. She is Karen. Still, it’s just fun to write those words: “she’s a pastor’s wife.” God has a way of calling us to God’s purposes, and of getting us to follow that call, even if we resist for thirty years.
I don’t tell Steve’s story because I think everyone out there has a calling to be a pastor. Few do. I tell Steve’s story because it offers a clarity that isn’t quite as clear in other people’s calling. Basically, Steve’s story teaches a few lessons about the struggle with God’s call. One is that often God’s call starts out as a feeling we have inside of us that gets confirmed by people around us. Steve’s started as a sense, while preaching, that was confirmed by many who were listening. Also, God’s call starts as something that seems impossible, yet that keeps becoming more possible. Finally, God’s call is often a sense we have that something is right, but we only find out how right it was when we start moving down that path.
Following God's call also requires a tremendous amount of courage because we get no guarantees. We don't get to see the outcome ahead of time. True faith is the courage to move forward when we don’t see the path ahead, and we don’t know the outcome.
Each and every one of us has as calling, and its probably not to ordained ministry. But it is still a call to follow what God wants for our lives. The call may be big, like a career, or it can be to participate in ministry and mission. It can also be a call to how we will live our lives in a different way. Whatever it is, it requires struggle and courage. I’ve seen this same level of struggle and courage being played out in many of our members. For example, we have a number of members who either unemployed or facing employment problems, and are meeting together to get a sense of God’s call for them. They are trying to make God part of this process. There are no guarantees, but that’s what struggle and courage entail.
In the end, here’s the message: God is calling you to something, but do you have the willingness to struggle and the courage to listen and to follow?