We have just entered the liturgical season of Pentecost, the birthday of the church. The Pentecost event marks the beginning of the church. Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples gathered together, tradition holds, in an upper room. Tongues of fire rest on each of them and they begin to proclaim God’s deeds of power. The crowds gathered nearby for the Jewish Festival of Weeks are amazed that each one hears the story in their own languages. With this event, the disciples begin to live together as believers. The book of Acts describes it so beautifully:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
—Acts 2:44-47, NRSV
These members of the early church were galvanized in their shared purpose—to spread the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. They must have known, deeply and certainly, the purpose to which they had been called by God. I wonder, are you aware of the purpose to which you have been called?
When I was a young adult, I struggled to know my purpose. I remember hearing the story of Jonah. How God called him to go to Nineveh and preach. And how Jonah didn’t want to go and, instead, set out in the other direction. And how Jonah ended up in the belly of a whale for three days and three nights. I was so worried that God would call me to do something that I didn’t want to do or didn’t know how to do. That I would be trapped, like Jonah was, in a terrible and uncomfortable place.
I can remember, then, running across the quote by Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” There is such grace in this thought. God’s desire is not to trap us in a purpose that makes us miserable. The things we are called to do, the purpose for which we were created, are at the intersection of our “deep gladness” and “the world’s deep hunger.” That is the place I long to go.
Some people hear and follow a call to a “set-apart ministry,” folks who are called to work in the church. In my tradition, there are Elders and Deacons; there are lay ministries of various types (diaconal ministers, deaconesses, missionaries) and those who keep churches going through gifts of music, teaching, and administration. Other traditions offer different approaches to acknowledging those “set apart” for distinct ministries. In the scriptures, we find stories of those called to serve God such as Zechariah, a priest and father of John the Baptist (Luke 1) and Aaron’s sister and prophet, Miriam (Exod. 15).
Saying yes to God’s purpose sometimes takes a person to places of radical change, danger, and uncertainty. Abram and Sarai left their country and all that was familiar to journey to a different land (Gen. 12). Esther was called to risk her life to save the lives of Jews in Persia during a period of Exile (The Book of Esther). Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John left their fishing nets to follow Jesus and “fish for people” (Mark 1).
But often we find our purpose right where we are. We find we are fulfilling our calling with the gifts that God has given us. Lydia, a merchant of purple cloth, didn’t leave home or change professions. She was baptized and opened her home to the faithful (Acts 16:14-15). Tabitha (also known as Dorcas) lived her life in Joppa doing “good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need” (Acts 9:36). Nimrod was “a great hunter” (Gen. 10:9). Deborah was a nurse (Gen. 35:8). Dan “settle[d] disputes for his people” (Gen. 49:16). Asher grew fine food and supplied delicacies for the king (Gen. 49:20). Joseph was a carpenter called to help raise a child named Jesus (Matt. 1). These biblical examples illustrate that God's purpose for us might be found right in the midst of our everyday lives.
Jesus said, “Follow me” (Matt. 4:19), and the trick is figuring out “Where?” and “How?” It’s not always clear. Often, it’s not a lifetime gig. Finding and following our purpose invites us to listen, pay attention, and be willing to adjust our path. No matter where we are on our journey of life, we are called to follow.
I invite you to listen deeply for the purpose that God is calling forth in you today. Read the stories of others. Take time to sit in discernment. Celebrate your gifts. Adjust your course of action. Share your journey with a friend and with your faith community. Together, our purpose is to be Christ’s hands and heart in the world.
Beth A. Richardson serves as the director of prayer and worship life and Dean of The Upper Room Chapel. Her latest release from Upper Room Books is Walking in the Wilderness: Seeking God During Lent.