“I was the worship leader of a large church. What am I doing behind the bar of a coffee shop? I don’t even like coffee,” he said.
“I know I am called to be a missionary to the third world. I’ve studied pediatric nutrition, I’ve been to seminary, I’ve learned the language, I’ve jumped through red tape hoops, but instead I’m teaching privileged college students who are semi-comatose under the spell of entitlement. What am I doing here?” she said.
This is becoming a familiar conversation as I listen to friends and family whose lives have taken a detour. I know a lot of people who are asking the question, “What am I doing here? This was not in my five-year plan.”
I’ve seen some interesting career shifts: a former chaplain working as a tinsmith, a refugee physician pushing a broom, a former pastor working as a carpenter, a former geologist bathing patients, a former journalist weighing deli meat and many more.
The Lord often gives us a vision of the future by placing dreams in our hearts. Sometimes he even gives us a precise picture of what he has called us to be and do. We head toward the mountain. Then he leads us on a road going the opposite direction.
I love taking my camera and exploring the wide valley where I live. Sometimes I take panorama shots and sometimes I use a zoom lens to foreshorten the distance between here and there. The problem is that, as in this photo taken with a zoom lens, we can’t always see the valleys that lie between us and the goal. There’s a major river flowing in a valley beyond the trees in the foreground. You need to turn and travel some distance to find a bridge. But it’s an important river that provides water and power for people in two countries.
It is in the valleys that we are given provision for what lies ahead.
In the Bible we read many stories of people whose lives took a detour just when it looked like they were making progress. We read about a former prince working as a shepherd, a former palace musician and warrior hiding in caves, a former boss working as a prison helper, a former daughter of Israel living as the property of a son of Canaan, a former academic religious expert living in the desert as a student.
I’ve spoken to mature leaders who can look back on their detour experiences, whether they lasted forty days or forty years, and tell me it was there they were given tools or connections or placement that enabled them to climb higher later. In times when it seems that nothing is going the way we planned we are often reduced to being able to trust no one else but God and to use nothing else other than what he has placed in our hands. Our natural talents and skills are almost useless in this place.
Sometimes we need to lose something, like self-confidence or arrogance, so we can exchange it for God-confidence and humility.
Sometimes we need to gain something, like the ability to love difficult people, or the quiet, joyful endurance that wears opposition down.
Sometimes we need more practical skills, like knowledge of how to keep livestock alive in the desert, or how to administer a task force, or how to disengage hindering emotions in a crisis – or even how to sink a tent peg with one blow.
Sometimes we need to become more acquainted with the voice and character of God through experiences that turn theoretical concepts into deeply rooted faith. Sometimes when we find ourselves on a rugged detour it’s because there are treasures there that cannot be found any other place.
This morning I was thinking about my Dad, who is now with the Lord. He spent most of his working life as a salesman. It didn’t suit his temperament and frankly, he hated it. Every Monday he drummed up just enough courage to face a week of cold calls. For a sensitive, artistic person rejection was particularly discouraging. Eventually commissions dwindled and he found work as a church janitor. He felt like a failure and asked himself what he was doing there.
This church had a school attached and the children loved his stories. After awhile the principal noticed and asked him to be a regular part of school assemblies as a story teller. His tales were so entertaining someone suggested he write a book. He did. His experience as a salesman taught him how to market effectively. It was soon in its second printing. Calls began to come from schools, nursing homes, theaters, and even from a film maker who featured him at an avant-garde film festival.
His stories were about God’s faithfulness, about strength in adversity and endurance through hard times. His failure as a salesman positioned him for the role God had for him. Thousands listened.
This week I read about a woman who seemed to have little influence and whose destiny seemed to be determined by the whim of others. I don’t know that it can be proven but some scholars have suggested that Jael was a captured wife, a sex slave if you will. She was a Jewish woman married to Heber the Kenite, a descendant of Canaanites who were known at the time to take women by force. The story, told in Judges 4, is that the commander of the king of the Canaanites was on the run after a lost battle led by Deborah and Barak when he came to her remote tent.
Jael was not a warrior. She was not a judge like Deborah. She had no back-up and no defender but God. She had only the tools and skills of a nomad’s woman living in isolation. But she used them and freed her people from oppression by driving a tent peg through her enemy’s head.
Sometimes we look at the detours our life has taken and wonder what we are doing here. We can ask, like a complaining student, why we need to learn this stuff. Will it be on the exam?
It could be.
Are you in this zone? Look at what God has placed in your hand. Is it a staff, a slingshot, a tent peg, a mop, a steering wheel, a wooden spoon, a paintbrush, a pen? Has your detour brought you into contact with those you never expected to meet? Can you say, despite disappointments, “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home?”
Or do you find yourself in this in-between valley seeing the mountain but struggling to hold on to the hope that you will ever get there?
Wait. The Lord loves to put us in impossible situations, because when he moves through us we know without a doubt that it was his doing.
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
The LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
(Psalm 18:22,23 NIV)
Watch. He’s up to something. This is going to be good.