I believe that if you sit down with anyone, you can find that everyone has an incredible story of the journey they have been on in life. One thing is for sure when you begin reflecting back on life, or listening to someone else’s story, you realize that life isn’t easy… but if you are honest and can look back and see how you’ve grown, you would agree with Michael Card in his song, that even if life isn’t easy, there is “Joy In The Journey.”
I am going to be spending the next several weeks sharing my journey. Part of this is for my own purpose, to get my thoughts in writing rather than letting them swirl in my head year after year. Another purpose comes from Rick Warren. He states in Purpose Drive Life that some of our greatest ministries can come out of our greatest pain. There are some things I’ve been through that hopefully can be an encouragement to someone who is struggling with the guilt of quitting (more on this soon).
My journey begins with my calling. I grew up in central Illinois going to a mid-size Christian church. I’m not going to bore you with the details regarding the growing up part – I’m going to jump straight to the high school years.
I don’t remember much about high school except these things:
- I didn’t like high school much. It was okay, but I wasn’t really thrilled with the school part of high school.
- I had great friends at church. As a high schooler, my life was Wednesday nights with Bible Bowl and Sunday nights with youth group.
- Everything was pretty normal for a midwest kid with a good home, good friends, and a job at Baskin Robbins.
A very big part of high school was going to Lake Springfield Christian Assembly… summer camp. I loved camp! I would spend 2 weeks every summer as a high school camper and another 2 or 3 weeks serving as camp staff for younger age groups. All aspects of camp were great. Even the hot, sweaty nights trying to sleep with all the crickets and frog noises from the lake, plastic mattresses, and huge mosquitoes. One of my favorite parts was the morning missionary time. We would meet missionaries from all over the world. Not all were exciting, but they had gone places most of us in the Midwest didn’t know existed.
Another important part of high school was the trips to visit different Bible colleges. Our youth group would go to “High School Weekends” up I-55 to visit Lincoln Christian College. These made a big impression on me. After several trips I began to open myself to being used by God for whatever purpose He may have in my life. I didn’t know what that meant fully, I was just open.
As I have grown older, I’ve come to realize that God tends to repeat his calling as we grow in our faith and as there is greater clarity. In my situation, God continued to affirm His call through different people and events.
Through a combination of trips to LCC, LSCA, as well as other youth conferences and service opportunities, God was bringing me along and growing a passion within me. That passion would be defined just after I graduated from high school.
In the summer of 1983 I met Mike Nichols during a week of summer camp at LSCA. Mike was a missionary with African Christian Mission, home on furlough from Zaire, Africa (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In retrospect, I realize now that God had been preparing me for this week. Little by little there was a passion growing in my heart and God was going to plant a seed in my heart for what Mike would share that week.
By the end of the week, I didn’t know how, I didn’t know when, and I certainly didn’t know what, I just knew that God had called me to be a missionary in Africa. To some that may sound strange or an “emotional camp response.” But, through the previous 4 years, I believe God was leading me, preparing me, and also seeing if I would have a spirit that said “Yes” to Him. For the first time (as far as I can remember), God got specific and I said YES!!
I was excited, confused, and at a bit of a loss for what to do after camp. Mike Nichols was no longer around. I went back home. I wasn’t sure what to do with that new feeling, calling, excitement, dream, hope, purpose, and desire that I had within me.
The real world was saying, “Rich, what are you going to do with your life?” The educational system teaches you to respond with some trite answer about going to college, getting a degree, and then getting a job to make a lot of money. A calling is different and it isn’t something that makes sense to most people when you explain that you’re waiting on God.
A calling doesn’t always mean immediate action. God’s calling can get brushed aside and damaged in an age of immediate gratification. Andy Stanley, in one of my favorite books of all time, Visioneering, states that it took Moses 40 years to grow into the vision God had designed for him. He also says “New visions die easily. And understandably so. There is little to go on. Praying and planning will help you keep your vision alive. And that is critical. When your vision dies, part of you dies as well. So pray.”
So, here I was – a high school graduate with a call to go to Africa. That’s about it right there. God was going to have to put some more meat on that bone. But, that’s where it started. Had I not been open and prepared that week of camp with Mike Nichols, it would have been just another week of camp. It was the birth of my call.
I turned 44 last month… ugh. That summer with Mike Nichols was 26 years ago. It almost feels longer than that. I believe one of the greatest things that was lacking in my life at that time was guidance. I left that week of camp and didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know how to pray. I didn’t know what I should “do” in order to be involved in missions. I was aimless and clueless. The system I grew up in was not built for people like me.
The system really isn’t any better today than it was 26 years ago. The American educational system does not encourage radicalness, adventure, curiousness, questioning, seeking, or even leading. The system is all about following the rules. If I can encourage my kids, myself, and anyone else, it is to pray with a spirit of “Yes” to God and realize that God may lead you to move outside of the system. Seek and pray for opportunities to allow God to continue to grow His call and purpose in your life. It may not yet be time to live out that call to its fullest, but it is always time to pray and dream to the point that God has led you thus far.
For those who have been called and are wondering about what to do next, Andy Stanley has this to offer:
We see what we are looking for. We often miss what we don’t expect to see. Prayer keeps us looking. Prayer keeps the burden fresh. It keeps our eyes and hearts in an expectant mode. Prayer doesn’t force God’s hand. But it keeps us on the lookout for his intervention. Prayer sensitizes us to subtle changes in the landscape of our circumstances. When he begins to move, we are apt to recognize it. Praying almost ensures we won’t miss opportunities God brings our way.
As a word to Mike Nichols… “Thank You!!” You never know who you are going to be meeting and what crazy kid or adult you are going to touch. Thank you for taking the time with an 18-year old who had questions, enjoyed watching your slides, and even in later years gave me encouraging words. Keep filling those college students with dreams that are bigger than they could have dreamed on their own. Encourage them to pray. Encourage them to live in their calling, at whatever stage they are in.
Wow… I’ve rambled long enough. The next post will be about where I went after leaving camp and how God continued to orchestrate His call in my life. It’s pretty amazing really that He would care enough to do what He did.