My day began over an early breakfast at Good News Café with Chris and Rebecca Gray. They wasted no time diving into a matter that was heavy on their minds. “Why is doing good so hard?” Rebecca teared up as she uttered the words. “We do our best, we are as responsible as we know how to be, we try to stay sensitive to God’s leading…and something always seems to derail our plans. Our best efforts don’t accomplish half what they should for the Kingdom!” The Grays are not complainers. Far from it. They are high-capacity, can-do military officers who left active duty four years ago to assume a leadership role in our ministry. But serious fatigue registered on Rebecca’s face. An unhealthy weight-loss from a stress-aggravated digestive disorder added to her anxiety. Chris, unflappable and rock-steady, was wearing a concerned expression.
No couple I have ever met has grasped the essence of urban ministry as well and as quickly as the Grays. The moment they hit the ground in Atlanta, they began to distinguish themselves as capable and sensitive leaders. Called, visionary, unthreatened and unthreatening, they combined all the gifts required to lead FCS into the future. “Have we made a huge mistake?” Rebecca implored.
My day ended at Virginia’s, a restaurant in a converted warehouse, over a late dinner with Dana Walker and Kerry Reid.* In from D.C. for a conference they had initiated, these leaders of President Bush’s Faith-based Initiative seemed relieved to get away from the hotel congestion to a quiet spot for some agenda-free conversation. “Why is doing good so hard?” they asked as we dipped chunks of sourdough bread into a saucer of garlic and virgin olive-oil.
These dynamic, visionary leaders, elevated to positions of great responsibility at highest government levels, confessed the weariness of their souls in trying to do their very best to accomplish a Kingdom mission, only to have their efforts challenged, undermined, ignored, and de-valued by both the government and the church. The president, very committed to the church’s re-engagement as a significant service provider, had inspired them both to join him in this mission. But his handlers, they soon discovered, have other priorities, and insulate and divert his attention from the faith-based agenda. Then there are the career bureaucrats who control the government machinery who are obstructionistic, highly resistant to new ideas that disrupt their familiar routines. And the church is suspicious of government involvement, afraid of “strings,” fearful of trading away their message for the seduction of easy money. “We’re not sure now that this is where we should be,” consternation and doubt was etched on their faces.
Called ones caught in a crucible. Multi-talented, high-capacity people directed by God into positions that severely restrict their ability to execute. 110% achievers squeezed to less than 50% productivity. How incredibly frustrating! All four expressed acute temptations to opt for very attractive job offers that promised more money and far less stress. Yet, when I asked them if they knew of any place they could go that would be more in the center of God’s will for their lives, they could not. They had been drawn by Divine impulse into a crucible, a place of severe trial of belief, a refining furnace where powerful spiritual, psychological, political forces burn to the very essence of their being.
As I wound my way home through dark city streets, I found myself wishing for light – not the kind that repaired streetlights would provide but illumination for the dark night of the soul. Today, in these intense exchanges with friends serving at the extreme ends of society, spiritualizing their struggle would have been ill-timed. No trite God-has-you-here-for-a-reason advice would be helpful. No Pollyanna cheerfulness would lift the gloom. Their questioning of their own calling, though fearful, was necessary. Questioning God, even raging against God, was honest. Their doubts had integrity.
Surely God does not toy with the emotions of those who desire so deeply to follow Him. But when we have listened to His whispers as carefully as we know how and have positioned ourselves as best we can discern in the epicenter of His will, why would we encounter so much resistance, frustration and stress? Spiritual warfare? Lack of faith? Wrong method or timing? All of the above? There seems but one appropriate response to this holy entrapment: endure.
Could it be that Divine calling is not about accomplishment after all? What if success is defined not in measurable productivity but in the quality of our interactions with others? What if the criterion by which we are ultimately evaluated is faithfulness rather than performance? Even more baffling, what if a calling is not primarily about effecting change but rather about being changed ourselves?
One thing had become clear to me as I pulled into my driveway and the automatic sensors flicked on the floodlights: the testing of one’s faith is the same in the urban trenches as in the halls of government. Refining fires burn just as severely whether one is struggling with poverty or power. Who but called ones would choose to continue feeling their way along an uncertain, dimly lit path in the direction of an unseen Kingdom when bright opportunities beckon from all sides? Indeed, who of us would choose to walk by faith if we had any other viable option?
* I’ve changed their names to protect them from overly sensitive political handlers.