Over the last several weeks, Debbie has been reading Genesis aloud to the kids (and me) while we drive around in the van. As she read through Joseph’s story, a couple of phrases stood out to me.
In Genesis 45, when Pharaoh invites Joseph’s family to flee from Canaan to Egypt in order to be saved from the famine, Pharaoh instructs Joseph to tell his brothers:
“Do this: Take some carts from Egypt for your children and your wives, and get your father and come. Never mind about your belongs, because the best of all Egypt will be yours.” (Genesis 45:19-20)
But after Jacob had been encouraged by God to go to Egypt, Genesis records:
“Then Jacob left Beesheba, and Israel’s sons took their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the carts that Pharaoh had sent to transport him. They also took with them their livestock and the possessions they had acquired in Canaan, and Jacob and all his offspring went to Egypt.” (Genesis 46:5-6).
Jacob has shouldered the calling God gave to his grandfather, Abraham. God’s designs are advancing as he and his family have settled in the land of Canaan, forming their identity as God’s special nation. But now circumstances seem to force them to abandon that call. Faithfully, God appears to Israel, promising that he will continue to cultivate his plan through them, even though the journey seems to distance them from their calling. In Egypt, Israel will become a great nation and God will be with them and will return them to Canaan (Genesis 46:3-4).
As Israel and his clan prepare to leave the geographical symbol of their vocation, Pharaoh encourages them to leave all of their belongings behind as well and offers them the best of Egypt. Yet the belongings they have acquired in Canaan are integral to their vocational identity. Pharaoh is inviting them to leave their identity, but their identity anchors them to their calling.
Yet, Jacob wisely and subversively disobeys Pharaoh. He brings all of his livestock and possessions with him. He brings his vocational identity with him on this new journey, knowing that it is essential to God’s unfolding plan to develop Israel into the people God desires. As he stood before Pharaoh, face to face with the endless potential of a new life and new occupation in a new land, Jacob tells Pharaoh that he is a shepherd, something detestable to the Egyptians yet essential to God’s ongoing plan.
I feel a sharp affinity to this story. A little over twenty years ago, shortly after responding to God’s grace and choosing to follow Jesus, I sensed a strong calling to be a pastor (the same Greek word for shepherd, by the way). Heeding the counsel of mature Christians, I began testing that calling over the next couple of years. Person after person and event after event seemed to confirm that calling. I then decided to pursue the educational and occupational experience to prepare me for that calling. And over the years, that calling seemed to be affirmed.
But something happened. A famine threatened my livelihood. But it wasn’t an external famine in the land. It was an internal one of my own soul. I had allowed my occupation as a pastor to distort my vocation as a pastor. And God in his mercy made a way for me to leave the Canaan of my calling to sojourn in Egypt.
And as I initially stepped into my Egypt, I felt what Jacob and his children probably felt — the potential of a new life and new occupation in a new land. But the more I began to explore the passions of my heart toward a new occupation, I was not sensing any type of release to pursue something new. Rather, I kept sensing an ongoing turmoil. What had happened to the calling of my early years? Had I misheard? Were the endless confirmations simply an ongoing delusion? Or was the calling valid, but somehow I had disqualified myself? If so, why was there still a passion to pastor and no direction or release to pursue something new? Did God revoke my calling? If so, then I felt abandoned without further direction. If not, then what was happening to me? For almost three years I’ve felt confused and uncertain, unwilling to move in any particular direction.
While in Egypt, I wonder if Jacob ever stared into the night sky and struggled with the seeming failure of his calling?
It’s now been three years since leaving professional ministry. And with wonder, I can look back upon this time and realize that my sojourn in “Egypt” was necessary to save me from my famine. During this time, God has been disentangling my identity as a man and my calling as a pastor from the distortion of occupational ministry and strengthening who I am as Jesus’ apprentice. By removing me from my profession as a pastor, I feel God has been able to renew my calling as a pastor. I sense that calling is now being strengthened inwardly and not outwardly. I’m less dependent on the external validation of a title, a position, the accolades of others, a busy ministry calendar, or a paycheck to remind me that I’m a pastor. Rather, the calling I sensed two decades ago now seems to be fueled by who Christ is forming me to be from the inside-out.
Currently I work in the area of finances and videography. And I’m content doing these things. I love the people I work with and the experience I’m gaining. But they define what I do, not who I am. I am a pastor. I am a pastor to my wife, my kids and anyone else who will allow me to be, speak and act in that manner.
Speaking about Jesus’ awareness of his relationship to YHWH, N.T. Wright says:
“It was more like the kind of ‘knowledge’ we associate with vocation, where people know, in the very depths of their being, that they are called to be an artist, a mechanic, a philosopher.” (Simply Christian, 119).
When I read that, I immediately understood what he was saying. I know, in the depth of my being, that I am called to be a pastor. And that calling isn’t validated by a paycheck or position. It’s validated by God calling something forth from within me. Or as Jim Wallis has said, a vocation is defined by taking your gifts, talents and passions and discovering where they can touch the world’s pain and hurt. That’s what I sense and know.
I still don’t know what this means for my future. But I’m more secure in God’s faithfulness. Like Jacob, my children may eventually close my eyes while I’m still in Egypt. I may or may not ever return to occupational ministry. But my identity is solid. I am Jesus’ apprentice. And as such, wherever I go or whatever I do, he has called me to be a pastor. He has called me to be a shepherd. That is my vocation regardless of my occupation. I am increasingly more confident in and humbled by that calling and responsibility.