Callings in Childhood: How to Help Children Grow in Their God-Given Callings

Tomorrow morning, I have the privilege of teaching a workshop at a conference (the LEAD Conference for the Potomac District of the Assemblies of God). The topic is about how to affirm and support children in their God-given callings in life. The content of the workshop comes from my recent research about calling. Here is the full outline if you’re interested:

His Hesed Endures Forever

The Crucifixion by Georges Rouault (c. 1920s)

Here is the sermon I preached yesterday at Eternity Church in Richmond, VA:

“His Hesed Endures Forever,” March 27, 2022, by Jesse Joyner

Scriptures: Psalm 136, Micah 6:8, and 1 John 4:7-12

The Ironman

I have been a fan of the game of baseball my entire life. My mother got me into it. She herself grew up in Detroit and was a Detroit Tigers fan as a little girl. She was so dedicated that she would secretly listen to games on a handheld radio under her pillow at night, adjusting the volume to the sweet spot where it was loud enough that she could hear but soft enough that her parents thought she was getting her rest for school the next day. For her, it was worth breaking a few of life’s rules in order to enjoy a good baseball game. When I grew up, we lived here in Central Virginia, and the closest Major League Baseball team at the time was the Baltimore Orioles. Due to their proximate nature, by default they became “my team.” I rooted for them, followed their progress in the newspapers, and on special occasions, our family would make the three hour trip to Baltimore to see them play in person.

I can still remember the first game I ever attended. It was the summer of 1988 and to my memory it was the largest gathering/stadium I had ever seen in my seven years of life at that point. We had tickets in the nosebleed section because my father was on a pastor’s salary. But that didn’t take away my joy in the moment because it was enough to just be there. I vividly recall the moment we found our seats and I peered down on the tiny-looking ball players on the field. Standing in the shortstop position was a familiar figure I had only seen on my precious collectible baseball cards – my favorite player: Cal Ripken, Jr. Now, you may or may not have heard that name before, but in 1980s baseball, Cal Ripken, Jr. was kind of like today’s Lebron James or Tom Brady or Serena Williams. He was a superstar athlete who played hard, played exceptionally well, and played consistently.

In fact, Ripken is best known for that last trait – consistency. His nickname was and still is “The Ironman.” He holds the matchless distinction as the player who played the longest career without ever missing a game. He played 2,632 consecutive major league baseball games – that is a span of sixteen years of playing a sport at the highest level and never missing a game – a game where players are frequently benched for underperforming, getting injured, taking performance enhancing drugs, or otherwise taking time off from their team’s schedule. And during that time, he didn’t “just show up.” He showed up every day and played with skill, proficiency, respect for others, and respect for the game. In sum, he was both good and dependable.

See where I’m going with this? God is both Good and Dependable, this time with a capital “G” and a capital “D.” God’s love is consistent, steadfast, enduring, merciful, and compassionate. This morning I don’t want to praise Cal Ripken. His story of endurance represents merely a faint shadow of the reality that is the enduring and pursuing love of God towards us. I want to talk more about this love and what it means. I want us to learn together about this great love God has for us and how he calls us to extend that same love to those around us.

Psalm 136

If Psalm 136 sounds especially familiar to you here at Eternity Church, it is because Pastor David preached on “steadfast love” just six weeks ago. “Steadfast love” is the repeated refrain of Psalm 136. I asked Pastor David if I could carry on the theme of steadfast love in this sermon as a kind of “Steadfast Love, Part 2” and he said something along the lines of, “Of course, that’s the whole point of steadfast love is that you can’t get enough of it.” I agree. The steadfast love of the Lord goes on and on. We could do a sermon on God’s love every week for the rest of our lives and never reach the end of it. 

Psalm 136 is an antiphonal song – that is, it is meant to be sung back and forth between two parties. In this Psalm, one party declares a characteristic or work of the Lord. Then the other party sings back “his love endures forever.” This pattern is repeated 26 times. You may be familiar with the modern take on this Psalm from worship leader Chris Tomlin (sing a short portion of the song: “Give thanks to the Lord, our God and King….His love endures forever…”).

Repetition is found throughout Scripture, and for good reason. We as forgetful humans need all the reminders we can get about the nature of God – especially his love. Think about your own endearing human relationships – those with whom you are the closest. Have you ever said to them, “you don’t have to tell me that you love me or that you’re there for me anymore, you’ve already told me that enough times.” Of course not! We need to hear “I love you” on an endless loop. We never really reach the end of that road in terms of our need for love. Why? Because we are made in God’s image, who is perfect and complete love. And the only one who can fully satisfy our deepest longing for being loved is God himself.

Hesed

Psalm 136 is thus one of God’s gifts of love to us – itself a ceaseless reminder of his love for us. In fact, the key term in the repeated phrase, “his steadfast love endures forever” is arguably, “steadfast love.” The Hebrew term here is hesed, which is loaded with meaning that stretches beyond the sometimes ambiguous English term “love.” We say in English, “I love pizza,” or “I love the VCU Rams.” But that is not hesed.

Hesed is enduring love embedded in faithfulness. One of my college professors translated it as “covenant love.” In their best attempts, English translators over the years have named hesed as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love.” I think those older sounding phrases actually do capture the meaning of hesed better than the simple term, “love.” Again, hesed is about promise, loyalty, and commitment (See the entry for “hsd” by R. Laird Harris in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, edited by Harris, Archer, and Waltke [Chicago, IL: Moody, 1980], pp. 305-307). But it is also a love full of desire, enjoyment, and gladness. That is the love that God has for us. His love is the perfect co-mingling of promise and passion – a blend in which we as humans so miserably fail. Theologian James L. Mays says about Psalm 136: “The coordination of the items in the recitation with the refrain make it clear that hesed is action; the wonders are a performance of hesed.” He goes on, “The making of the universe and the salvation of the people of God are together a history of hesed. The Lord’s hesed is everlasting and fills all time” (James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), p. 420).

Gematria

I want to point out another interesting detail about Psalm 136 that comes from Jewish literary traditions – something called gematria. Gematria is a type of numerology. It is a way in which a Hebrew word communicates meaning through the use of its letters as corresponding to certain numbers. While finding codes and meanings in letters and numbers in the Bible has the potential for abuse and interpretation beyond the author’s intent, gematria is definitely a thing in the Bible and we can learn from it when applied appropriately (Matt 1:17; Rev 13:17-18; see Ronald Youngblood, “Divine Names in the Book of Psalms: Literary Structures and Number Patterns,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 19.1 [1989], p. 177). For example, you may already know the significance of the number seven in Jewish tradition – the number of completeness and fullness (See Elaine Goodfriend, “Seven, the Biblical Number” [https://www.thetorah.com/article/seven-the-biblical-number]). And seven is the culminating day of the week after God made the universe. Even Jesus uses numerology when he encourages Peter to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven times (Matt 18:22). He is not telling Peter to literally utter “I forgive you,” to his offender exactly 490 times (or 77 depending on the translation you’re using). Jesus is rather telling Peter to forgive with an enduring and longsuffering love – the same deep and wide forgiveness extended to us by God (R.T. France, Matthew: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995], p. 277). If I may, it is a hesed forgiveness.

So back to gematria. Again, gematria is taking a Hebrew word and assigning a number to each of the letters. Those numbers then add up to a sum total number that communicates something to the reader. Matthew used gematria in his genealogy of Jesus when he went to great lengths for his primarily Jewish audience to point out that “there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile of Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to Christ” (Matt 1:17). The number 14 is the sum total of the numbers that correspond to the letters found in the Hebrew name for David (France, p. 75). Matthew wanted his readers to know in neon lights that this baby Messiah came from the house of David, which was previously promised in the Jewish scriptures (2 Sam 7:12-16; Is 11:1; Jer 23:5-6). In fact, in 2 Samuel 7, the Lord speaks to David through the prophet Nathan concerning David’s offspring: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:13). The Lord continues, “my love [hesed] will never be taken away from him” (2 Sam 7:15).

Have I lost you yet? Here’s where I’m going with all this: There is gematria in Psalm 136. Remember how many times “his love endures forever” is repeated? Yes, 26 times. Guess what Hebrew name’s letters add up to 26? Yahweh – the name of the LORD. Thus, we have in Psalm 136 Yahweh’s very personal and repetitive reminder of his enduring, steadfast, merciful, and passionate love for us.

Hesed Towards Others

The hesed love of God is not just something that God extends to us. He summons us to pass that hesed on to others. In one of the great summaries of Scripture, Micah 6:8, the prophet Micah tells us that the Lord is not looking for obligatory offerings from His people, but rather three things: for us to (1) act justly, (2) love kindness, and (3) walk humbly with our God. When Micah says that second item, “love kindness,” he is using hesed for “kindness,” which means we are called to love hesed. I take this to mean that hesed is not only a character trait of God, but it is also a calling upon all of us – to love God’s enduring love so much that we share his hesed love with the world around us. How do we do that? We find the answer in our New Testament reading, 1 John 4. According to John, we are conduits of God’s love to the world around us. We love only because he first loved us. Love begins with God, flows to us, through us, and into others around us. Likewise, we receive the love of God from others around us who are the conduits of His love. I’ll read 1 John 4:10 again to let it sink in: “This is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Not A Single Bone Shall Be Broken

When I speak at children’s events, I tell the story of Jesus and his ministry on earth. I point out that Jesus was the only human in history who lived a perfect life – because he was both God and human at the same time. I then explain to them the story of how Jesus was betrayed, arrested, put on trial, and subsequently put on a cross. I tell them that the cross was a terrible way to die – it was the punishment back then that was reserved for the really bad guys. Then I ask them, “but was Jesus a bad guy?” They say, “No.” That’s when I say, “So, Jesus did not die on the cross because he deserved to. He died on the cross because he loves you.” That’s 1 John 4:10: God’s love is that he “sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” What is propitiation? Some versions use the terms “atonement” or “sacrifice.” Propitiation is the act of satisfying the wrath of God, in this context, against the sin of the world. We also know that Jesus accepted this call, albeit with reluctance in his humanity. He told his father in prayer, “If you are willing, take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42a). But we know Jesus did not maintain this reluctance. For the very next thing he said was, “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42b). We further know that Jesus died out of enduring and hesed love for us because of a small detail John leaves us in the crucifixion account. You see, shortly after Jesus and the two criminals beside him were placed on the crosses, the Jews petitioned Pilate to speed up the process so that no bodies would be left on a cross during the Sabbath, which was fast approaching. Pilate sent guards to do just that. What did they do to speed up the process? Break the legs of the crucified. That would accelerate the death of the punished because as long as their legs worked, they could still push themselves up a little to gasp for every last breath of air in an effort to stay alive. John says,

So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs (John 19:32-33).

John himself interprets this as a fulfillment of Scripture, from which the Israelites were given instructions not to break the bones of their passover lambs (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12; see John 19:36). I also see something very telling in this physical detail. And I could be wrong about this, but I have a guess based on the evidence we do have in Scripture. My guess is that Jesus physically accepted the consequences of the cross without trying to fight back against it. Here’s what I mean: The two criminals were still alive when the guards approached them to break their legs. Jesus was not. What is the difference between the criminals and Jesus? The criminals were probably trying to extend their life and breath as long as humanly possible, as if to try to reverse their punishments if even for a few more moments. You see, once a crucified person’s legs are broken, their body weight shifts from being held by the legs to being held by the “shoulders and chest, and the prisoner would suffocate in a few minutes” (Michael Card, The Parable of Joy [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995], p. 228). Jesus, on the other hand, gave himself up for us before the guards even got to him for this final blow. He did not fight against his Father’s calling. He lovingly poured out his hesed for us on that cross. Again, not because of anything he did, but rather because his love for us is that great. That is one reason why I think when they came to Jesus, they did not have to break his legs. 

The Jumbotron

I want to take you back to Baltimore for a moment. Years after my first visit to an Orioles game, my mother took me back for a mother-son date. For several years in my preteen and early teen years, my Mom had a tradition of treating me to a trip to an Orioles game for my birthday. We would drive up to the game together, go out for dinner overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and then walk over to the Orioles game. And just like my first trip, even these birthday trips were in the nosebleed seats. I never complained about that because for me it was a birthday gift enough just to attend an Orioles game with my mother. The trip experience for my 13th birthday was a memorable one and I’ll tell you why. At the start of the game, we found our seats in the far left field section – in the upper deck. We were so far from the game that you needed binoculars to see the batters and you could forget about seeing all the player stats and replays on the jumbotron in center field. Only the expensive seats had a straight on view of the jumbotron. At around the third or fourth inning (there are nine total), my mother started acting restless and suggested that we get up and find some better seats in another section. This was a bit out of character for Mom. She was, after all, the woman who raised me to be an honest person who follows rules and stays in their assigned seat. I was becoming a teenager, and thus I was old enough to know that you can’t just get up and take seats in another section at a Major League Baseball game. That was essentially stealing a more expensive seat from the Orioles franchise. I was a fan, and I wasn’t about to take from my team’s earnings. I also knew they had ushers in each section who would check your tickets, especially so in the nicer sections. I told my mother I was fine sitting in our seats and that I was having a great time. But she persisted. Another inning or two went by – she kept saying, “let’s get up and move over there,” and I kept saying, “Mom, I’m really good, I can see the game from here.” But she endured. By the sixth inning, she said, “Get up, Jesse, we’re going to a better section.” She grabbed her things and headed for the stairs. So as not to be alone on my birthday, I followed my mother in all of her disobedient behavior. She led us to a nicer section indeed. A mid-level tier with a superb perch over third base – and a straight on view of the flashy jumbotron. She scurried past the ushers with me in tow, acting like she owned the place so as not to make it appear that we, in fact, were not mid-level tier paying customers. She found two empty seats and plopped us down just in time for the middle of the sixth inning. I felt rushed and confused, but at least we were sitting down with some better seats. Then my mother said, “Hey, look at the big screen.” I paid attention to the jumbotron. Suddenly, the in-park speakers blared out, you guessed it, birthday music. And there it was, in large letters, for thirty thousand Orioles fans to see (and maybe even Cal Ripken himself), “Happy 13th birthday, Jesse Joyner, love Mom.”

I sat there in shock and gratefulness. My name was in lights at Baltimore’s Camden Yards. I felt so loved and thought of. And in an instant, all of my mother’s strange behavior and persistent insistence that we move made perfect sense. When she originally bought tickets for this special occasion, she did not know that our seats would not have a view of the jumbotron. She needed to change that for the occasion to be special. I can’t help but get emotional recalling that moment because it was such a simple gift, yet it was given with the endless love of a mother. You could say it was the hesed love of a mother. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. She broke a few of life’s rules out of great love for her son. On top of all that, she spent extravagantly considering our low family income at the time. Whatever that message cost her, it was certainly more than we were used to getting as kids growing up.

God is that kind of father to us. He chases us. He endures for us. He is constantly and lovingly calling us to a better place – even when we are comfortable and content with where we are. He shows us that there is something better on the other side of the stadium. And we won’t know what that is until we get up and follow him and sit with him. He might even shatter your understanding of norms and man-made rules along the way. That is the hesed love of God. May we grow in our understanding of it, receive it, and share His hesed with those around us.

A New Prayer About God’s Hesed in John

In closing, I want us to respond to this message of God’s unfathomable love for us by doing our own version of call and response with the phrase, “his hesed endures forever.” This is the fourth Sunday of Lent, so I am going to read out twenty-six expressions of the love of Jesus found in his years of public ministry leading up to the cross. I gathered these moments, more or less chronologically, from the book of John, which is the Gospel that most explicitly describes the love of God. After each one, we as a congregation will collectively recite, “his hesed endures forever.” I believe that the life and story of Jesus is the embodiment, or more accurately, the incarnation of Yahweh’s hesed love for us. Are we ready? This might take a few moments, so settle in and allow these narrative testimonies from the life of Jesus shape you and form you as you recite this liturgy:

To our Lord who called the disciples to follow with your compelling glance of love, and who also calls us with your patient face of grace and kindness…

His hesed endures forever

To our Lord who enthusiastically parties with us and celebrates covenant love by making an average wedding an awesome wedding…

His hesed endures forever

To Christ our Lord, who is jealous for the sanctity of his Father’s house, who tears apart consumerism to make space for prayer and worship in our lives…

His hesed endures forever

Give thanks to Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father, who gives us new birth in the Spirit…

His hesed endures forever

Who broke customary rules to speak to the Samaritan woman and offer her living water… 

His hesed endures forever

Who said to the royal official, “Your son will live” and it was so…

His hesed endures forever

Who said to a man unable to move for 38 years at the pool of Bethesda, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk,” and it was so…

His hesed endures forever

Who took a boy’s lunch and turned it into an abundant feast for thousands… 

His hesed endures forever

Who traversed over water like it was a marble floor… 

His hesed endures forever

To Jesus who promised that whoever comes to him will have streams of living water flow through them… 

His hesed endures forever

Who double-healed the man born blind by opening both his physical eyes as well as his spiritual eyes… 

His hesed endures forever

To Jesus our good shepherd who calls us by name, leads us out, and lays down his life for us… 

His hesed endures forever

Who called out to a dead Lazarus and with the two words, “Come out,” displayed your resurrection power for all to see…

His hesed endures forever

Whose very presence calls for gratuitous offerings, like Mary’s perfume…

His hesed endures forever

To the humble and victorious king, who rides triumphantly on a donkey… 

His hesed endures forever

Who kneels down and washes the dirty feet of your followers… 

His hesed endures forever

Who promised us the empowering presence of your Holy Spirit… 

His hesed endures forever

Who calls us to abide in you… 

His hesed endures forever

Who gives us eternal life… 

His hesed endures forever

Who prays that we may be one as you and the Father are one… 

His hesed endures forever

Who abides in us… 

His hesed endures forever

To Jesus who accepted his call to the cross out of love for us… 

His hesed endures forever

Who suffered unjustly… 

His hesed endures forever

Who died a criminal’s death, though not a criminal…

His hesed endures forever

Who cried, “It is finished”…

His hesed endures forever

To him who willingly gave his life for us out of love, who did not fight for survival on the cross, but rather accepted the call of his Father, to the point that the soldiers did not have to accelerate the death sentence by breaking his legs, as it is written: “Not one of his bones will be broken”…

His hesed endures forever. Amen. 

Children Now Workshop

Click here to register

Friends, I have some exciting news! I will be facilitating a children’s ministry workshop on Apr 2nd and the full-day cost is ONLY $10! All the info is right here below….

Ascent College | Children Now

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022 | 10 AM – 3 PM | $10 per person

Bethel Temple Church – 1705 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666

703-753-2791 / info@ascent.edu

Children Now

Join us for a day full of fun, interactive learning as we explore how and why children matter NOW in the church community. Not only are children the future of the church, but they are the NOW of the church. Nearly a third of the world’s population is under 18, which means they matter in the world and in God’s plans in the world. We believe that children can fully experience God and live out their callings even now. They don’t have to wait until they grow up to do big things for God. Furthermore, Jesus held up children as role models of faith, which means that as adults, we need to shift our view of children and begin seeing them as ones who can teach us about faith and Spirit-filled living. Join us as we learn how to have a church that actively involves children in the intergenerational worshipping community – not tomorrow, but NOW.

Event Schedule – April 2nd. 2022

There will be two workshop modules – one for ALL ministry leaders and volunteers (the morning) and the second for Children’s Ministry leaders, parents, and volunteers (the afternoon). You may attend one or both modules. The workshops are designed to be collaborative and interactive rather than lecture-centered. Dr. Joyner will act more as a facilitator of learning than a lecturer. Please come with your own stories, ideas, and experiences of how the larger church can spiritually grow with and from children. There will be opportunities for participants to contribute ideas from their own churches regarding how to integrate children into the wider worshipping community.

Workshop A – Geared toward all church leaders and volunteers

10am………..Ministry with Children

11am……………..Intergenerational Ministry

11:45am……………….How to Support Your Children’s Leaders, Parents, and Volunteers

LUNCH HOUR 12:15pm

(on your own but encouraged to go out in groups to continue networking and fellowshipping)

Workshop B – Geared toward Children’s Ministry leaders and volunteers

1:15pm………..Five Fun and Awesome Children’s Ministry Ideas You Can Use This Sunday

2:15pm……………..Self-Care and Simplicity (or “How to Avoid Burnout”)

3:00pm……………………Teaching the Bible to Children

Workshop Facilitator

Workshop facilitator Jesse Joyner (PhD) is a children’s evangelist/entertainer, former children’s pastor, and professor at Ascent College. Dr. Joyner has over twenty years of experience speaking and ministering internationally with tens of thousands of children at churches, children’s camps, and other Christian outreach events. He still volunteers once a month for the children’s ministry at his home church in Richmond, VA. He and his wife, Sarah, have three school-aged children and are learning about God daily from and through their own kids. Dr. Joyner earned his PhD in Educational Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Click Here to Register Today!

Holy Street Sweeping

My First Job

Do you remember your first job? My first job was working as a waiter and dishwasher at Gayton Terrace, an assisted living community in the far West End of Henrico County. I was in high school at the time, about to get my learner’s permit for driving, and my parents were not the type to pass out free cash to their kids. Not that they had much anyway. So the first few months on the job, my mother drove me to and from work.

On that first day, I showed up at the kitchen of this assisted living home of about a hundred residents. The dining hall manager handed me my nametag, a maroon apron, and taught me how to use a punch clock (“ka-chunk”). I was set to earn a cool $4.25 an hour – minimum wage in 1995. Once I set foot in the kitchen, the first task I was given was loading and running the dishwasher.

Now, I don’t know if you have had experience with washing dishes in a commercial kitchen, but it is not glamorous. You scrape other’s people food off plates, liquids are splashing everywhere, the massive dishwasher is loud and hot. I learned the ropes and they left me alone with the dishwasher for the rest of my three-hour shift (the maximum number of hours a minor could work on a school night).

I still remember that three-hour period fairly clearly to this day. The reason is because it was not at all what I expected work to feel like in this world. Sure, my parents raised me to work hard, do my chores, and find satisfaction in a job well done. But this felt different. Here in the Gayton Terrace kitchen I found myself cleaning other peoples’ dishes and submitting to orders from bosses that were not my parents. I felt a very palpable sense of despair during those three hours – because I reasoned that I was going to have to work for the rest of my life to provide for myself and make a living. And no matter the work I envisioned myself doing for the rest of my life, I figured it would be hard and toilsome, like scrubbing the dishes of strangers.

In hindsight, I can guess that my despair stemmed from two sources: first is the fact that I am a human and work on this earth is hard and not always fun. Secondly (and related to the first), I was raised in the church, where more often than not the meaning and theology of work is cast in the light of Genesis chapter 3 rather than Genesis chapters 1 and 2.

Work in Genesis 1-3

Let me explain. Have you ever seen a painting or depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? If you do a quick survey of Adam and Eve in art history, there are generally two categories of paintings: before the Fall (when they sinned against God by partaking of the forbidden fruit) and after the Fall. The “before the Fall” paintings usually show Adam and Eve lounging (or maybe strolling) in the verdant paradise garden as if they’re on the promenade deck of a luxury cruise ship, surrounded by happy creatures and colorful foliage. The “after the Fall” paintings depict Adam and Eve in some state of shame, darkness, or performing grueling labor upon the land outside the boundaries of Eden. Now, the image of Adam and Eve toiling by the sweat of their brows is a Biblical one. After they sinned, the Lord did said to Adam:

“…cursed is the ground because of you;  in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;   and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face  you shall eat bread…” (Gen 3:17-19).

We often view the work of our hands – our Monday through Friday work in such a light. It is true that human work has been tainted and cursed by the fallenness of humanity. But work is not the result of fallenness. Let me say that a different way: while work and labor can be toilsome, difficult, and even exploitative when abused by bad actors, work itself is not inherently an evil thing. I want to make the case that work is inherently of God – that work is originally sacred – and that our vocational endeavors, from banking to preaching to grandparenting, can and should be redeemed by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and consecrated up unto God the Father as a holy sacrificial offering.

Here is how we know that work is originally good and of God. In Genesis chapter 1, God is the first one who works when he creates the universe. In Genesis 2, we know this creating is considered work because he rested “from all his work” on the seventh day (Gen 2:2). Even nature works: God mandated the land to “produce vegetation” (Gen 1:11) while he ordered the moon and sun to administer over the night and day (Gen 1:14-18). He also orders the humans to work. He called them to “rule” over the creatures (Gen 1:26), to “be fruitful and increase in number,” and to “subdue” the earth (Gen 1:28).

But in Genesis 2:15, we see a very telling verse that I believe that many of those artists of history missed out on when depicting Adam and Eve in the garden before the Fall. The text says in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” You see, even before we sinned, we were called to steward God’s creation and to create within it. There is, therefore, such as thing as sanctified work. Yes, our sin came and messed up work. But God in his redemptive love through Jesus Christ has called us to work in our Father’s world in ways that bring heaven to earth. Where there is darkness in work, we can bring light. Where there is brokenness in the world of work, we can bring healing. Where there is chaos in the marketplace, we can bring order. Where there is division and injustice in the workplace, we can be the bearers of reconciliation and righteousness – infused with the resurrection power of God, who, according to Romans 4:17, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Cobblers and Street Sweepers

I believe this redemptive approach to our working lives applies to all levels of work and most any type of work. The apostle Paul says in Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Martin Luther the Reformer said in the 1500s:

Therefore, just as Those who are now called ‘spiritual’ - priests, bishops or popes - are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them….A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.[1]

Several centuries later, another Martin Luther, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said something very similar: 

"If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne (leon-teen) Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’"[2]

Nestor

One day I was mowing grass in my front yard and my postal worker came walking up the sidewalk to deliver our mail. I powered down the mower to greet him and we exchanged pleasantries. His name is Nestor, and he has always been a friendly, faithful, dedicated postal worker. He handed me some letters and turned around to head to the next house. As he walked away, I thanked him for his great work as a postal carrier. He responded, “I do it for the Lord!”

I didn’t stop him to ask what he meant by that. He was on a delivery schedule after all. But as I turned my mower back on and zig-zagged through my yard I couldn’t help but ponder that one line from a postal service worker. I don’t even know if I needed to ask him what he meant, though, because he already exhibited what “doing it for the Lord” means in the way I have witnessed his work – cheerful, humble, dedicated, and service-minded. It also caused me to wonder about the inherent sacredness found in his work (and other kinds of work as well). Think about it – the role of his work is that of serving others by delivering messages from one person to another. In the redemptive imagination, his work is that of an angel. Angels deliver messages. That is important work. That is sacred work. I believe this exercise in imagination can apply to most jobs. Think about a certain job and you can see the shadow of heaven behind it. Doctors bring healing. Lawyers and judges seek justice. Financial advisors help people steward resources. Street sweepers provide sanitation, safety, and beauty. The list goes on. Of course, any of these jobs (yours and mine included) can be abused for evil. But as Christians I believe we are called to be the ambassadors of the redemptive work of heaven in whatever work we find ourselves on this earth.

1 Peter 4:10

We have all been endowed with different gifts, talents, abilities, and resources in this world. Our calling is to steward those things to the ends of serving others and bringing glory to God, no matter the task. Listen to Peter’s first letter:

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Theologian Frederick Buechner said it this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[3] And you may recall the film Chariots of Fire, in which the Olympic runner and believer in Christ Eric Liddell said, “[God] made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.”[4] He was speaking to his sister, who wanted him to become a missionary to China. He did eventually serve in China, but he wanted to make a point to his sister that for him, competitive running was just as sacred a calling as serving as a missionary in China. He ran unto the Lord

Bezalel Made the Ark

What does that look like in your daily work, whatever it may be? How can you view your daily endeavors as unto the Lord? We find clues in our main passage today – the story of the artist Bezalel. Bezalel was the head artisan for the tabernacle – the mobile sanctuary used by Moses and the Hebrew people as they wandered through the desert. Bezalel and his team fashioned the curtains, the lampstand, the priestly garments, the altars and other creative details of the sanctuary. But his most well-known piece is arguably the ark of the covenant itself – the cherubim adorned golden chest that contained the ten commandments and other relics important to the spiritual life of Israel. Here is the passage from Exodus 35:

30 Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, 32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft (Ex 35:30-33). 

This is an example of God calling someone to specific work in the Old Testament. It displays that there are multiple meanings of calling in Scripture, depending on the context. For example, the primary calling of all believers is to, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “belong wholly” to Jesus Christ.[5] In fact, when Paul opens his letter to the church in Rome, he plainly says, “And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:6, NIV). But we also see God calling people to specific tasks and roles in Scripture, as exemplified here in the story of Bezalel. God called Bezalel to be an artist. God gifted him with the necessary talents and skills to fulfill his calling. And part of his calling as an artist was to fashion the ark of the covenant. 

This is also the first time in Scripture that someone is said to be filled with the Spirit of God, which I find very interesting.[6] It is the first time the specific verb for “filled”[7] appears in relation to the Spirit of God. After Bezalel and his colleagues crafted the artistic elements for the tabernacle, Moses hosted a bit of a grand opening service for this tent of meeting. When he did so, the text says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex 40:34). And that was the same Hebrew verb for “filled” as the one used for Bezalel’s filling of the Spirit.[8]Thus, the work of the Spirit-filled artisan filled the sanctuary that would then be filled with the Spirit of God himself. God is at once the beginning, middle, and end of the work of our hands.

In fact, if you read all the way near the end of Exodus, you will find that Bezalel and his artist collective also made the garments for the priests (Aaron and his sons), including a golden crown for Aaron. Bezalel’s team etched an inscription in the crown: “Holy to the Lord.” What if we as Christians could follow in the example of Bezalel and metaphorically etch “Holy to the Lord” on everything that passes through our hands in our daily work?

The Ventriloquist

I asked a moment ago what this might look like for our working lives in the 21st Century. And when I say “working lives,” I’m not talking only about traditional nine-to-five work that involves a paycheck (though it includes that too). I’m also talking about raising children, caring for elderly parents, volunteerism, and pretty much any endeavor in life that involves creating things, serving others, or otherwise making order out of the chaos of life. How can we consecrate our work unto the Lord and let the Holy Spirit fill the work of our hands in all we do? Allow me an example from a ventriloquist friend of mine.

Yes, when you’re a juggler like me you have lots of weird friends, including ventriloquists. Oftentimes circus people like us feel inadequate or insignificant in the grand scheme of life. What do we really have to offer? Does our work matter? Is there anything remotely sacred about the absurd? We tend to think so. One day, my friend Gary did some visitation rounds at his local children’s hospital. He’s a believer, but he wasn’t preaching to or praying with patients in the traditional definition of those terms. He was simply going in and doing little puppet acts for the children to bring joy and laughter in an otherwise difficult situation for them and their families. Gary visited a quiet little boy named Tommy. Gary did a few banter jokes with his puppet: “…I can’t believe you would say something like that. If you were my child, I’d give you poison” to which the puppet replied, “If I was your child, I’d take the poison!” Tommy suddenly broke his silence and pointed at the puppet: “I really like him!”  Gary then recounted the powerful moment that followed, and I quote Gary here:

And then the room…something changes in the room. And somebody comes over and grabs my arm and says, ‘Keep him talking!’ So, I have the puppet say, ‘So what’s your name?’… ‘My name is Tommy,’ or whatever it was. So that turns out, the little boy had not said anything for months. So now the kid is talking to the ventriloquist puppet. So now the people are saying, like, whispering in my ear, ‘Ask him if it hurts.’ You know, [in puppet voice] ‘Does it hurt?’… [Tommy replies], ‘Yes.’ [end quote]

Gary said they then did this whole back-and-forth conversation between the doctor and Tommy with Gary and his puppet as the intermediaries. Gary and his God-given talent built a bridge that no one else could. Where doctors, nurses, and who knows how many other people were unable to get through to this suffering child, the puppet could. God had gifted Gary with skills that the world may view as childish in order to facilitate giving voice to a voiceless child. That is what I view as a sacred calling. That is a believer who does their work unto the Lord – faithfully administering the gifts he’s been given to serve others and ultimately to bring glory to God. And you never know when in your steadfast faithfulness to the call, God will do something miraculous right before your eyes.[9]

Bethlehem

When I was in college, I had the privilege of spending a semester studying abroad in Jerusalem. While there, I found opportunities to perform my juggling show at various venues. One was for a Palestinian elementary school in Bethlehem. The night before my show, I could hear gun and tank fire volleying between Jerusalem and Bethlehem – very close to where I was. It was the year 2000, and what came to be known as “The Second Intifada” was raging between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the morning, the headmaster of the school came and picked me up at my school. On the way to the show, he drove me through a town that had suffered a lot of the destruction I had heard the night before. It was very sad – a big hole in a building from a rocket, people sweeping up glass in the street. We then went to the nearby school for my show. There was nothing extraordinary about my show. I performed some tricks and told some jokes. The children laughed and expressed joy. After the show, the headmaster thanked me for bringing a smile to their faces that day. He said, “They really needed that, because during recess, they play funeral.” Death was their day-to-day experience in the real world. My show was a brief interruption to their darkness and brought a glimmer of light to their day. You see, you never know when the work of your hands, no matter how insignificant it feels (I mean, how many things are more insignificant than juggling?), will touch other people in a way that brings a little bit of heaven to earth for them.

Every Square Inch 

In closing, I want to invite you to think about your own daily work, whatever it may be. You may or may not see your daily work as your vocational calling. Maybe you’re still searching for what that is in your life. No matter where you are on that journey, I still believe we can consecrate our daily work unto the Lord as an offering of praise unto Him. We can ask for the Holy Spirit to fill us and fill our work with the light and life of God – so that others in the world may be served by our giftings, our talents, our skills, and our work. I wish I could have told my 15-year-old self that even in washing dishes for assisted living folks can I be the hands of Jesus….scrubbing, cleaning, praying, and worshipping through each load of the dishwasher. There was a 17th century monk known as Brother Lawrence. When he served in the kitchen as cook and dishwasher, he didn’t like it at first either. But he learned to enjoy the work when he saw it through the lens of doing “everything for the love of God, asking as often as possible for grace to do [the] work.”[10] We can, like Nestor the mailman, “do it all for Jesus.” Abraham Kuyper, who eventually became the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, said in a speech in 1880, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[11] Yes, Jesus is over every work, including the washing of dishes in a steaming kitchen at a retirement home when I was fifteen years old.

As Christians, we lay hands on missionaries and ministers as they go out into the fields of their vocational ministry, and we should. But what if we extended that prayer support into all fields of work? Below is a prayer I wrote as a corporate prayer of the people of God offering their daily work unto the Lord. I provide it here as one way in which the local church can offer commissioning prayers for people in all kinds of work:

Heavenly Father,

We offer unto you our daily work.

Fill us with your Spirit.

Sanctify the work of our hands,

That our roles, positions, vocations, and labors,

Would be done for your glory.

May our endeavors serve the needs of those around us

And fill your earth with healing, justice, reconciliation, and love.

Help us to steward our callings,

That they may be an acceptable offering of praise back unto you.

Amen.


[1] Martin Luther, “An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.” First published 1520. Introduction and Translation by C. M. Jacobs. Works of Martin Luther: With Introductions and Notes. Volume II (Philadelphia, PA: A. J. Holman Company, 1915). Accessed Feb 27, 2020. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/nblty-03.html

[2] This quote comes from a speech by Dr. King to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, PA in 1967. See https://youtu.be/kmsAxX84cjQ (quote starts at time-stamp 10:50) for the speech.

[3] Buechner, Fredrick. 1993. Wishful Thinking: A Seekers ABCRevised and Expanded. New York, NY: Harper Collins, p. 199.

[4] The scriptwriter for Chariots of Fire, Colin Welland, should technically be credited with the quote. There is no source of Eric Liddell saying or writing this quote in real life. Welland said in a letter to an inquiry about the quote that he came up with it for the film. But he believed that it reflected how Eric Liddell felt. See https://www.veritesport.org/?page=welland for the source of this information, including a link to an image of Welland’s signed statement about the quote (Hugh Hudson, director. Chariots of Fire. Original screenplay by Colin Welland, 20th Century Fox, 1981).

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ethics (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), p. 253.

[6] Technically, the first time is the parallel passage to this one found in Exodus 31:1-11. The Hebrew term for “filled” in these passages is male (Strong’s 4390 and Goodrick-Kholenberger number 4848).

[7] Hebrew male or mala (Strong’s 4390).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jesse Joyner, “Holy Fools” (PhD Dissertation, Trinity International University, 2021), pp. 150-151. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2622316783/74D2F35035A24815PQ/1

[10] This quote comes from Brother Lawrence’s friend, Joseph de Beaufort, in his description of Brother Lawrence (Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1992, p. 12).

[11] James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 13, 461, 488. 

Agents of Vocation

In my PhD research about Christian variety performers, I am coming across a theme known as “agents of vocation.” That term comes from scholar Kathleen Cahalan, who found in her own research that “many people first experience a sense of ‘calling’ through another person.” Someone spoke into their lives in a way that led them to take up a calling. She calls those affirming voices “agents of vocation.” But the opposite can happen as well. There can also be people who “discourage or deny a calling that a person may hear” (Cahalan and Miller-McLemore 2017, Calling All Years Good, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 19). I found the same theme in my research – people who speak into (or against) the callings upon Christian variety performers. And I found that those people are extremely influential and formative for the individuals who feel called (for better or for worse). I also found in one of my participants a story of an agent who served up both sides of the coin: he discouraged the performer early in life from chasing the calling of a juggler (the person thought he was crazy and wasteful with his master’s degree). But then twenty years later this same person apologized and said, “I’m glad I was wrong.”

You’re an agent in someone’s life. Consider how you can speak into that person and encourage them in their callings. You may see something about their gifts or calling that they have but haven’t yet named. And you could be the person to name it and nudge them in the direction of their God-given callings in life.

Stained glass piece by Atelier Miller, 2018. Juggling the Middle Ages, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. October 19, 2018 // Photo: Courtney Randolph

The above piece is based on the story of the Juggler of Notre Dame, a medieval tale about a juggler who discovers divine approval in his vocation as a performer despite antagonism from religious onlookers. The virgin Mary acts in the role of the “agent of vocation.”

The long dark tunnel still has a light at the end

My family recently visited the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel near Shenandoah National Park. Originally constructed as a train tunnel in the 1850s, the tunnel went defunct near the end of WWII (1944) when a newer tunnel was built close by to take it’s place. The old tunnel was left unused for some time, until just last year, when a 20-year construction project was completed to convert the tunnel into a hiking/biking path.Why did it take so long? Well, one unique feature about the tunnel is it’s length. At almost a mile long, the tunnel was the longest train tunnel in the United States when it was built. To restore such a long tunnel certainly takes a lot of time.
But another neat feature arises from that same detail: when you have such a long tunnel (which is still unlit, by the way), the effect of the “light at the end of the tunnel” is extremely captivating. Because it was left unlit, hikers and bikers must bring their own flashlights/headlamps. The tunnel is a straight line. So when you enter the long, dark tunnel, you can still see the light at the end – and it is a tiny dot of light.
This tiny dot of light serves as a sort of North Star for you as you march through the tunnel. Flashlights help, of course, but your mind and soul is drawn to that little dot at the end. It is the natural reminder that the tunnel and the darkness is not forever. If you press on in that direction, no matter how dark it feels in the moment, the light is there. And it slowly gets bigger and bigger.
See where I’m going with this? The past 12 months have been a long dark tunnel for our collective human existence. But the light at the end is there. We can see glimmers of it. And it is getting bigger and bigger each day. I believe the Lord is our light and our hope as we go through this darkness. May his light continually shine over you and through you today and everyday.

The Power of Affirmations

Can you think of a time when someone spoke life into you through an affirming word? Did anyone ever tell you, “You’re really good at that” or “You should consider doing such-and-such with your life, it would really help/serve others”?

I’m studying the topic of calling for my research and I am learning that we as humans act as participants in the calling process for one another. And it is a powerful force that can change the trajectory of someone’s life.

Someone might believe they are called by God to something and then God uses other humans to whisper affirmations in that person’s ear to confirm that calling. Or maybe someone doesn’t even know that God is calling them, but others around them can see a calling upon them that is as clear as day.

Think back to the times that people have affirmed you in your gifts, talents, and vocations. Then think about how you can pay it forward and speak an affirmation into someone else’s life around you. Pay attention to the gifts, talents, passions, and callings that you see in others. And prayerfully consider affirming that person through simple words of, “I have noticed that you’re really good at [fill-in-the-blank] and how much it means to others.”

The ABCs of Thankfulness

We continue our Eternity Kids Club series with two episodes for Thanksgiving! This is a ministry of our church in Richmond, VA (Eternity Church). Join Mr. Mike as he wanders around our house looking for things he’s thankful for….

The Masked Juggler

On Monday night, I experienced a first in my life: I performed an entire show while wearing a face mask. Here’s the story: a retirement home had originally booked my show for March 28th, but that date got postposed for obvious reasons. Skip ahead to September 2020 and now the retirement home is letting people onto their property (with safety protocols in place). They took my temperature at the gate and I proceeded to set up in the clubhouse for my show. Masks were required of course. And though I was informed I was free to unmask for my show (my audience was socially distanced with masks), I chose to keep the mask on due to this being a high-risk age group. I performed the show, which they all seemed to really love and appreciate, and I packed up my things and went home.

This experience caused me to ask myself a question: Why in the world is this retirement home full of people at a high-risk of getting sick asking me, a juggler, to come entertain them?

I believe it is because we humans, no matter our age or risk of sickness, need good live entertainment for the healing of our souls. Yes, I am arguing that comedians, entertainers, musicians, and variety performers are essential. Don’t believe me? Look at World War II. It was one of the most devastating times on earth in recent history, but you know who was traveling from base to base? Entertainers. It was the USO show* and comedians, musicians, and other entertainers would come and perform for the troops to boost morale. If even a world war couldn’t shut down the need for entertainers, what could?

You see, even in the worst of times (in fact, especially in the worst of times), entertainers are called upon to share their gifts with those who are suffering. Even the Bible says “a joyful heart is good medicine” (Prov 17:22). I am proud to be a live entertainer, and I will continue to share my gifts as safely as I can for whomever will watch and listen.

*For more about the USO shows in WW2, see this article here.

Emerging Cicada

My family and I were at a local playground a few evenings ago. I saw something curious on the side of a little playhouse. It looked like some sort of toy sticking out horizontally from the outer wall. I looked closer and it was moving!

It was a cicada. And we caught it during it’s moment of emerging from it’s exoskeleton (also known as the exuviae). I couldn’t help but think about how the new comes out of the old…..

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV

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