Within mission circles, the term “call” or “called” is loaded. It is loaded with story and passion; with grit and determination. It is also loaded with hurt and condemnation; with wrecked dreams and spiritual baggage.
A few years ago I wrote a piece called “Lost to a Call.” It was a short essay, written from the heart, but it only captured some of my relationship with this word. As a daughter of missionaries I learned this word early. I don’t know if I learned it from my parents, but I certainly learned it from the broader Christian and missionary communities. From early on it felt like a word fraught with meaning; a word that one dare not mess with.
Because calling and call were rich with spiritual punch. They represented times of prayer; times of searching scripture; agonizing over decisions and seeking guidance.
Here’s the problem: I am a failed missionary. I don’t say this with any desire for sympathy or pity, I say it as fact. My husband and I were young, in love, and passionate about working in the Middle East. After a year and a half of marriage, we went overseas with a mission organization only to leave the organization in shambles a year later. We continued living overseas for a long time after, but for many years there was a sense of shame connected to our story. We were failures as missionaries. There were times when we desperately tried to inch our way into missionary circles, but it always ended with disappointment and frustration. We didn’t belong in the missions community. We were the ones that didn’t have a call.
But what is call all about? Is it about being called to a place, or being called to a person?
In the beginning of the Gospel of John we see Jesus reaching out to those who would be his companions for the next three years. They would travel with him, laugh with him, bicker about who was his favorite, eat with him, get angry in front of him, and live all of life with the Son of God. The story in John says that Jesus sent Philip to get Nathanael. Nathanael doesn’t trust Jesus’ origins – evidently nothing good ever came out of Nazareth. So Nathanael reluctantly goes with Philip. As he approaches Jesus, Jesus calls out with a bold assessment of Nathanael’s character and Nathanael is astonished.
“How do you know me?” he says.
And then those beautiful, bold words “Before Philip called you, I saw you.” Before the beginning of time I saw you. I knew you. I loved you. The God of the universe who set the heavens in motion, who breathed life into man, saw Nathanael. He saw Nathanael just like he sees you, just like he sees me.
Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.”
He saw you in your entirety. In the secret place where he knit your bones together, God saw you. This is the beauty of our God. He does not stop loving when our circumstances change. He does not stop loving when we question where we are and why we are there. He does not withhold grace because we misread or misplace a call. In our failed state, my husband and I came to realize that the fact that we exist as image bearers is far more important to God than anything we will ever do. Because before he called us, he saw us.
I don’t know what’s going on in your life today. I don’t know the struggles, the hurts, the failure, the feelings of inadequacy, the homesickness, the hurting marriage, the language frustrations, the confusion over next steps, the confusion over any call. But this I do know, and I stake my life on it: Before he ever called us, he saw us.
This, my friends, is what missions is all about.
A Life Overseas Friends! My new book has just been released. Called Passages Through Pakistan – An American Girl’s Journey of Faith, it is a vulnerable memoir that spans birth through age 18 when I left Pakistan for the United States. I would be honored if you took a look! It is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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