I’ll never forget the first time I heard his name.
I was sitting by the fire in a hotel sitting room where countless students from across the country had gathered on their journey to further their theological education. As the night wore on, we talked about the delights of connecting with members at our churches. We laughed at stories about small children shouting with joy as they sprinted to the altar during Holy Communion. We sipped our evening drinks, supporting one another as we listened to praise reports and horror stories.
I wondered what I would say. Though I appeared eager to listen, to pray, and to offer a word from Scripture, I was cowering on the inside. It reminded me of a high school English class when the teacher asks how everyone liked the previous night’s chapter. But you didn’t read it, so you pray with every ounce of your being that the smart kids carry on the conversation and you can just riff off what they said.
“So, how’s it going in the ‘hood?” These words were met with the sound of everyone turning to listen to my response.
I struggled to find words. The truth was that life in our neighborhood sucked (for lack of a better term). Murder, overdose, drunkenness, and poverty all consumed our people. Poor families in an endless cycle of struggling to make rent. Addicts shooting dope in the restrooms. Kids – many of whom are victims of unspeakable abuse – were taking out their pain on others. Both verbal and physical violence seemed to be the answer to all the problems. To make matters worse, it seemed that no matter how committed the teachers were to teach these kids about Jesus, the reality was that the truths of love, acceptance, and forgiveness were going in one ear and out the other. Not a single child was listening to what anyone had to say. To me, this was a microcosm of the city. We preach, teach, and serve but see no results. I had all but given up. I was tired of trying.
“Tough,” I said, fighting back emotions, and then slowly began opening up to one of the men that was sitting by me. I told him I was facing the fear that maybe I didn’t have what it took to be a pastor. Maybe all the time and effort we were putting in at church was falling on deaf ears. Maybe the Spirit just wasn’t working. It might be time to pack up and move on.
Whether you want to admit it or not, you have probably, more than likely, absolutely felt this way. You’ve even denied tooth and nail that you do. Jobs, family life, and circles of friends. Church life, organizations, and events. The very things that make up who you are just don’t seem to have that “umph” anymore. You’re tired, depressed, and even skeptical about the work that you are doing. You haven’t just hit a wall. You have thrown yourself into it. And while you’re on the ground, Satan whispers ever so loudly in your ear, “What you do doesn’t really make a difference. Nobody cares about what you have to say in a podcast, in an article, or a sermon. Give up. Start something else. Move on.”
After listening to my laundry list of struggles and confessions, my buddy smiled at me and said two words – a first and last name – that changed my thinking toward my life as a Christian man:
The most famous person that you’ve never heard of (or maybe you have) might just be Edward Kimball. The story of the way God used a very ordinary man for extraordinary purposes begins all the way back on July 29, 1823, when Kimball was born in Rowley, Massachusetts. He would grow up and eventually become the Sunday School teacher at Mt. Vernon Congregational Church in Boston on Beacon Hill. At this church, he met a young boy who was only coming to church because he was working at his uncle’s shoe store, and his employment was contingent on his attendance. A young boy resistant to the grace of God provided Mr. Kimball with some interesting and frustrating conversations. But he did not give up. He went so far as to even visit the young man at his shoe store. Their relationship continued to build, and eventually the Holy Spirit did what the Holy Spirit does and the young man was converted to Christianity by the work of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus.
That young man’s name was Dwight Lyman Moody, the founder of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.
Among the millions of people that D.L. Moody shared the Gospel with was a London pastor named Frederick Brotherton Meyer. F.B. Meyer would share the good news with Presbyterian evangelist John Wilbur Chapman, who would then influence another prominent evangelist of the 20th century named Billy Sunday. Billy Sunday would then play a major part in the faith walk of Mordecai Ham, who began radio broadcasting in the 1930s. Who would come after Mordecai Ham? His preaching helped lead yet another young man to faith. His name? William Franklin Graham Jr., and Billy Graham, as you may know, was one of the most influential men of the 20th century.
Now I know many of you (myself included) have bugaboos about big-time evangelists and the theology of some of these men. That’s not the point of the story. The point is that God took one man in a Sunday school classroom and one man working in his uncle’s shoe store to bring millions of people into the Kingdom.
Edward Kimball did not labor in vain. Those who teach in the city are not laboring in vain. You are not laboring in vain. All it takes is one person, one young man or woman, to listen to what you have to say for the message to take off and spread like wildfire. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire,” James writes in his letter (James 3:5). While he is writing about the danger of the tongue, the concept remains the same for the Gospel.
This is why the Church places so much emphasis on vocation. Vocation is the focus of the Christian life. In Latin (vocatio) it means ‘a call or a summons.’ In other words, vocation is nothing more than what we do as Christians. As we wait anxiously for the Resurrection, we each have our places in this world. We have jobs, callings, and duties to tend to. We live these out in faith, even when we feel like we have hit a wall. We continue to love. We continue to work. We continue to serve.
Why can we confidently soldier on? Because it’s God serving man through you! Paul calls them the fruits of the Spirit after all (Gal. 5:22-23). God has done the ultimate good work in sending Jesus Christ to die for you. He has forgiven you of your sin and has justified you, covering you in the precious blood of His Son. He has raised you from the dead and given you new life! A life that is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). It is no longer you who live, but Christ who lives in you (Gal. 2:20). As a new creation in Christ, God now works through you to reach others. And he does this through vocation.
I thank God for Edward Kimball, and I look forward to meeting him in the Resurrection. His message to us is timeless. Whether you have one listener or thousands, millions of readers or just your grandma, whether you teach kindergarten or college students, pastor a small church of 15 or a big church of thousands, God continues to work. His work is never in vain. As the prophet writes:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55:10-11).
As you labor, be encouraged by the promises made to you in Christ. Your neighbor needs you. And God will see to it that their needs are met through you.