Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.”
For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles
If you are familiar with the book of Acts, you probably already know where this is heading. Paul had a plan. Well, not exactly. That is claiming too much specificity, too much certainty. Paul had a hope, maybe even an expectation, that he would someday go to Rome and preach in the great capital city. He admits in Romans that that hope had already been frustrated. Yet we know from Acts that the goal was indeed fulfilled, albeit in an entirely different manner than Paul anticipated. He got to Rome—as a prisoner. “Through a glass darkly,” indeed.
It is interesting that the New Testament author who actually does talk quite a bit about “plans” is Luke, especially in the book of Acts. My guess is that that is because Acts is written retrospectively, where the plan of God is far easier to discern. Isn’t that the case in your life?
Almost every step along the way, my own vocation has come as a surprise. For example, I never intended to become a professional academic. I had other plans. Lots of other plans, in fact. Nevertheless, every appointment I have had over the past thirty years has come as the result of an unexpected external call. The things I have thought to engineer on my behalf have nearly always fallen flat. I do not suggest that as a norm, but it seems to be a fairly typical story, especially for those in ministry.
Perkins recently welcomed a large group of new students, nearly all of whom are taking a significant step forward into an uncertain future. My message to them is this: If your goal is to serve God and to meet human need, there is nothing and no one that can stop you. Your success is assured. There is always more good work to be done, and so there is always the need for capable, well-equipped and well-motivated servant-leaders. That does not necessarily mean, however, that you will serve where and how you expect. While we might control our preparation, we exercise little control over our opportunities.
As a Methodist, this brings to mind the first part of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
To be honest, while I deeply admire that prayer, I am not saintly enough to repeat it without reservation. Who wants to suffer, to be brought low or laid aside? Moreover, I do not believe anyone truly is dis-employed from the work of God. Nevertheless, our notion of what such employment looks like is—and probably will be—subject to Divine revision.
Our students’ studies will surely enrich them. It is likely that their Perkins degree will open doors. But I have been around long enough to know that God’s ways are not our ways. They are mysterious and yet wonderful to behold, though most often in retrospect.
So, it is our obligation to prepare ourselves, but it is God’s to determine to what end. Persons who flourish in ministry are those with clarity about the why and openness before God as to the what, the where, and the how.