On the 3rd of January 2009, at a Mennonite retreat in Mthatha, South Africa, Mirjam Scarborough presented a survey of her work, aimed at a more general audience. It is reproduced here with acknowledgement to John Mark Ministries in Australia. —Thomas ScarboroughI speak about a holy mystery: the call that God extends to some to serve him in ministry or missions. The Catholics call it vocation. For them it would include the call to the priesthood, or the call to the religious life of nuns and monks: that special call that sets the recipient apart from the people, and puts him/her into a separated position, where he/she presents God to the people and the people to God.
Of course, there is also the call of Jesus to ‘Follow me,’ which is directed to everyone. And so everything that I say about that special call also applies in some way to every follower of Jesus.
I had the privilege of investigating this topic in my doctoral research, where I studied the sense of call of missionaries. In this talk, I share with you a section of my findings—and conclude by looking at aspects of the divine call from the biblical perspective.
I conducted my research on Mennonite women in mission in Africa—between 1930 and the late 20th century. I shall tell you more about the Mennonites in due course.
The information for my thesis was gathered in North America, where the women originated. I conducted interviews with the women, and studied archival material that was stored at mission headquarters. The archival material included the women’s application forms submitted to the mission board, and also their missionary correspondence with their home board.
Before I got started, I had to formulate a hypothesis which, through my research, I would test. My hypothesis was: that a sense of call acts as a significant support factor for the missionaries in their mission experience. In other words, I assumed that those with a clear sense of call would cope much better with the missionary challenges than those without a sense of call—those who had, for example, followed their husbands into missions because of their husbands' sense of call.
I soon became aware that many missionaries in my case study were struggling. Some time during the 1990's, for example, all women missionaries of a particular mission organization were on some form of tranquilizers or anti-depressants. The more I investigated, the more I became aware of missionary breakdowns and even dropout. Of course, there are many intense stresses attached to missionary life—but the more attrition stories I heard, the more I began to wonder if perhaps there was a connection between the women’s interpretation of their call and their significant missionary wear and tear.
Perhaps this is the point where I should share a little more about who the Mennonites are:
If you have never heard of Mennonites before, you have probably heard of the Amish. They live mostly in America today, and are commonly known for wearing plain dark clothes and driving buggies drawn by horses. The Mennonites and the Amish are two branches with the same Anabaptist roots—the word Anabaptist meaning re-baptizer. The Anabaptists were a Reformation movement that had its beginnings in the 16th century, at about the time of Martin Luther, Huldrich Zwingli, and (a little later) John Calvin. The Anabaptists were found mainly in Switzerland, Holland and Germany.
Unlike the Catholics and the mainline Protestant church, they rejected infant baptism and practised believer’s baptism instead. In addition, they placed a strong emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount. It was their spiritual goal to follow the call of the humble Christ, and to follow the model of Jesus the suffering servant. Because they did not fully fit in, either with the mainline Protestants or with the Catholics, they were severely persecuted by both.
The Anabaptists were originally a movement with a strong missionary spirit. But through the trauma of persecution, they eventually lost their missionary courage, and withdrew into small geographical enclaves.
They only rediscovered their missionary spirit through the missionary revival that swept the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches of the West in the 19th century.
The older women included in my study were still strongly influenced by this new, missionary spirit – which was clear from the way that they described their sense of call, and the conditions that the mission organization set for them.
As I surveyed the details of their calls, I looked for potential burdens on the missionaries – through the way they interpreted their sense of call.
There was some telling evidence. Time is limited, so I can only share with you a very limited selection of the evidence—but I hope the examples will serve to paint the bigger picture:
Firstly, we find evidence of an unreaslistic view that many missionaries had of themselves and of God.
On the older application form, we find the question that is rooted in the revivalist Protestant theology of that time:
Q: Do you believe that personal effort to lead souls to Christ is the paramount duty of every missionary?Here we find that a whole generation of missionaries entered the mission field thinking that through their personal effort they could convert people to Christ. Of course, the Bible tells us it is the Holy Spirit who converts a heart, not us—no matter how much effort we put in. All we can do is witness.
A: Yes, I believe it is.
Q: Do you propose to make such effort the chief feature of your missionary career, no matter what other duties may be assigned to you?
On a later application form, we find some specific Mennonite burdens that the women wove into their sense of call. Here we read the following statement that they needed to sign:
We believe that Christ lived and taught the way of life as recorded in the Scriptures, which is God’s plan for individuals and the race, and that it becomes disciples of Christ to live in this way, thus manifesting in their personal and social life and relationships the love and holiness of God.You have probably noticed the burden here: ‘It becomes disciples to live the life that Christ lived and taught.’ Unless you are a believer who has a realistic view of himself / herself, to live a life like Christ, as a fallible sinner, is a simple impossibility. It puts the believer under pressure virtually to become a little christ, which no matter how hard they try, they will never be.
There are other factors that can taint our sense of call, and have a destructive impact on it. These also have to do with how we see ourselves, and how we see God. In my research, such ‘foreign’ factors were to be seen particularly in missionaries who had had their first stirrings of a sense of call at an impressionably young age.
I would like respectfully to share with you some of these testimonies. I do this because here, too, we often find in seminal form some of the burdens of the sense of call that I had begun to look for.
We can romanticize the sense of call. One woman told me about an incident in her childhood. She said:
A woman doctor from India came to our Sunday school. I remember she was talking about India. But what I remember most is that she said: ‘Maybe God will call one of you children here to be a missionary.’ And at that moment I thought: ‘Maybe it’s me!’A few years later she had a similar experience,
I remember one time another missionary from India dressed me in one of those Indian Saris.Another kind of burden which may be experienced is if we knowingly or unknowingly want to fulfill somebody else’s expectations. One missionary remembered that it had always been her mother’s dream for her children to become missionaries. She told me:
My mother had sisters in China and in the Congo and in India as missionaries—and she had always wanted to be a missionary, but she felt that God called her to marry my father … but she was very anxious to have her children be missionaries.Another missionary had a strong desire to help. This can be healthy, but there is also such a thing as a helper complex, that can play into our sense of call. She said:
In my mother’s Sunday school class, she had contact with the Philippine islands. And there were people there, and she had letters and ways in which our children in our church could help people in the Philippines, and we were doing things, and getting money, and getting little packages ready to send to the Philippine islands. My mother was giving her Sunday school children the idea of helping people who weren’t in our country but who had very big needs, and they lived in other countries. And I think that may have even been the beginning of my sense of call.Another missionary remembered that one of the factors that attracted her to the missionary calling was that it was a challenge. From early childhood, she had been attracted to the wild life, and as an adult this still influenced her missionary decisions. She told me:
I think - if it’s not a challenge, it’s not worth doing!All these women became missionaries whose work was richly blessed, and who, as far as I can discern, were really called by God. But if we take a closer look at how they described their early sense of call we can make out some human elements, human burdens woven into their divine call. I am only able to select a few such factors here.
The fact that all these women were blessed by God in their missionary service seems to indicate that they were really called by God. But they have something else in common. With all of them, their sense of call went through some real crisis during their service.
These were the kinds of crises where God challenged the two most important aspects of their sense of call. Firstly, he challenged the view they had of themselves and the nature of their calling, and secondly he challenged the view they had of God the caller. And every time, this merciful intervention by God led them to repentance.
I shall use the example of the woman who always needed a challenge in her life, to illustrate what I mean. I use her, because she was particularly good at reflecting and at formulating her experiences, although the others had similar experiences.
She had chosen one of the most difficult mission settings that you can imagine. She and her family lived in a Muslim African country in a village where they were the only foreigners, and they lived as much as possible as the locals did. While she seemed to be able to cope with this, two crisis areas began to emerge. Firstly, her marriage began to suffer seriously—and secondly, one of her daughters began to show severe signs of not being able to cope with bi-cultural life as an American in Africa—to the point of suicide. These crises drove the missionary to her limits, and eventually to repentance for having put her family and herself through too much stress, because she had mixed her need for adventure with her true calling. In the process, she arrived at a new view of herself and the God who had called her. This is how she described her changed view of God:
At the start of our mission, I lapsed more into studying the Bible in more of an intellectual way. And that would be the way my husband would study it too. We kind of studied it to learn things.But through the crisis, God revealed himself in a completely new way to her. She said:
But then these things started happening with our family, and then I had to run to God for comfort. And so then the Psalms took on a new meaning, and the Bible became a devotional book instead of something to learn things from. … When I returned to the US for a break, I was just so burned out and down! And I’d go to (my) prayer group, and I think the first month I cried through all the singing every time. And some of the people there hardly even knew me! And I couldn’t say anything. I just cried and cried. Everything that was stored up in there. And in the process the promises of God became just so overwhelming! Some of it was grief, but some of it was that renewal of God’s presence.As you can see, the Lord broadened her view of Himself the divine caller—from someone who challenged her to give her all by pushing the limits in her mission work, to also being the God of comfort.
About her changed view of herself she said:
… when there were struggles, I used to always put the blame on others. I have done an awful lot of that! My husband especially has taken the brunt of that. … And so when we struggled, I just pointed fingers and said, well it all comes from you! Today I cannot say that any more, and that’s hard—but it’s very, very good for me to go through that! And I will be more usable by God because of it. So I am thankful for it. But it’s hard, it really is hard! Emotionally it really brings you down, because you realize you’re kind of dependent on it for some kind of security. And when that’s gone—I’m not who I thought I was—it’s unsettling, it’s very unsettling!If time would allow, I could share with you many more illustrations that a true call from God needs to be purified over time.
Most people with a sense of call start off knowing relatively little about themselves and their motivations, and have a relatively narrow view of God. During the purification process, we get to know ourselves better and get to know God better.
Therefore the most important finding of my dissertation is that a sense of call acts as a significant support factor—if it is accompanied by a realistic sense of oneself and of God. And this realistic sense of self and of God usually comes about by God bringing us to our limits, and bringing us to repentance, and enlarging our view of ourselves and of God.
To finish off, let’s briefly turn to the word of God to anchor in Scripture that which we have been speaking about. Let’s turn to Isaiah 6:3-8, which deals with the calling of Isaiah. Here we read:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory. … ‘Woe to me! I cried, I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’ Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.From this passage, we see that a true calling does not start with a vision of what may be done, or what will be, or even what God wants me to do. A true calling, rather, is a deep realization of what is not—and what we human beings are without God. A calling must over and over again return to the point where we see what cannot be brought about through human effort. That includes the realization that we cannot truly minister without God. A true calling must over and over again return to the point where we realize our total poverty in the hands of the Almighty God.
In this way, the one who is called must become ‘involved in the reality of God’, and must not try to pull down God to become involved in his/her vision. This means that a true calling must go through many moments of true repentance where our view of ourselves is readjusted and also our view of God. May God grant to all of us a tender heart that is not too proud to declare that we are and remain people of unclean lips who need to be cleansed continually and that he is the holy God the Almighty.