Sermon illustrations


The Absence of Success

Quite often the absence of immediate success is the mark of a genuine call., My Creator, My friend.

Bruce Larson, Word Publishing.

The Bible Calls Us

God speaks the decisive word that puts us on the way, the road. The path of life. The Hebrew word for Bible is Miqra, a noun formed from the verb “to call” qara. The Bible is not a book to carry around and read for information on God, but a voice to listen to. I like that. This word of God that we name Bible, book, is not at root a word to be read and looked at and discussed. It is a word to be listened to and obeyed, a word that gets us going. Fundamentally, it is a call: God calls us.

Taken from Eugene H. Peterson , Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ, Eerdmans.

The Broad Reality of Vocation

The word vocation is a rich one, having to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, and neighbors, and citizenship, locally and globally—all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God.

It is never the same word as occupation, just as calling is never the same word as career. Sometimes, by grace, the words and the realities they represent do overlap, even significantly; sometimes, in the incompleteness of life in a fallen world, there is not much overlap at all.

Taken from Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good  by Steven Garber, Copyright (c) 2014 Steven Garber. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Crucial Thing

In a journal entry by the Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the great existentialist philosopher describes the importance not simply of grasping the truth of the Christian faith, but having the truth of the Christian faith manifest itself in his everyday life:

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, excerpt insofar as knowledge must precede every act.  What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die

What use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points- if it had no deeper meaning for my life?…I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.  This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journal Entry Dated August 1, 1835.

Discerning Sense of Call By Paying Attention to Our Bodies

As I have worked to clarify my calling, I have learned to pay attention to my energy levels in response to different activities. If I experience a particular activity as being inordinately draining, I begin to consider very carefully how much of myself God wants me to give to that.

On the other hand, if I feel particularly energized by a certain person or activity, I can pay attention to how God may be leading me to incorporate more of that into my life. Paying attention to what gives our body and our spirit a sense of life or drains life from us can help us stay connected with God’s guiding presence. When I honor my body by “listening” to tension, discomfort, lightness, or joy and wonder, asking, Now what is that about? often God speaks into that awareness with truth and insight that proves very helpful over the long haul.

Taken from Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton Copyright (c) 2009 by Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Doing the Work Before the Work

In his highly insightful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith provides an important analogy about the importance of spiritually preparing ourselves for the adversity and challenges that come with success in the world:

Long ago a Chinese man began his career making bell stands for the huge bronze bells that hung in Buddhist temples. This man became prized and celebrated for making the best, most elaborate and enduring bell stands in the entire region. No other person could make the bell stands with such strength and beauty.

His reputation grew vast and his skill was in high demand. One day the celebrated woodcarver was asked, “Please tell us the secret of your success!” He replied: Long before I start making and carving the bell stand, I go into the forest to do the work before the work.

I look at all of the hundreds of trees to find the ideal tree—already formed by God to become a bell stand. I look for the boughs of the tree to be massive, strong and already shaped. It takes a long time to find the right tree. But without doing the work before the work, I could not do what I have accomplished.

Taken from Inside Job by Stephen W. Smith (c) 2009 by Stephen W. Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Finding Your Blue Flame

I had just started dating my husband, Joe, when I met international speaker and bestselling author Keith Ferrazzi. He was a friend of Joe’s …but on this day he was an intimidating public figure. I wanted to impress him with my wit and conviviality, so when he mentioned that he was on his way to Renaissance Weekend, I responded enthusiastically. “Forsooth!” I exclaimed. “Ye shall buye passage on a skye shippe and make merriment and drinke ale!”

When I asked what costume he was going to wear, he just smiled at me in polite confusion. Finally, Joe leaned over to explain that Keith was talking about Renaissance Weekend, an exclusive global strategy retreat for top leaders in business and politics. I was thinking of a Renaissance festival, where people dress up like pirates and wenches and eat funnel cake.

I’ve always been glad Keith didn’t get up and slowly back away from the crazy woman, because it was later in that same conversation that he introduced me to the concept that changed the way I see the world. He spoke about how grateful he was for his life.

He ran a successful business where he genuinely believed in the work he was doing. World leaders sought his expertise. He traveled internationally. He had a diverse network of friends and colleagues who inspired him daily. He got most excited when he spoke of how he honestly felt like he was having a positive impact on the world, and that’s what really mattered to him.

The more we talked, the more I realized what an unusual conversation this was. When you ask people how their lives are going, usually they look weary. They sigh. They talk about how they wish their situations were different. Then, in the end, they shrug and say it’s fine and change the subject. Not Keith.

He glowed when he talked about his life. “What’s your secret?” I asked. His answer would change my life: “I found my blue flame.” I loved this term. I’d heard it used before, but never with the kind of passion with which Keith talked about it. Something about his explanation made it click for me. I listened eagerly as he said that different people define it different ways, but he thought of a blue flame as your unique way to give back to others. It’s a passion that has been instilled in you that makes the world a better place when you use it. I went home that night lost in that concept. I wondered what my blue flame was, and I felt like it just might change everything if I could ever find it.

 Jennifer Fulwiler, Your Blue Flame: Drop the Guilt and Do What Makes You Come Alive, Zondervan, 2020.

Finding Your Calling by Finding your Gladness

The voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness. What can we do that makes us the gladdest? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing.”

Frederick Beuchner, The Hungering Dark, Harper One.

Following the Good Shepherd’s Voice

In his excellent study of the famous Biblical passage on shepherds, (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament), scholar Ken Bailey provides context to the 23rd Psalm:

The good shepherd “leads me”; he does not “drive me.” There is a marked difference. In Egypt where there is no open pasture land I have often seen shepherds driving their sheep from behind with sticks. But in the open wilderness of the Holy Land the shepherd walks slowly ahead of his sheep and either plays his own ten-second tune on a pipe or (more often) sings his own unique “call.”

The sheep appear to be attracted primarily by the voice of the shepherd, which they know and are eager to follow. It is common practice for a number of shepherds to gather at midday around a spring or well, where the sheep mingle, drink and rest. At any time one of the shepherds can decide to leave, and on giving his call all his sheep will immediately separate themselves from the mixed flocks and follow their shepherd wherever he leads them.

Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.41-42, by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Frederick Beuchner on Calling

It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Frederick Beuchner, Wishful Thinking

How We Get our Calling Wrong

First, we get our calling wrong when we imagine that God needs us, to be the hero of our own story, rather than Christ. Second, we routinely misdiagnose the problem of our world, underestimating estimating the brokenness of sin and overestimating our ability to fix things . Third, our witness of God often depicts a Lord who is domesticated to serve our causes . Fourth, a justifiable  focus on external problems can easily blind us to the depth of our complicity in the pain of the human condition.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good.

A King’s Calling

In the eleventh century, King Henry III of Bavaria grew tired of court life and the pressures of being a monarch. He made application to Prior Richard at a local monastery, asking to be accepted as a contemplative and spend the rest of his life in the monastery. “Your Majesty,” said Prior Richard, “do you understand that the pledge here is one of obedience? That will be hard because you have been a king.”

“I understand,” said Henry. “The rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you.”

“Then I will tell you what to do,” said Prior Richard. “Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has put you.” When King Henry died, a statement was written: “The King learned to rule by being obedient.” When we tire of our roles and responsibilities, it helps to remember God has planted us in a certain place and told us to be a good accountant or teacher or mother or father. Christ expects us to be faithful where he puts us, and when he returns, we’ll rule together with him.

Steve Brown, Key Biscayne, Florida.

Let Your Life Speak

The word vocatio can also be translated voice. Man, that says a lot. Your vocation is your voice. The Quakers have a saying about calling that I love: Let your life speak. Finding your calling is about finding your voice — what cuts over all the din and drone of the other seven-billion-plus people on earth. The tune and tone that only you can bring to the table. Calling isn’t something you choose, like who you marry or what house you buy or what car you buy; it’s something you unearth.

You excavate. You dig out. And you discover. We usually ask little kids, What do you want to be when you grow up? I wonder if we’re setting them up for failure with that question. Maybe a better question is, Who are you? What do you think God made you to do when you grow up? That, my friends, is the question. Who are we? How are we hardwired by our Maker?

What is it that God had in mind the day we were born? These are the questions of calling and vocation. I was brought up in a culture that essentially said, John Mark, you can do anything you put your mind to. If you work hard enough, if you believe in yourself, if you’re patient, you can do anything. This is such a middle-class-and-above American way to think. Nobody in the developing world would ever talk like that. And if you’re a millennial and you came of age during the recession, fewer and fewer of us talk like that either.

But still, one of the reasons we’re so disillusioned with the economy right now is because, somehow, this idea of “I can be anything I want” is bred into us by our ancestry. And it’s not all bad. It gave me the courage to dream and ideate and step out in life. But it’s also dangerous because, sadly, it’s not true. I can’t be anything I want to be, no matter how hard I work or how much I believe in myself. All I can be is me. Who the Creator made John Mark to be. If we fight the image of God in us — even if we succeed in the short run — it will come back to eat us alive.

John Mark Comer, Garden City, Zondervan, 2015, pp. 73-74.

A Millwright or Poet?

In the furniture industry of the 1920s, the machines of most factories were not run by electric motors but by pulleys from a central drive shaft. The millwright was the person on whom the entire activity of the operation depended. He was the key person, says Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller. He goes on:

One day the millwright at Herman Miller died. My father, being a young manager at the time, did not know what to do when a key person died but thought he ought to go visit the family. He went to the house and was invited to join the family in the living room.

The widow asked my father if it would be all right if she read aloud some poetry. Naturally, he agreed. She went into another room, came back with a bound book, and for many minutes read selected pieces of beautiful poetry. When she finished, my father commented on how beautiful the poetry was and asked who wrote it. She replied that her husband, the millwright, was the poet.

It is now nearly sixty years since the millwright died, and my father and many of us at Herman Miller continue to wonder: Was he a poet who did millwright’s work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?

Max DePree, in “Work and Spirituality,” teambuildinginc.com

A Pastor’s Greatest Accomplishment

Dr. Halverson pastored Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, for twenty-three years. He did what pastors do-everything from preaching and counseling to marrying and burying. But he believed his most important function was pronouncing his carefully crafted benediction at the end of each service:

Wherever you go, God is sending you.
Wherever you are, God has put you there.
God has a purpose in your being right where you are.
Christ, who indwells you by the power of his Spirit,
wants to do something in and through you.
Believe this and go in his grace, his love, his power.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Dr. Halverson reminded his congregation of that simple truth week in and week out until his death on December 1, 1995. Then he reminded them one last time. At the conclusion of his funeral service, Dr. Halverson himself gave the benediction via recording. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place!”

Mark Batterson, The Grave Robber: How Jesus Can Make Your Impossible Possible, Baker Books, 2015.

Rolling the Stone Away

The renowned musical scholar  and musician Albert Schweitzer’s life was turned upside down one summer morning in 1896 while reading his Bible. He came upon Matthew 16:25: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (KJV). At that moment Schweitzer knew that he was about to give up his extremely successful career as a musical scholar and organist and become a doctor, to ultimately work in the jungles of Africa. This meant not merely leaving a successful career, but going back to school to study medicine, an area of study that by no means came naturally to him. Struggles mounted, including his ability to affiliate with a medical missions organization out of France, who disagreed with Schweitzer’s Lutheran theology.

His ultimate goal, as one source has noted, was “to spread the Gospel by the example of his Christian labor of healing, rather than through the verbal process of preaching.” Schweitzer would reflect on his calling, saying “Anybody who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll any stones out of his way, and must calmly accept his lot even if they roll a few more onto it. Only force that in the face of obstacles becomes stronger can win.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Sheep Follow the Shepherd’s Call

During the riots in Palestine in the middle thirties a village near Haifa was condemned to collective punishment by having its sheep and cattle sequestrated by the Government. The inhabitants however were permitted to redeem their possessions at a fixed price. Among them was an orphan shepherd boy, whose six or eight sheep and goats were all he had in the world for life and work. Somehow he obtained the money for their redemption. He went to the big enclosure where the animals were penned, offering his money to the British sergeant in charge.

The N.C.O. told him he was welcome to the requisite number of animals, but ridiculed the idea that he could possibly pick out his “little flock” from among the confiscated hundreds. The little shepherd thought differently, because he knew better; and giving his own “call”, for he had his nai (shepherd’s pipe) with him, “his own” separated from the rest of the animals and trotted out after him. “I am the Good Shepherd and know my sheep—and am known of mine.”

Eric F. F. Bishop, Jesus of Palestine: The Local Background to the Gospel Documents (London: Lutterworth, 1955), pp. 297-98.

A Shoemaker’s Awl

An old shoemaker’s awl is on prominent display in the French Academy of Science. That awl fell from the shoemaker’s table one day and put out the eye of his 9-year-old son. Soon, the child became blind in both eyes and had to attend a school for the blind. At this school, the child learned to read by handling large, carved, wooden blocks.

When the shoemaker’s son grew up, he thought of a new way for the blind to read. It involved punching tiny dots onto paper, and Louis Braille devised this new method using the same awl that had blinded him in his youth.

When Patricia Houch Sprinkle told that story in Guideposts in 1978, she suggested that there would be a falling awl in each of our lives. She added, “When it strikes, some of us ask, ‘Why did God allow this to happen?’ Others ask, ‘How will God use it?’”

A Grace-Filled Life

The Sin of Doing the Wrong Job

Does God take our work seriously? Consider these words from Arthur F. Miller:

It is wrong, it is sin, to accept or remain in a position that you know is a mismatch for you.  Perhaps that’s a form of sin you’ve never even considered – the sin of staying in the wrong job.  But God did not place you on this earth to waste away your years in labor that does not employ his design or purpose for your life, no matter how much you may be getting paid for it.

Taken from Arthur F. Miller Jr. and Bill Hendricks The Power of Uniqueness, Zondervan, 2002.

The Spirit & Temptation

In their excellent book Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton discuss the poignant insight that it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the Wildnerness. What does this mean, from a Biblical, theological perspective?:

Isn’t it interesting that the Spirit, the source of Jesus’ empowerment, is also focal in the temptation that follows: “The Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted” (Mt 4:1)? We tend to think of temptation as something totally alien to us, something from outside that intrudes into our lives.

We learn from Jesus’ experience, however, that the most critical temptations attach themselves to the call and empowerment of God that defines the meaning, value and purpose of our existence. It was so for Jesus. His first temptation went to the heart of who he was, and it is the temptation our culture has succumbed to.

“If you are the Son of God, speak, that these stones may become bread” (Mt 4:3). Do you see the nature of this temptation? The temptation is for Jesus to use his empowerment by the Spirit to do something that will authenticate God’s call. More significantly, it is a temptation to reverse the roles of being and doing, the temptation our culture has succumbed to. We tend to evaluate our own meaning, value and purpose, as well as those of others, not by the quality of our being but by what we do and how effectively we do it.

Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Struggling to Feel Chosen

Commenting on Ephesians 1:3-6, M. Robert Mulholland describes just how powerful it can be personally, when we recognize that we were chosen by God, especially for children who are the result of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy:

I once heard a woman tell of her struggle with this reality [of being an unwanted child]. Her mother was a prostitute, and she was the accidental byproduct of her mother’s occupation.

Although her life’s pilgrimage had brought her to faith in Christ, blessed her with a deeply Christian husband and beautiful children, and given her a life of love and stability, she was obsessed with the need to find out who her father was. This obsession was affecting her marriage, her family and her life.

She told how one day she was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes, with tears of anguish and frustration running down her face into the dishwater. In her agony, she cried out, “Oh, God, who is my father?” Then, she said, she heard a voice saying to her, “I am your Father.”

The voice was so real she turned to see who had come into the kitchen, but there was no one there. Again the voice came, “I am your Father, and I have always been your Father.” In that moment she knew the profound reality that Paul is speaking of. She came to know that deeper than the accident of her conception was the eternal purpose of a loving God, who had spoken her forth into being before the foundation of the world.

Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

This is the Last of Earth

John Quincy Adams, the son of the second president John Adams, dedicated his life to public service and the great American project, serving in numerous distinguished positions throughout his career. He is to this day, the only U.S. President to ever serve in congress after becoming commander in chief. At the end of his life, in 1848, Adams was writing at his desk when the Speaker of the House asked him a question. Adams rose to his feet to answer, whereupon he immediately collapsed and entered a semiconscious state that lasted for the next few days. His last words were, “This is the last of Earth. I am content.”

Stuart R. Strachan Jr.

The Three Orientations Towards Work

In his landmark work, Habits of the Heart, the sociologist Robert Bellah describes thee distinct orientations people take with respect to their work. The first orientation is to see your work as a job, a paycheck that takes care of the bills. The second orientation is to see your work as a career. Here, climbing the proverbial ladder in search of status and wealth are central. In the second orientation, the way you feel towards your work is primarily based on how successful you are in it.

If your career is waning, it may feel as though your entire self-worth is on the chopping block. The third orientation is seeing work as a calling. This sense of calling is firmly established in the life of faith. If you have received a call-then someone must have made the call in the first place. That person is God, and because God is sovereign, our work isn’t simply what we want to do.

A call is made and we are there to answer it. The worth of your work therefore, is not dependent on your success, but rather your faithfulness to the call that God has made. Sometimes, that even means that a failure in the world’s eyes can be the greatest success in God’s.

Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart

An Unexpected Calling

Serving at the time as provincial governor of Northern Italy, St. Ambrose was called in this capacity in 374 to the cathedral in Milan, where a riot was threatening between two rival factions of Christians, each intent on winning its own candidate’s nomination to the bishopric.

Ambrose quelled the riot but was unable to persuade the warring parties to agree on a bishop. Finally someone suggested Ambrose himself, and the nomination was enthusiastically greeted on all sides. In vain Ambrose protested that he was not even christened. He was hurriedly baptized, then ordained, and finally
consecrated bishop — all within the space of a single week.

Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes

Vocation Requires Listening

Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.

That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, Jossey-Bass, 1999, 5.

When Failure Launches our Greatest Success

Sometimes God takes our greatest failures and turns them into our greatest successes. Charles “Chuck” Colson had risen the ladder of national political success at breakneck speed. After a tour in the Marines, Colson served in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ran a political campaign, and joined a law firm before becoming special counsel to the President (Richard Nixon) in 1969, at the ripe old age of 38. And then it all came crashing down, as Colson was sent to prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. As one pastor put it, Colson’s (former) career was over, but his calling was just beginning.

While in prison, Colson converted to Christianity and began working alongside his fellow prisoners. His passion for his faith and his fellow prisoners birthed Prison Fellowship. Seeing firsthand the injustices in the American prison system, Colson fought for the rights of the incarcerated, including widespread penal justice reform. But that isn’t all. Prison Fellowship has created a number of programs to help inmates, including training to experience healing and wholeness, with the intention of lowering the rate of recidivism (returning to prison). Today, Prison Fellowship serves in all 50 states in the U.S., impacting more than 1,000 prisons and over 365,000 incarcerated men and women each year.

In his 1983 book Loving God, Colson shares the realization that his legacy came not from his successes, but from his failures:

“The real legacy of my life was my biggest failure – that I was an ex-convict.  My great humiliation – being sent to prison – was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one experience in which I could not glory for His glory.”

Stuart Strachan Jr. Quote from Charles Colson, Loving God, Zondervan, Reprint, 2018.

Work vs. Calling

The noted English architect Sir Christopher Wren was supervising the construction of a magnificent cathedral in London. A journalist thought it would be interesting to interview some of the workers, so he chose three and asked them this question, “What are you doing?” The first replied, “I’m cutting stone for 10 shillings a day.” The next answered, “I’m putting in 10 hours a day on this job.” But the third said, “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren construct one of London’s greatest cathedrals.”

Source Unknown

Who Called First?

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” said the Lion.

C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

Why We Fight For Some Causes & Not Others

When an issue is less central to one’s identity it’s possible to feel, for example, “I really should do more to help those in need, but it’s just too hard’ or ‘I just can’t find the time.’ But when the issue lies at the very heart of who one is, it becomes unthinkable to turn away.

Anne Colby and William Damon, The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice, Oxford University Press, 2015.

See also Illustrations on BusinessLeadership, Listening, Obedience, Work

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