Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
Knowing your vocation sounds very positive; and it is. That confidence enhances the times of celebration and carries you through the barren times. You feel in the right place. However, we hear rather less about what happens when it ends.
We are not told whether Saul and Barnabas wanted to give up whatever they were doing and be sent off to Cyprus. Evidently the Spirit spoke clearly and they left. If it is our project, it is hard to leave it for someone else to lead and change. If at least some people appreciate our contribution, even more so. Fewer women nowadays have to abandon completely a stimulating career if a baby comes along, but plenty of our ministers had to leave a deeply valued job in order to train for the uncertain, low paid vulnerabilities of stipendiary ministry. When a minister or lay leader feels compelled to move on from a congregation, it does not always feel the perfect time.
Feeling instructed to leave a life we love is even more difficult if what is coming next is unknown. Those around us greet the idea with anxious incomprehension: why are you leaving us? Only later do we see that if we had not been willing to let go and wait, we could never have taken on the next calling that God had in mind. Once experience has taught us that, trusting the Spirit may even become a little easier.
The task in Cyprus proved immensely tough. The next calling is not often an easy reward for good behaviour in the last one. We may wistfully look back on what we agreed to leave behind. Yet in God’s Providence we were being equipped. As a hymn that we have forgotten used to say:
Father, I know that all my life is portioned out for me…. In service which Thy will appoints there are no bonds for me.
God of mystery and surprises help me to serve gladly where you have called me. In achievement and in despair, assure me that you have a purpose. And when the time is right to leave current tasks behind: speak to me clearly give me peace to help me find courage and teach me that the sun will rise again. Amen
John Ellis is a past Moderator of the General Assembly and Secretary of Capel United Church in Kent.