For those of you following the blog, I apologize for the hiatus in new posts. My wife and I have been on a sobering, fast-paced trip to England. We are moving there in early August in the face of extraordinary obstacles but with a nagging, unyielding sense of calling. The plan (which we have been anticipating for about a decade) is for me to begin the PhD program in New Testament at the University of Durham.
This is a “radical” venture. It may well be the most arduous path my feet will ever take. Moving a family of six to one of the most expensive regions of the world without proper resources, and doing so for a stringently demanding degree program that will cost us so much financially, logistically and emotionally—to some, it may appear as madness. Though I previously entertained the prospect of overseas study with a romanticized wistfulness (sipping coffee beneath the ancient beams and archways of a centuries-old library while studying theology), the severe costs of what we are undertaking has brought painful sobriety over the years. The sense of calling, however, has only intensified, to the degree that we feel constrained to pursue the path “by faith.”
And doing anything “by faith” is just terribly inconvenient.
This is the context out of which I am writing about the dangers of “radical” (see the previous post, The Un-Romance of Radical). In no way am I trying to bash the bestselling book Radical by David Platt. I like the book, and I think it is so helpful in lovingly goading comfortable, safe, and suburban Christians out of out complacency.
But there are dangers in being extreme or radical. In my aspirations to do the PhD in England, a vocational decision attended by many painful sacrifices, and in other “radical” decisions from my past, I have noticed several impure motives that have been cloaked with the noble rhetoric of “divine calling.” One of these dangers is “spiritualized escapism.”
Radical Leaving rather than Radical Going
I was 20 years old and wracked with angst. I was on my knees in the tiny “prayer closet” at UGA’s Methodist Student Center. My heart was burning so fiercely with passion to serve Christ overseas that I felt I could not go another day without a global assignment, without a divinely issued itinerary on hand. Friends of mine were planning mission trips. One had just withdrawn from college to go overseas, leaving behind a major scholarship.
This was my prayer that day. And I meant every word:
Lord, just whisper a country, and I will walk to it. I don’t care how far it is. I don’t care what it costs. Just whisper a place and I will go.
If I had even had the slightest sense of which nation I was being assigned to in that moment of prayer, I would have walked out of that room with the clothes on my back and headed north, south, east or west. I did not care. If the country was in another hemisphere, I would have walked to the nearest port city and boarded a ship secretly as a stowaway. I just so desperately wanted a task, a mission, a feat.
I never heard a word. I guess I ended up doing homework that night.
A couple of years later, just after graduation, I was working on a landscape crew, digging ditches, pulling Bermuda grass and mowing lawns. I came to the conclusion by the summer’s end that God had higher things for me. I quit my job, deciding not to bother myself with the mundane inconveniences of work. I had bigger things ahead of me. I took up residence in the home of a very gracious family and began praying over a stack of maps that God would send me to the darkest places on Earth because I was willing and eager to go and serve. (I recount this season of my life in the second chapter of Faith Without Illusions).
Eventually, I ended up on the streets of a spiritually dark Southeast Asian metropolis and found myself praying a very different prayer than the ones I had been praying in the previous years and months:
Lord, please get me out of here. And please don’t ever send me here again.
Looking back on these prayers, I have realized that I was much more concerned with a radical leaving than with a going. The heart behind the prayer was not so much “let me serve you, Lord” but “Lord, get me out of here.”
I wanted to escape the unexciting “local” for the exotic “global.” I wanted freedom from the tedious tasks of the daily grind for the thrilling speed of travel and for the gratifying buzz of experiencing something new. I did not want to do statistics homework—I wanted to fulfill the great commission. I did not want to dig another ditch in the summer heat—I wanted to preach the word on a distant city street.
As a college pastor, I have seen this longing for escape at work in many other young people. That itching angst to do something awesome, the burning passion to be a part of something big—as one familiar with these sensations, as one who has acted on them and ended up stranded on the other side of the world, I find myself calmly urging college students with similar desires to settle down a bit.
They cannot see how doing their accounting project will glorify God. They cannot see how finishing the research paper on 18th century art forms can contribute to God’s Kingdom work. Aren’t people dying out there from lack of clean water? Aren’t the lost dying without the Gospel?
Yes, but an untested 20-something without the work ethic required for completing the accounting project or boring research paper will likely be of little help in dire situations overseas.
All Ministry is Local
What I failed to see in my earlier adventures was that all ministry is local. You can wistfully scan the horizon longing for global exploits, but once the plane lands then anyone who really wants to work for change must then embrace a host of tedious, mundane disciplines that are very unexciting: learning the language, finding the right food items in the nearest market, figuring out how to use the local currency, interacting with the postal worker, finding a plumber to unclog the drain, etc., etc.
There is no escape from the local, mundane tasks of the daily grind. Nothing may be more suitable training for radical work abroad than years of faithfulness in small, meticulous details. Patiently digging ditches in the summer heat, regularly paying the water bill, diligently doing the homework—these are the practices of someone who is qualified not so much for a radical, wild-hare trip, but for a lifetime of slow, persistent faithfulness towards God’s radical mission.