I was in the mountains.
I’d always wanted to be here. To look out over the great expanse before me and find myself such a small, integrated piece of God’s glorious creation. In the mountains I felt a part rather than just apart. I was an active participant in allowing God to remind me of my place in his stunning, mysterious world. I had a deep sense of awe but was not afraid. I was at peace, but not ready to retire. My heart was full of anticipation, but the unknowns were now to me a gift.
I was in the mountains. But on this particular day, it wasn’t the mountains of North Carolina my wife and I had moved to a few years ago. On this particular day, I was standing at 5,000 feet looking out over the mountainous terrain of Central America in the country of Honduras. I was looking out over the place God was next calling me and my wife to serve.
To quote the musician, David Byrne, “How did I get here?”
That’s a story worth telling.
Just three or so months ago, I sent an email to a church committee in search of a new pastor. Union Christian Church in the capital city of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, had been without a pastor for about a year and were eager for God to reveal who that person was. Union is an English-speaking congregation filled mostly with expatriates, North American citizens who’ve come to live in the country as missionaries, school teachers, embassy employees, and so on. They were essentially a church of ministers in search of an under-shepherd to provide spiritual guidance and care.
For my part, while I did have a “one day” dream to finally pastor a church, I had no inkling of pastoring any time soon and certainly not in Honduras. My wife and I had no plans to move anywhere at all, having found our dream mountain home in the Smokies. Frankly, I had no real knowledge of Honduras other than that it was somewhere south of the border. Yet one Sunday morning, I remembered the church’s online advertisement and felt a strong burden, no matter how far-fetched, to start a conversation.
The opening lines of my first communication said, “I’m not sure I should even be sending you this email…”
Why? Because we’d found our dream home. Because I’d moved to the Smoky Mountains with the idea of starting or joining a retreat ministry. Because I’d applied for pastor positions before, but most churches wanted you to have previously served as a pastor in other churches before leading theirs. Because I wasn’t a traditional “CEO,” “Type A” leader. Because I didn’t fit in with the culture of many American churches. Because I was a sinner. Because I was sometimes too sensitive to the judgment and rejection that comes with pastoring. Because, because, because…
But, I still felt the burden and sent the email, saying to myself, if God’s calling me there, he’ll open the doors to make it happen. This started a long application process where, to my stunned surprise, I kept advancing through each stage of elimination. And as I advanced, I got more serious about my own discernment process: reading Scripture, reading books on pastoral calling, praying, seeking advice from others. Despite my abundant excuses, I still believed in the calling of God. If God made his calling clear, no amount of excuses could justify my disobedience.
Of course, there were many reasons in favor of applying. I’ve long known my calling as a teacher, a preacher, and writer of God’s good news. But in our time in North Carolina, the doors for exercising this gift regularly were not opening for me in the way I’d hoped. Despite my introverted leanings, I’ve also longed to connect my heart for communication with life-changing personal encounters with real human beings. Just writing books alone was never going to do that for me. Finally, I knew that my life has been most blessed when part of a healthy, growing Christian community—and not just a part, but out front, leading the charge to live out the Gospel and show the world the healing and rest available within God’s Kingdom. But, such doors in North Carolina had been closed for me there, too. I just couldn’t find a compatible church community that fit that bill.
In God’s ways, closed doors often mean he’s opening doors in another part of his Kingdom. But, Central America??
The biblical character, Abraham, is famous for being called from a place that was familiar to an unknown place where God wanted him to go. In the new and foreign land of Canaan, he was called “a stranger in the land of promise.” And as my application process proceeded, it became more and more apparent that God was repeating similar marching orders to me as well. One Sunday morning I received the message that I was the church’s final candidate for the position. My wife and I were soon flown down to spend a week seeing Honduras first-hand, to meet members in the church, to preach on Sunday, and to receive a final vote of approval from the congregation.
And so, beyond my wildest dreams, it happened. A church has called me to pastor. And not just a church, but a church full of ministers. And not just an American church, but a church in a foreign land. A land with mountains similar to the Appalachians. A land marked by immense poverty, but also by an unbending creativity for survival. A land full of both dangers and gentle hospitality. A land of deeply-rooted culture, organic foods, and organic living. A land full of political unrest, brokenness, loneliness, spiritual, emotional, and physical bondage, but ultimately, a land full of promise. A place where I might be a stranger, but where the power of God’s redemptive hand is no stranger at all.
In his memoirs, Eugene Peterson describes his calling as both “writer and pastor.” He says that God was forming him for both of these vocations many years before he realized it. God has long been forming me as a writer, teacher, and communicator. But even now, despite my misgivings, it’s clear he’s also been forming me as a church pastor. In so many ways, pastoring a church feels beyond me, but in these months of discernment, I’ve seen through one confirmation after another that while beyond me, it’s full of God. While this vocation is pregnant with serious responsibility which I in no way take lightly, I’m also relieved to find that I’ll be most useful by not taking charge, but instead surrendering myself to God as his vessel to be used for his purposes—according to his will and his ways.
In the last couple of years, many of my readers have enjoyed my encounters with the mountains. That kind of writing will continue. But now the mountains will shift a bit in geography into this new, unknown, miraculous place of promise. And going forward, the writing will be infused with my long-in-the-making call as “pastor”—I’ll be writing about how the Gospel is living through me and through those I encounter in the next leg of this great adventure.
So, whether north or south, God still has me in the mountains. I look out over his heavenly expanse and am in awe for what awaits. In awe, but no longer afraid.
About John Michalak
An author, speaker, musician, and minister, John Michalak has spent more than 20 years equipping others in the areas of life-change and personal relationship. John’s inspirational new book, 365 Devotions To Embrace What Matters Most is now available from Zondervan publishing.
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