Our Primary Calling —
By Stephen Seamands —
I was a young pastor in my mid-twenties, just three years out of Asbury Theological Seminary, attending a day-long continuing education event for pastors. But before they introduced the main speaker I was looking forward to hearing, they trotted out a retired, white-haired Salvation Army officer to lead us in a time of prayer and worship.
His name was Lyle Rader. He was in his late seventies. Years later I would get to know his son, Paul Rader, who became the first American-born General and world-wide leader of the Salvation Army, who also served on Asbury Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees for a number of years.
In his devotional talk, the elderly Lyle Rader began reminiscing about his relationship as a young Salvation Army officer with Samuel Logan Brengle (1860-1936). Brengle was a spiritual giant and a great leader in the Salvation Army during the early decades of the twentieth century. He was a powerful preacher and prolific author as well as a close friend of Henry Clay Morrison, the founder of Asbury Seminary. When Lyle Rader was a cadet in officer’s training school, Brengle became his friend and mentor. They developed a close Paul-Timothy type of relationship.
One day, Rader asked Brengle a question that had been on his mind for a long time. “Sir, over the years, what have been your greatest temptations in ministry?”
Brengle was silent for a few moments. “Actually, I’ve only had one great temptation in ministry,” he said. “And I’ve learned that if I win the battle with this temptation, then it seems as if everything else in my life and ministry falls into place. But it I lose the battle here, it’s as if all hell breaks loose, and I find myself wrestling with lots of other temptations.”
Lyle Rader wasn’t expecting an answer like that. His curiosity was piqued so he asked, “Well, then tell me, Sir, what has been your one great temptation.”
I’ll never forget what Rader told us Brengle (pictured right) said: “It’s the temptation to want to do something for God each day, before I’ve spent time with him.”
I needed to hear that because in my first few years after graduation from seminary, as I plunged into to my work as a pastor, doing things for God had become my focus, not spending time with him. Moreover, when I did spend time with him – like a car pulling into a gas station when its running on empty – it was mainly so I could get fueled up to get back on the road again to do ministry. Spending time with him, deepening my relationship with him, rather than being an end in itself, was essentially a means to the end of furthering the work of ministry.
I had forgotten what my primary calling was. So, what Brengle said convicted me. And that conviction only grew deeper as shortly thereafter I found myself drawn to study Jesus’ words to his disciples about ministry in John 15:1-16.
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said (John 15:5). Branches, of course, exist to bear fruit. In fact, Jesus warns us that if they don’t bear fruit, they will be pruned away and thrown away. Bearing fruit matters, but branches can be fruitful only if they abide in the vine. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
According to Jesus, what matters most is abiding. In fact, ten times in this passage, Jesus commands his disciples, “Abide in me.” Don’t miss the fact that it is a command. Even though fruit bearing is important, there’s no command in these verses to bear fruit. The command is to abide. That is our primary calling. Bearing fruit is not an end in itself; it is a consequence of abiding.
In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers expresses it like this: “The main thing about Christianity is not the work we do, but the relationship we maintain, and the atmosphere produced by that relationship.” Elsewhere in his book, Chambers writes, “The greatest competitor of devotion to Jesus is service for him.”
No one understood this better than Mother Teresa. She is famous for her incredible sacrificial ministry among the poor and the dying in Calcutta. But it is interesting what she said to Henri Nouwen when he was visiting with her in the 1970s.
“Mother Teresa,” Nouwen asked, “How can I best go about fulfilling my vocation as a Catholic priest?” His question, in a way, was like the one that Lyle Rader asked Samuel Logan Brengle and not surprisingly, he got a similar answer.
“Oh, Henri,” she said smiling, “Just spend one hour a day in adoration of your Lord, and never do anything you know is wrong. And you will be alright.”
At first, Nouwen thought Mother Teresa’s response was a bit simplistic, but as he reflected upon it, he recognized its wisdom. “Like all great disciples of Jesus,” he writes in The Way of the Heart, “Mother Teresa affirmed again the truth that ministry can be fruitful only when it grows out of a direct and intimate encounter with our Lord.”
Often when we consider Christian calling, we immediately focus on what we are sensing Christ is calling us to do. But first and foremost, Jesus calls us to be with him, to abide in him. That is our primary calling.
In his book The Call, Os Guinness reminds us that we are called first to Someone, not to Something or Somewhere. Those callings, as significant as they are, are secondary. Eventually, they will pass away. Our relationship with Christ is eternal. So, the most important thing Christians are called to do each day is to abide in him, to deepen our relationship with him, to be a branch that abides in the vine.
In 2009, I was privileged to accompany a group of Doctor of Ministry students from Asbury Seminary to Korea. We had been invited by Bishop Sundo Kim, a long-time member of the seminary’s Board of Trustees. In fact, the single men’s dormitory on the Asbury seminary campus in Wilmore, Kentucky, is named in his honor.
While we were in Korea, we spent a good deal of time at the Kwanglim Methodist Church, the church in Seoul that Bishop Kim had pastored for many years and that had grown under his leadership to become the largest Methodist church in the world.
One day we went to visit Bishop Kim at his office up on the 6th or 7th floor of the office complex that’s part of the Kwanglim campus. He was such a gracious host to us and shared with us profound wisdom borne out of his years of fruitful ministry.
But let me tell you what impressed me most during my time at Kwanglim. It wasn’t the vital worshipping congregation, state-of-the-art campus, gifted pastoral staff, or Bishop Kim’s beautifully decorated, spacious office. Rather, it was the small 4`x6` room connected to his office – the simple, unadorned “prayer closet” where Bishop Kim spends at least an hour each day reading scripture, praying – often on his knees – as he seeks to abide in Christ (pictured on the left).
I still have the picture I took of his prayer closet. Because – and Bishop Kim would be the first one to tell you – that’s where ministry begins and ends. As he emphasized in speaking to us that day, “Without a prayer life, you will not know the will of God.”
Throughout his ministry, Bishop Kim, who passed away last year, understood what matters most. He understood his primary calling. And you cannot understand the abundant fruitfulness of Christ’s ministry through him apart from that. As Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them, bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Stephen Seamands is professor emeritus of Christian Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He served as the Professor of Basic Christian Doctrine at Asbury Seminary for close to 40 years. In addition to that class, he taught Introduction to Spiritual Warfare, Introduction to Healing Prayer, and a class studying the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dr. Seamands has authored numerous books, including Wounds That Heal, Ministry in the Image of God, and The Unseen Real: Life in the Light of the Ascension of Jesus.