It was the trip of a lifetime.
The summer before my senior year of college, I spent almost 2 months in northwestern China. Some friends and I worked with missionaries in that area who were sharing the good news of Jesus with a culturally Muslim people group. We worked hard in language classes each day – hard enough that I got college credit for the classes we took. We ate a wide variety of cuisine and had wild adventures (I still think about those spicy green beans!)
I still have vivid memories of that summer.
-Climbing the Great Wall and piloting a toboggan down a green valley.
-Riding in Jeep over such mountainous terrain, it took us 9 hours to move 60 miles.
-Looking up at the stars with a full moon shining so bright, I swear I could read a book at 11pm.
But the memories weren’t all good.
Prejudice on the Other Side of the World
This trip exposed me to the brokenness of our world in a way I hadn’t expected.
The university where we were attending classes and sharing with students included a melting pot of people and cultures.
We had befriended people of different nationalities. Some students belonged to a people group who were devoutly Muslim. Other students belonged to a people group who were more culturally Muslim. The more devout group looked down with disdain on the less devout group.
One day, a couple of us were speaking to a friend from the more devout group when a friend from the less devout group saw us and walked over to say hello.
What happened next left me speechless.
The friend from the devout group literally turned his back on the three of us until the friend from the less devout group left. Upon his departure, the member of the more devout group turned back around and picked up exactly where he left off – as if nothing had happened.
I was shaken by this event. I had never seen anything like this before that day. In a culture of honor, this act was the ultimate move in shame and dishonor from one man to another.
I asked a lot of questions in a different setting with our friends who were serving in this area about the source of this racism. Later, we discovered that depending on which group of friends we were hanging out with, we needed to stay in different areas of the public market area. If they walked too far down the wrong street, they ran the risk of being jumped and beaten like others had in the past. The racism wasn’t just shameful and dishonoring; it was violent too.
I couldn’t believe what I witnessed. And I remain marked by it today.
Facing the Brokenness
Can I ask you a question?
When did you first discover the world was broken?
Do you remember the time when you lost your idealism about the way others acted or leaders led?
What happened? How did it make you feel?
For many of us, we’ve tried to forget the pain of that disillusionment or the jarring nature of that experience.
Yet, I believe our encounters with brokenness and the awareness they create may be the genesis of our calling for the future
[callout] This article is the second in a series of five articles on calling. The first explored how our pain can lead us to our calling. If you’d like to receive future articles in this series and other posts to empower you with a new perspective, please enter your email address below. [/callout]
Calling and Brokenness
While we might try to minimize our awareness of the pain and brokenness in our world, I think we need to pay attention to it. God often uses our awareness of a particular brokenness within our world to provoke us to action. You might even say that our burdens can birth our calling.
This is the story of Brad Pellish.
Brad is the Outreach Pastor at Bethany Bible Church in Phoenix, Arizona. Brad became aware of a huge problem within Phoenix. Several years ago, he discovered up to 500 young women were being sexually trafficked in the metro Phoenix area. Brad saw the lack of resources within the organizations trying to care for the victims. He saw the disconnection between the Vice Squad of the Phoenix Police Department and the aftercare programs. He saw the tireless work of prosecutors and victim advocates trying to help these girls find freedom and justice.
Overwhelmed, Brad wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with this awareness. It was becoming a burden. He felt something must be done. But he wasn’t sure what. “I’m just a pastor. What can I do to help here?”
But, over time, Brad had an idea. He had been coordinating Christian Comedy Nights at his church for several years. The church had used them as an outreach to single adults and Brad had built relationships with many of these comics. His idea was a different kind of comedy night – comedy with a cause.
Brad’s dream was a comedy show where all the proceeds went to fight sex trafficking. He dreamed of hundreds, even thousands of people, honoring those who fight for victims of this terrible industry. He saw thousands of dollars raised, awards given, awareness created and change accomplished.
I attended several Free 2 Laugh, Laugh 2 Free events with my wife and church family in Phoenix. At the time, my wife was prosecuting domestic violence cases and was close friends with prosecutors in the sex crimes bureau.
Free 2 Laugh honored members of the vice squad, a hard-working prosecutor, counselors, and others. Tens of thousands of dollars were raised. And thousands of people across the city learned of this problem and played a part in the solution. A facility was built to provide aftercare for victims.
This Could Be Your Story Too
All of this began with one person who became aware of a problem, watched as the awareness became a burden, and then embrace a sense of calling to take action.
Like Brad, I think many of us say, “I’m just a _________. What can I do?” We’re aware of a particular expression of our broken world, and at times, we feel the weight of it. And maybe we wonder if we could do something to change it.
Today, I want to break down Brad’s story and use it as a model for how you can gain clarity on your calling.
Because I think God is capable of incredible work through you, the same way He moved through Brad. This could be your story too.
Turning A Negative Experience into Your Calling
1. Start with awareness.
One of my friends once told me, “what has been seen cannot be unseen.” He was right. We cannot undo awareness. And every calling begins with awareness. Awareness of what’s broken and awareness of what could be.
You don’t just see what is; you see what was and what could be.
Awareness often creates sympathy and pity. We feel bad for those who are negatively impacted. And if our actions and feelings stop there, they don’t change much. The pity and sympathy of another person is nice, but it’s not helpful. But if we lean into the awareness, it can become something more – a burden!
2. Allow awareness to create a burden.
Awareness can create fear. We’re afraid of what this new knowledge means and how it might change our lives. We’re accountable for what we know. This is why we think being naive is a safer way to live. But once we know something, we can’t escape the knowledge. And maybe we aren’t supposed to escape it.
Maybe we’re supposed to lean into it.
If we follow our fears, then what we’ve seen and experienced can become an unshakable thought or memory. It becomes a “burden” – something heavy we feel as we walk around. We feel like we’re carrying it with us everywhere we go.
At this point, some of us try to tell someone in power about the problem so we can “unload” the burden. As a pastor, I cannot remember how many times someone has made me aware of what’s broken. When I ask them what they’re prepared to do about it, many of them replied, “Oh, I’m not going to do anything. That’s your job. I’m just here to inform you so I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Let me put this kindly but directly. If God made you aware of the problem, maybe that’s because God’s want you to be part of the solution. Burdens from God aren’t to be unloaded; they’re to be embraced. Maybe God gave you eyes to see what’s wrong so he can use your hands to make it right.
Don’t outsource the solution to your burden. Because burdens often birth callings. Get uncomfortable and take steps towards the discomfort not away from it. When you reject the temptation to run from the burden, you often find the burden transforming into something larger – a calling.
3. Discern what your calling is in response.
Calling is a word which scares a lot of us. It feels like our life is over. Calling feels like we have to change careers, sell all our stuff, give up having fun, and never sleep again.
Calling is my one word summary of the Apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Ephesus. He said, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”
Each of us were created on purpose, for a purpose. We’ve been given a task to do (a calling) and we’ve been prepared for that calling by God. Figuring out that calling is a lifelong process, but we ought to begin now.
Don’t run from the burden. Don’t ignore the awareness. Lean into it. We all want to live a rich, meaningful life, feeling like our days matter and our actions mean something. Our hearts long for meaning and purpose. This comes from our faithfulness to our calling, which we discover by embracing our awareness and leaning into our burden.
Starting Where You Are
I didn’t go back to China ever again. I haven’t fought for reconciliation among those Muslim people groups. But I have done all I can where I am to reject prejudice and judgment. I’ve fought for the outsider to be included and included those who felt marginalized. I’ve created space for safety, welcome, and inclusion. And I’ve made it clear – where I’m a leader, we have no tolerance for the kind of shame and dishonor I experienced on that college campus in China.
President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I’ve tried to live those words. Neither avoiding responsibility to make a difference nor diminishing my opportunity or influence as too small.
How about you? Where have you seen awareness, burdens, and callings connect? What do you feel led to do, where you are, with what you have?