When I was a little girl, my family often gathered at a cafeteria for special occasions. I haven’t been in a cafeteria for years, but the last one I visited had little resemblance to the elegant dining establishments of my childhood. My mother and grandmother owned a business in the heart of downtown Miami, and directly across the street stood our cafeteria of choice. I remember sitting at formal tables with crisp white table clothes that caught the reflections of chandelier prisms as they scattered their rainbow-colored light across the ceiling. A pianist sat at the white grand piano in the center of the spacious dining area playing soft mood music as patrons enjoyed their meals. The scene could have been a collaborative effort between the producers of Casablanca and the designers of the Queen Mary, piano player and all. Sights, sounds, smells, and tastes engaged me from start to finish.
But as interesting as all the trappings were to my six-year-old eyes and ears, the truth remained that I was there for the food. Oh, the choices seemed endless as I worked my way down the line. My parents allowed me fill my tray with whatever I wanted, and I wanted everything. Of course, at the end of the meal most of my food remained uneaten. It would have been the perfect time for a lecture on all the starving children in China, but my parents chose to spare me the scolding as waiters quickly cleared our table and we left for home.
The cafeteria experience reminds me of the way I viewed ministry as a young Christian—so many choices in attractive settings. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to teach a large Bible study and see people grow in their faith? Leading an evangelism team was definitely on the list because that was how real live converts came into the church each week. Teaching, leading, directing, all these things had their appeal. And they were all good and necessary ministries.
But what happens if God doesn’t call us to these very visible and appreciated areas of service? To use my cafeteria analogy, what if He calls us to be dishwashers in the shadows of the kitchen where the work seems repetitive, monotonous, and unnoticed? In an age of rock stars and selfies, our visions of ministry can easily become skewed, and the words of Jesus must penetrate our hearts afresh: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Following Jesus on the Calvary road often cuts deeply into our dreams, plans, visions, and aspirations. The cross only leads to one outcome—death.
If you read the parable of the talents and consider the disciples, you have life-size examples. You find so much written about Peter, James, and John. When you come to Andrew, he’s just Simon Peter’s brother. What can you tell me about Thaddaeus or James, the Son of Alphaeus? We know that God was working in Peter, James, and John “both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” But we also know that God was doing the same in Thaddaeus and James, just as He is willing and working for His good pleasure in all His followers. God has His purposes in each of our callings and they’re often not as we envisioned. The reality is this—God is the One who assigns our callings, not us.
Many years ago after much prayer, Brian and I decided to homeschool. At the time we made this decision, both of us were leaders in a large international Bible study. The homeschool movement was in its infancy, so there were no curriculum fairs or pre-packaged grade level programs. The challenge was huge and time-consuming. I dropped out of the Bible study to devote my time to this new calling in my life.
One day I received a phone call from a friend who was involved in the same Bible study. During our conversation she made a passing remark that when I returned to the study, God was really going to use me again. I replied, “But don’t you think God is using me now?” What is it about the big and visible ministries that so impress upon us the idea that this is the only venue where God is at work? God is at work in the big things, the small things, and everything in between. He is at work in the seen and the unseen, doing thousands of things with every breath we take that we are completely unaware of, all for our eternal good, the good of the church, and His glory. We are the body of Christ and every part is important.
So, when you’re asked what you do and your answer is, ”I’m just a mom,” remember that you are a disciple-maker and that every one of your children is like an arrow on a trajectory to eternity. Your calling is huge and it demands Gospel intentionality. When you receive one phone call after another from that person at your church who just can’t seem to get it together, remember the Gospel and your calling to bear one another’s burdens. When your neighbor’s long-term illness cuts into your personal time, remember the Gospel and your calling to love your neighbor as you love yourself. As your parents age and their problems become your problems, remember the Gospel and your calling to care for them in whatever ways necessary. John Stott’s writes: “It is very impressive that to ‘love our neighbour’, ‘bear one another’s burdens’ and ‘fulfill the law’ are three equivalent expressions. It shows that to love one another as Christ loved us may lead us not to some heroic, spectacular deed of self-sacrifice, but to the much more mundane and unspectacular ministry of burden-bearing.”
Most of what you do will not be noticed or applauded. These mundane callings are one-day-at-a-time, death-to-self, in-the-trenches ministries. They often involve pain and suffering. As followers of Jesus on the Calvary road, we can be encouraged with the words of 1 Corinthians 15:58: “In the Lord your labor is not in vain.” When done in the strength that God supplies, our work in the shadows is a means of glorifying God, the very end for which we were created.