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Preaching the Call

Tom Harr
March 7, 2010 – Evening Service

I turned on the radio the other night to hear the end of an interview with Heidi Durrow, whose recent
debut fictional book, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, has received a great deal of critical acclaim.
They were talking about Heidi’s experience being bi-racial – having an African American
serviceman father and a white, Danish mother. I didn’t hear the main part of the interview but the
last question she was asked was, “What do you prefer to be called when people ask you about your
racial background?” And she thought about it and said, “Well, sometimes I say ‘mixed’ and
sometimes I say ‘bi-racial’ – and they’re fine. But lately I’ve started saying, ‘I’m a story.’”1

A story.

Tonight what I’d like to do is share with you a little of my story – a bit about my life and background
– my call to pastoral ministry and how God has brought me and Stacey and our family to this place.
I’m hoping that you’ll find that helpful. But even more than that, I’d like to do it in a way that helps
you to see that my story – and by application your story – is a part of a much grander story. The
story of how Jesus enters a world made perfect but gone horribly wrong, and makes it right. It’s this
story that will be the only basis for successful ministry for me or anyone else in this church. And it’s
the only story that will make a difference in changing our lives – now and for eternity.

I want to do it in three segments: Prologue, Preparation and Promise.

Prologue – Paul – “I once was lost…”

If there was anyone who could have claimed to have had a good upbringing and to have had
“everything together” in his life it was Paul. Paul was raised to be a good person. He was very
religious and before Jesus radically changed his life by invading his story – very, very lost. This is
what he writes about his background in his letter to the Philippians:

“If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised
on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in
regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic
righteousness, faultless.” (Philippians 3:4-6)

As a child and a teenager, I was nowhere near the outward righteousness of Paul. I was no religious
superstar. But in a sense I can relate. Probably my biggest problem growing up was that I didn’t
think I was all that bad. I mean, relatively speaking, I thought I was a pretty good kid. I grew up in
a wonderful family in South Jersey – the oldest of four children: two brothers and then my sister is
the youngest. I went to Sunday School and even sang in the choir for a few years. I obeyed my
parents “most of the time” and got along with my brothers and sister (most of the time). I never
hung out with the “bad kids.” I did well in school and was thought well of by adults. All in all, I
thought I had things under control.

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Reimagining The 'Tragic Mulatto' - http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124244813
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I never thought too much about God because I didn’t see much need. I believed in Him in an
abstract sense, I suppose, but saw no need for any real relationship with Him. If you had asked me
who Jesus was, I might have said “Savior” or the “Son of God” because I had heard people say that a
lot. But most likely, I would have meant that Jesus was a good man, a good teacher – someone who
helped people, taught them how to live and told them things they couldn’t do.

My perceptions about Jesus were first challenged on a Sunday morning in the fall of my junior year
of high school when my Sunday School teacher at the Haddonfield United Methodist Church shared
the Gospel with our class.

This is what he did. He passed around index cards and asked us to write on them where we thought
we’d go when we died. Now I was a good student and did okay at taking tests. I was sitting in
church. The answer – duh – was “heaven.” “God has to take me,” I reasoned. “I mean, if you grade
on the curve – how bad could I be?”

But others in the class were more honest. A lot wrote, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” And right
there, the teacher said, “Folks, before we start this school year, we need to get some things straight –
you can KNOW where you’re going when you die.” And he proceeded to tell us about Jesus – how
all of us ‘good’ kids were a lot worse than we thought and how the penalty for our ‘worse-ness’ had
been paid by Jesus. He told us how God offers that forgiveness freely to be received by simple faith
– not on the basis of what I had done but because of what Jesus had done.

It was the first time I had ever heard the Gospel clearly articulated – the first time I had ever heard
someone challenge my assumption that being “good enough” would get you into heaven.

What did I do with this new knowledge of Jesus? Regrettably, not much. I said “the words” that
day – professed faith and prayed the prayer – but a close look at my life would have revealed no
practical difference at all. I’m not sure I told anyone what happened there that day. There was no
brokenness and no real repentance. I still believed that I was in control.

However, looking back now I can clearly see how God began to move in my life to make me more
aware of my need for Him.

There are lots of things along the way, but he began to drive the point home in two primary ways.

First, the Lord made me realize how little control I actually had over my own life. During my
sophomore year at the University of Delaware, I began to have problems with my stomach. It
wasn’t anything medically serious at all, but for me it was a source of great anxiety. My philosophy
of illness is, “Give me a cough or a headache or the aches and chills of the flue, but please don’t let
me get sick to my stomach!” Whenever it would bother me, I felt totally and completely out of
control. And slowly, the truth of that feeling became real to me – I was not in control! It was an
unmistakable message from God delivered through my frailty.

The second thing the Lord used to open my eyes was His Word. I decided during college, more out
of self-conceived piety than real hunger, that I would begin to read the Bible regularly. I began in
the New Testament with Matthew and started reading. As I went along, I don’t remember anything
really hitting me or sinking in until I got to that well-known verse in 1 Peter 3 – “Always be
prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you.” A little background… when I was at
Delaware, I loved debating ideas and politics. I participated in formal debates on campus about
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abortion, foreign policy, fiscal policy, all kinds of things… But what I realized I could not do was
defend (even a little) my faith (professed, at least) in Christ.

That conviction by the Holy Spirit led me to join a weekly Bible Study my Junior year with a group
of guys in my dorm. The regular study of the Word brought light to my darkness, illuminating the
depths both of my sin and of God’s grace.

So it was during the spring semester of my Junior year that by God’s grace I finally submitted to
Jesus. Unlike Paul, I wasn’t blinded and knocked to my feet one day on the way to Damascus (or to
the Dining Hall.) No flash. No dazzle. I can’t pinpoint the moment. But a quiet and firm resolution
began to fill my heart that my life belonged totally and completely to Jesus. He had invaded my
story. Something had changed.

So that’s the Prologue…

Preparation – Moses – Nothing Wasted

Moses was first confronted with the need to do something on behalf of his fellow Israelites when he
was a younger man. Though he was a Hebrew, he had been raised in the court of Pharaoh with all of
the privileges that accompanied it. One day (Ex 2:11--), he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one
of his own people. So what did he do? He killed the Egyptian and hid the body. He had the right
idea to start. He saw the injustice. The Hebrews, his own people, were being unjustly treated by the
Egyptians and he desired to be their defender. But he acted rashly. He wasn’t ready. Regardless of
what Moses may have thought about readiness for leading the Israelites, God knew better. So He
sent Moses into exile in the land of Midian and there prepared Him until the time was right.

----------------------------------

At the end of my junior year at the University of Delaware, I began attending Glasgow Reformed
Presbyterian Church (GRPC) with a friend. It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t know what specifically I
ought to be looking for in a church – doctrine and such – but the church seemed like a good fit.

When I returned to the UD for my senior year, I became involved with InterVarsity Christian
Fellowship. I began to hunger for God’s Word and eagerly look forward to Tuesday Bible studies
and Friday corporate gatherings. In the Spring Semester, I helped lead a men’s small group in my
dorm. In retrospect, I was probably not yet qualified for the role, but the Lord used the opportunity
to reveal in me an early desire to teach His Word and shepherd His people.

After graduating in May 1996, I went to work in Philadelphia for Sunoco but continued to live in
Delaware. I lived in Claymont before that first year out of school and actually considered attending
Faith at the time. In fact, Pastor Brown visited me in my apartment back in the Fall of 1996 and we
had a long talk about finding the right church.

Ultimately, I decided to stay at GRPC for the time being. They had just begun a ‘House Church’
ministry – like ‘community groups’ in our terminology here -- and one had begun meeting in
Wilmington that I really wanted to be a part of. In 1997, it was this Wilmington House Church that
was given the vision of planting a multi-ethnic church in the metropolitan Wilmington area.

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Gradually, the Lord moved me into positions of more responsibility – giving me a heart for
ministering to people from all over the world and providing an opportunity to sense and test ministry
gifts of teaching, administration, shepherding and discipleship.

By early 1999, most of the people in the Church Plant’s original core had moved on and Pastor Doug
Perkins of GRPC was asked by the Session and the Heritage Presbytery to assume responsibility for
the vision. As our weekly gatherings grew, Pastor Perkins increasingly entrusted me with more
administrative and ministry responsibilities – writing, teaching, leading small groups.

Being a part of All Nations Fellowship – focused on intentionally reaching the immigrant and the
disadvantaged -- was an amazing experience – and could be a discussion all to itself. But it was here
that I began to sense for the first time a desire for full time ministry. At the encouragement of Pastor
Perkins, I took two classes at Chesapeake Seminary before enrolling in the distance program at
Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). Here, I discovered a desire for theological education and a
deeper interest in thinking strategically about the work of the ministry.

I began getting to know Stacey in fall of 2000 while she was serving All Nations Fellowship and we
married in May 2002. Outside of meeting Jesus, it was the best thing that has ever happened to me.
God gave me a partner. And the process of considering marriage helped confirm my call – our call.
After thinking it through together, we decided that the best preparation for future ministry was for
me to continue distance education through RTS and for us to both be a part of the formal launch of
ANF when it started meeting for worship services in September 2002.

In 2003, I came ‘under care’ of Heritage Presbytery in November 2003 and this is what I told them:

“But why do I feel that the Lord is calling me to come under care of the Heritage Presbytery?
Certainly if the Lord were to call me to continue doing what I’m doing – working as a Financial
Analyst, teaching Sunday School classes, telling people about Jesus, shepherding and discipling
(perhaps someday as a ruling elder) – that would be a great calling!

The only thing is… I don’t believe that’s my calling. I love to teach and I believe that the Lord is
calling me to use the gifts he’s given me to serve His church in full-time pastoral ministry – as a
teaching elder. The teaching, serving and shepherding I desire require the next level of
preparation.”

That was in 2003. So for the next 4 years, that’s exactly what we did – prepared. We worked – me
at Sunoco and Stacey as a Physician Assistant. We studied – taking classes (often listening to
lectures together) through the RTS Distance program. And we served – learning all we could about
practical, hands-on ministry through innumerable opportunities that come through a church plant
reaching out to the multi-ethnic community of Northern Delaware.

In November 2007, as the ministry of All Nations Fellowship was being absorbed into the vision of
Heritage Presbyterian Church down in New Castle, Austin and Davis were born – an amazing
blessing that transitioned us into parenthood. In the spring of 2008 after a lot of thinking and prayer
we began attending Faith.

Unlike at All Nations Fellowship, where Stacey and I were able to jump into almost everything, twin
babies kept us from being as involved in the many opportunities for ministry here as we might
otherwise have wanted to. Then last September, our daughter Essie was born.

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But, that doesn’t mean God stopped preparing us. Three children under three can be a wonderful
teacher. I might not have the opportunity to sit down and leisurely journal about my learnings – but
I have probably learned as much about the sin in my own heart (it’s a lot worse) and the constant
need for the forgiving love of Jesus and the pure joy of life sustained by God’s grace (it’s a lot
better), then I have during any other period of my life.

Returning to Moses… Why didn’t God just send him to Pharaoh while he was already there in Egypt
the first time? Clearly Moses’s passion for his people had been awakened. It would have seemed
much more ‘sensible.’ But Moses wasn’t ready and it wasn’t God’s time. So God sent him away –
Moses got married… lived some life. And when the time was right, God made it clear.

I can relate to that. Years ago, I struggled with a degree of envy of my brother, Dave. He had felt
the call to vocational ministry in college, went straight to seminary and then got married, ordained
and had children. At times, this has seemed a much more ‘sensible, logical’ order and I thought that
my path seemed out of sync with the ‘right’ way to do things.

But, you know, God didn’t lead me in the same way as by brother. I didn’t sense any call to the
ministry in college and didn’t feel final confirmation until after I had married – probably because
God had things to teach me along the way. He knew that there were things I could learn at Sunoco.
He knew that Stacey needed to be a part of the decision. I wasn’t ready and it wasn’t God’s time.

So that’s the chapter I’d loosely label “preparation.” Of course, I do NOT presume that I have no
preparation left to do. Quite the contrary, actually. I have 6 credits of my seminary degree to
complete, Hebrew to study and licensure and ordination to pursue. And I have much to learn about
the practical day-to-day aspects of ministry. But… God has been very good over the last 15 years
since that junior year Bible Study on the third floor of Sharp Hall at UD – providing many, many
rich opportunities to grow and prepare. So hopefully, I have something to share with you right from
the start.

So we have Prologue, Preparation and finally… Promise.

Promise – Abraham – “By Faith…”

I just turned 36 last November. I have often been heartened by the fact that Augustine was not
converted until he was 33 and wasn’t ordained until he was 37.2 I remember when I first learned
this. I told my brother Greg. And being the encouraging younger brother he is, he quickly reminded
me that Calvin had published the first edition of the Institutes when he was only 27… as if to say ‘so
don’t assume you aren’t already washed up.’

In any event, the Bible tells us that Abram was 75 when God called him to a career change that
makes mine seem fairly insignificant. God came to him and said, “Leave your country, your people
and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” That’s in Genesis 12. And in
Hebrews 11:1 we read that “By faith Abraham, when called to a place he would later receive as an
inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.”

2
http://www.online-literature.com/saint-augustine/
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Now, there is a real sense in which Stacey and I step out in faith here. I change jobs. We move.
There’s transition to work through and we’ll need to look back to the call of God on our life and, like
Abram, trust in faith that he’ll work out all those things. And I expect that from many of my co-
workers as I explain this to them in the coming weeks, I’ll get similar looks as Abram… “God’s
telling you to do what?”

But unlike Abram, we do know a little more about where we’re going.

First, we know Faith Church. We haven’t been here as long as many of you, but long enough to love
it. In 2008, when Stacey and I were considering where God would have us worship, we were led to
join Faith because we believed it was a place where our family could minister and grow in our
relationship with Jesus. We are honored to be serving with you and are very excited about what is
doing here.

Second – and really much more importantly -- we know Jesus. The Bible says that Abraham
believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6, Gal 3:6) – so don’t
misunderstand me – Abraham’s salvation was based on faith in God’s provision of a Savior just like
us. But, because we live “A.D.” – in the year of our Lord – we know the details contained in rest of
the story:
- We know that the one in whom Abraham hoped is Jesus of Nazareth – that he was born into
history, lived on this earth, paid the penalty for our sin and that the work he came to
accomplish is, in His own words, “finished” (John 19:30).
- Like Simeon in the temple holding the baby Jesus, we can look into the eyes of the promised
Redeemer – in a way Abraham never could -- and say, “my eyes have seen your salvation”
(Luke 2:30).

How does that relate to a call to pastoral ministry?

When Pastor Brown and I discussed what I would do here tonight, he said that I should “preach my
call.” I like that phrase. It’s different than “give your testimony” or “read your biography.” That
would be me simply recounting for you the work of God in my life. No doubt, that is the primary
focus of what I had hoped to do tonight. That’s good and hopefully you found that helpful.

But preaching is going beyond that. It tells a story and then takes that story and applies it to the lives
of the listeners… helping them to see the connection between the story you’re telling and the story
they’re living.

Now the whole exercise of “applying the story” becomes a little riskier when the story I’m telling
you is my own… because I make myself vulnerable. I open up parts of my life and I say to you:
“Here they are… use them if they’re helpful.”

But that, I think, is what pastoral ministry is about – the pastor’s willingness to apply his life to
yours – to say, “This is my story and I dedicate it to yours.”

Now, connect that back to the story of Jesus. Apart from Jesus, that could be a terrible burden…
because a pastor’s life (as well as the life of one, like me, who hopes to be a pastor) is far from
perfect.

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But that’s where knowing the beauty of the Gospel revealed in Jesus makes such a difference.
Because I know that my story is not really about me, it’s about Jesus. You see, Jesus makes it
possible to apply our stories to the lives of others without ultimate risk or fear of failure.

His is the ultimate “applied story.” Jesus comes to us in the Bible and says, “My story – my
PERFECT story – is applied to you.” And our hearts are changed – our lives transformed from the
inside out – our stories are given new meaning and a new, gloriously victorious, ending.

So like Abraham, we trust in the promise and believe by faith. And, because of Jesus – we know
where we are going.