If I had a dollar for every time I am asked that question I would be in good financial shape. As you might expect, it tends to be asked by people who are not from Cleveland, many of whom have never even been here. Implicit in the question is the notion that presumably, if I had been better informed, I would have known that there are flocks to shepherd in finer pastures, with better climates and greater opportunity. This is not the place for me to defend the merits of the city that has been home for our family for the past 16 years. But this is the place to address the question of the call of God upon our lives.
The Bible makes it clear that God's call is not primarily about geography. Indeed that comes way down the list. Fifteen minutes spent with a good concordance will allow us to create a helpful summary of the call of God in the life of the Christian. We are called:
According to God's purpose. Romans 8:28
By His grace. Galatians 1:15
Through the gospel. 2 Thessalonians 2:14
Heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:14
Out of darkness. 1 Peter 2:9
To belong to Jesus. Romans 1:6
To be saints. Romans 1:7
To be holy. 1Corinthians 1:2
To live in peace. 1 Corinthians 7:15
To one hope. Ephesians 4:4
To His eternal glory. 1 Peter 5:10
When we consider even this brief selection, it is immediately apparent that God is more concerned about WHAT is happening than WHERE it is happening. We need to be thinking theologically rather than geographically. We must also affirm that pastoral or missionary work us not the only way to "really serve God."
God has given unique roles to individuals in the arts and medicine; in manufacturing and education; in business and politics; in short - in the marketplace of life. We need to view our "daily round and common task" as the realm in which we fulfill God's call upon our lives and not rush to be done with these "secular" pursuits so that we might turn to "spiritual" activiies.
Many young people have committed themselves to a lifetime of pastoral or missionary service who clearly should never have done so. This problem has been further compounded by those who teach, without biblical warrant, that every young man of ability and attainment should devote himself to the gospel ministry, unless he can show some special reason why he should not. This is the very reverse of what needs to happen. No one is to show cause why he ought NOT to be a pastor; he is to show just cause why he SHOULD be a pastor.
In Ephesians Chapter 4 we discover that the Christian pastor is one of the ascension gifts of the Redeemer. It is then the privileged responsibility of the pastor-teacher to prepare God's people for works of service. It is then that the body of Christ is built up and grows to maturity as each part does its work. It is the responsibility of every Christian to understand the way in which they have been gifted and then to put the gift or gifts to use in the ministry.
In too many of our churches people do not understand that a variety of gifts are important. Everyone wants to be a teacher, because that is held up as the task of real significance, or everyone ends up working in the nursery because that is the area of greatest need. In reality, all that a Christian undertakes provides an opportunity to commend the cause of the gospel and build up the church.
It is said that for many years, Ruth Graham had a sign above her kitchen sink, which read, "Divine service conducted here three times a day." When this biblical principle is grasped by the salesman, then the way in which he makes his calls is going to be different. Not that he provides a piece of Christian literature with every sales presentation, but that he sees every presentation as an opportunity to display integrity, sensitivity, and reasonableness, and by so doing commend his Master.
Surely this principle will make a difference to the young mother surrounded by laundry and besieged by her demanding toddlers. She doesn't need to be told that if she were a COMMITTED Christian she would be in China! If she were to receive a special call to China that would be another matter, but for her, for now, commitment to Christ is to fulfill her calling in the high privilege of motherhood, believing herself to be on a divine appointment.
The circumstances of most of our lives are not ideal. There will be times when they are better than others, but in reality, all of us face things that we wish could be different. We might as well hope for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as spend our lives in search of the ideal spot.
When I was in high school in Scotland, the pool of soccer players assembled at lunch time on Fridays. It was then that we discovered who the eleven players would be to make up the team for the Saturday morning. I knew I was not one of the best, and yet I would sit and wait and hope for my name to be called and for the jersey to fly through the air in my direction. I would lay that soccer jersey with care in my bag and sleep with it by my pillow on the Friday evening. I did not care what position I played; I was so thrilled to be on the team. Today, as a pastor, Sunday by Sunday I feel the same way. I cannot believe I got picked. I think that's the way we are supposed to feel.
When I read of the likes of Amos, I get the impression that he wasn't expecting a jersey either. His biography is real short. Who are you, Amos? "One of the shepherds of Tekoa" (Amos 1:1). Don't you have anything else to add? "Well, I also took care of sycamore trees" (Amos 7:14). Now I suppose that it is possible that he was influential as a sheep breeder or an arboriculturalist, but it is more than likely that both his task and his means were unspectacular.
Amos did not train to be a prophet, and he was not a prophet's son, but he was specially called by God from his normal and usual activity to a place of unique usefulness in God's purposes. God revealed himself to Amos in such a way that the whole course of his life was redirected. It was the revelatory power of God that made Amos His mouthpiece. He is one of the classic illustrations of the fact that spiritual enduement is more important than educational advancement. He was not ministering in an ideal spot. He was away from his home territory and proclaiming a message which was met with opposition and persecution. His opponents sought to misrepresent him as a man as well as his motives and his message.
He was God's man in God's place for the fulfilling of God's purpose, and yet he was hit forcibly with the temptation to pack it in and make a run for it. If he went home, it would be back to familiarity, after all "home is home." It would mean security and popularity. His message of condemnation against Israel would clearly be better received in his home state of Judah. Despite all the intimidation, he was resolute because he knew he was serving God where and in the way He directed.
When I consider where I have been in relation to these things I can only explain them in the terms described above. When I graduated from London Bible College in 1975, I was given the wonderful privilege and opportunity of becoming the Assistant TO THE Pastor. I was not invited to become the assistant pastor because, after all, education and or educational establishments, do not make pastors, only God does. It was great wisdom on the part of the elders at Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh to acknowledge the need for a time of observation and assessment of my gifts and calling. They certainly did not wish to violate scripture by ordaining me too quickly.
It was agreed that should there come a time when my subjective sense of call was matched by the objective response of the leadership, in light of the reaction of the congregation, then I would proceed to ordination. If during the assessment period we did not sense this unique, unmistakable and irresistible calling then I would not be ordained. During that time I was given the privilege of leading worship, participating in public prayer, conducting communion services in our senior citizens' home, teaching the teenagers, visiting the sick and house-bound and accompanying my pastor on his journeys when possible. It remains a great wonder to me that through it all, God set His hand upon my life and set me apart to the gospel ministry.
My ordination was followed by a further year of learning with Derek Prime. I often wish I could have those days back and then I would try and squeeze out of them even more lessons and memories which continue to fuel the ministry I now enjoy. During the time in Edinburgh, the elders gave me the freedom to accept a preaching opportunity on one Sunday out of the month. There were always smaller churches in need of pulpit supply and they were kind enough to allow me to practice on them! At some point, I was told, one of these churches, that was looking for a pastor, might take a chance on me. It was hard for me to imagine, but it happened.
In 1977, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, I was called to serve as the pastor of Hamilton Baptist Church. How brave and kind they were to give me the opportunity to stumble and bumble my way, into the systematic and consecutive exposition of the Bible. We began on Sunday mornings to study Philippians, verse by verse. It was there I established the pattern which I have endeavored to follow ever since.
People often assume, that since Sue is American, she finally cajoled me into coming to live and work in the States. Nothing could be further from the truth. She was very settled in Scotland and had enjoyed the stability of living in a place long enough to establish friendships. I enjoyed America and Americans but I had no particular hankering to live there. Some of my friends who were pastors had left for North America, only to return in a relatively short time.
One Sunday morning, I had walked the quarter mile from our home to the church building and I was, as usual, in the final minutes before the service began, sequestered in the men's room. I did this because it was the only place that I would be undisturbed. On this particular morning, someone came knocking on the door. I recognized Sue's voice as she called me out. I stepped out into the hallway and in great haste she explained that there was "a man from America" in the vestry. I learned that he had shown up at our home in a taxi, which he informed Sue was going to wait for him until the service was over. Sue, who had lived in Scotland long enough to recognize the extravagance in that course of action, convinced him that he could let the taxi go and someone from church would take him to the airport.
I stepped into the vestry and was greeted by Paul. He was immediately warm and friendly and did his best in the moments available, to tell me ALL about The Chapel in Cleveland, Ohio. He wanted to know if I was open to considering becoming the pastor there. He followed that up with the question, "Are you open to God's will for your life?" I think I told him I was, at that moment, mainly open to conducting the morning service which should have begun. I hurried into the pulpit and tried to collect my thoughts as I led the opening part of the service.
Over lunch, Sue and I discussed, how this strange event could possibly have come about. I traced it to a friend that I had made the previous year when he came in response to my invitation to speak in our church for a few days. When I phoned him, he told me that he had been at a board meeting at Moody Bible Institute and one of the other board members, who was also an elder at the Chapel, had asked the men in attendance if they had any names of possible candidates for his church. As I understand it, John gave my name as a bit of a joke and Wally had no sense of humor!
About a month went by, and a package came in the mail containing a variety of materials from this church and an invitation to visit for a weekend. It seemed incredible to me that they would be prepared to fly me back and forth for just a few days, and so, without a great deal of thought, I decided that if they were crazy enough to invite me, then I was crazy enough to go. When I told John what I was planning he to do, he suggested that I take the chance to preach somewhere else also and he arranged for me to speak in a church in San Jose which was also looking for a pastor.
So I came. First for the weekend in Cleveland and then on to San Jose for the following weekend. I remember that the doctor who met me at the airport in Cleveland was wearing Bermuda shorts. I had never seen a church leader in shorts and certainly not like these! I remember the genuine, warm welcome I received in Phil and Mary's home and I recall the Sunday services with joy. I remember comparing the two places and concluding that as far as the externals, San Jose was ideal. But when they asked me to come back to the west coast with my wife and children, I declined, and to this day I can never remember the name of that church.
The Chapel was different. But even after a visit with Sue in the November, we said no. I felt that it was wrong for me to leave my church in Scotland. There were too many matters left undone and I was at the same time afraid of what moving to the States might mean. And so life went on. Paul visited a couple of times when he was on business trips and on his last visit he told us about the man that The Chapel had called.
Washing the dishes together one Sunday, Sue and I remarked on the fact that the American saga was finally over. "What would you do if something happened to the guy they've called?" Sue asked me. I think I told her it was a strange question because there was nothing that might happen to him, bar death, which seemed highly unlikely. Little did I know that this man would preach only one sermon and resign before he had hardly begun. I was more than a little disturbed by all of this and as on all previous occasions we made it a matter of prayer. One of the reasons I had given for not accepting the call was that I had promised my congregation in Hamilton that I would preach through the book of Romans. When the call came from the The Chapel, I was only at the end of chapter eight, there was no way I could finish it and leave. Since then, I had continued to teach through the book. I coined a line between Sue and me. "Anything could happen when I finish Romans", I would say.
It was a Saturday evening and I was in my study which was in our home. Sue came in and asked if I would like some tea, which I gladly accepted. As I sat there at my desk, with the two final verses of Romans, prepared for the next morning, I leaned back in my chair, looked across at Sue and said, "Anything can happen now." In that instant, the telephone rang and a man called George introduced himself as the new chairman of the search committee from The Chapel. He was inquiring about the possibility of there being any change in my circumstances and whether I was willing to reconsider the possibility of ministry in Cleveland. I recall telling him that from the little I had heard, all was not well and it certainly was not an IDEAL PLACE in which to serve God.
In the weeks which followed, God worked in our hearts. When we had first been asked, we wanted to go, but felt that we couldn't. On this second occasion, we were not sure that we wanted to go, but we were convinced that we should. On August 3, 1983, nothing but a deep-seated conviction, that God was in the move kept me on the 747 that was taking us to the States. I had made the trip on a number of occasions but never on a one-way ticket. Scotland represented the familiar, America the unknown. Scotland was security, America uncertainty. Scotland was thirty-one years of friendship, America was one friend 2,500 miles away.
In the early days, despite the warmth of the welcome we received and the obvious excitement of the people, I could not pray without filling up with tears. It took me six months before I could play my Scottish music without feeling dreadfully homesick. We decided not to go back to Scotland for three years so as to give us time to settle. I did not want to repeat the pattern established by some of my friends.
Today, some 16 years later, we are convinced that God was and is at work doing exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we can ask or even imagine. Ironically, as I took a break from writing this, Sue asked me what I was writing about. When I told her, she produced a registered package that had just arrived. It contained a letter of interest from a well known church in a very sunny part of the country. With four inches of snow on the ground, it sounded quite ideal, but only for a moment. The answer is "no" and when they call and suggest that since Cleveland is not the garden city of America, there might be a more conducive environment for ministry, I'll tell myself, and them, what my dear friend Eric Alexander once told me, "There is no ideal place to serve God except the place where He has set you down."