Saying It Well Touching Others with Your Words
By Swindoll, Charles R.
FaithWords Copyright © 2012 Swindoll, Charles R.
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780892968312
[God’s call] had everything to do with living one’s life in obedience… through action. It did not merely require a mind, but a body too. It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny. It was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom—that was what it was to obey God.
Do you think you could be happy and fulfilled doing anything else, in any vocation other than ministry?”
The question set me back in my chair for a moment. Dr. Donald K. Campbell, the registrar (and future president) of Dallas Theological Seminary, looked intently across his desk, perhaps gauging my reaction. His question found its way to my heart and probed its true intentions. Fresh out of the Marine Corps, wearing a flattop haircut and the only dark suit I owned, I sat at rigid attention as my mind retraced the steps that led me to Dallas, Texas, that morning in May 1959.
Two years earlier, I had very different plans for my life. After graduating from Milby High School in Houston, I took a job as an apprentice in the machine shop of the Reed Roller Bit Company. My ultimate goal was to become a mechanical engineer. By the time I finished that program, which included attending night school at the University of Houston, Cynthia and I had met, fallen in love, married, purchased a little frame house in the Houston suburb of Channelview. We also began serving in a local church in that small community—she played the piano while I led the singing. My childhood roots ran deep in Houston soil and we felt sure the same would be true of our children someday. Only one small matter stood between me and the ideal future I had imagined for myself: The Reserve Forces Act of 1955. This required at least two years of active military service followed by four years in active reserve duty. Rather than face the uncertainty of the draft, I spoke to a Marine Corps recruiter. After he assured me that I would be given a stateside assignment—no overseas deployment—I signed the enlistment contract and breathed a sigh of relief. We might have to live somewhere other than Houston for a while, but Cynthia and I would be back soon enough, and, most importantly, we would be together.
After completing recruit training in San Diego and advanced infantry training at Camp Pendleton, I received orders to report to 100 Harrison Street in San Francisco—Pacific Headquarters—an assignment marines hoped for. Cynthia and I were elated. We bought a new car and set out for our temporary home on the California peninsula. We found a tiny studio apartment in Daly City. Cynthia found a good job, I filled an enviable post near the waterfront, and we enjoyed a kind of extended honeymoon in that beautiful and romantic city. Then… a slip of paper bearing the president’s seal changed everything.
I had seen this kind of envelope before and it almost never contained good news, so I stuffed it into my pocket resolving to open it later, when my courage returned. That afternoon, I sat in our car outside the electronics firm where Cynthia worked, fingering the unopened envelope and staring across the Bay at Alcatraz, that miserable island abode of the nation’s most dangerous prisoners. Finally, I sliced open the speed letter. I was shocked to read the official order for me to transfer to the tiny Japanese island of Okinawa—nearly seven thousand miles from my new bride. In that state of mind, Alcatraz seemed more attractive to me. Our idyllic world came tumbling down.
I couldn’t understand why He would allow circumstances to destroy something so good and so right.
Cynthia and I wept late into the night until exhaustion carried us to bed. I will admit that the circumstances felt like a stroke of divine cruelty. God knew my plans and that my desires were honorable. I wanted to cherish my wife, work hard in a fine company with good pay, rear godly children, and glorify God with the days given me on earth. I couldn’t understand why He would allow circumstances to destroy something so good and so right. Eventually, my bewilderment turned into disillusionment, which gave way to bitterness.
I left Cynthia in Houston to live with her mother and dad and reported to the staging regiment at Camp Pendleton for a month before shipping out from San Diego. My older brother, Orville, was living in Pasadena at the time preparing for a future in cross-cultural missions, which eventually took him to Argentina for more than thirty years. I had a few days of liberty before embarking, so I visited him. My disillusionment was all too obvious. Just before I boarded the bus to return to Pendleton, he pressed a book into my hands, saying, “Here’s a book I want you to read on your way overseas.”
I looked at the title: Through Gates of Splendor. I had not read the book, but I knew what it was about. Everyone did. Just a couple of years earlier, every newspaper in the United States—and many others around the world—carried the story of five missionaries who were brutally killed by a remote tribe of Indians—then known as the Auca—deep in the jungles of Ecuador. The book I held in my hands was written by Elisabeth Elliot, one of the five widows.
I handed the book back to my brother and said, “I’m not interested in reading this.”
He pushed it back. “I want you to read this book.”
“I’m not interested in reading this book. I’m not going overseas to be a missionary.”
“Take the book!” he said firmly. “Read it!”
We exchanged some unpleasant words, but I boarded the bus with the book in hand and two hours of free time. As heavy clouds hung low and rain splashed against the window of that lonely bus, I opened the book and started reading:
Chapter 1: “I Dare Not Stay Home”
I was riveted by the story. Before I knew it, the bus arrived at the base… but I couldn’t stop reading. I found the only place where the lights stayed on all night, in the hallway leading to the head (the men’s room). Sitting on the floor, I finished the book by dawn. By the last line, the stubborn, selfish bitterness that had seized my heart started to release its grip. I had entered the world of five young men who entered college and then language school to prepare for a lifetime of missionary service. I learned that, not long after graduation, all five lay dead in the Curaray River, some with spears in their bodies. That impressed me. Still, while these men came to a tragic end, they were not the first missionaries to give their lives in the course of following their calling. My heart softened because Elisabeth Elliot, in cooperation with the other four widows, told the story with complete confidence in the providence of God. Her words dripped with grace toward the savages who had killed her mate. Life had handed this young woman every reason to become disillusioned, every right to grow bitter; instead, she strengthened her resolve to follow her original calling. Rather than dismiss her circumstances as senseless, or perhaps an indication the mission had been folly, Elisabeth Elliot continued working in Ecuador. In fact, after publication of the book, Elisabeth, her three-year-old daughter, Valerie, and Rachel Saint successfully entered that village, won the trust of their husbands’ murderers, and completed the work their martyred mates had begun.
Life had handed this young woman every reason to become disillusioned.
Why? How could they do that? Circumstances didn’t change their calling.
Not only did that book break the hold of bitterness on my heart, it opened my mind to the possibility that my boarding a troop ship for the far side of the earth—seven thousand miles from the life I had envisioned for myself—might be something more than the whim of circumstance. I thought, Maybe… No earth-moving revelations. No sudden epiphany. No dramatic moment of clarity. I simply entertained the remote possibility that I should be doing something that counted for eternity. But that was all.
A couple of days later, along with thirty-five hundred other marines, I boarded a transport to Okinawa. Four days out, a storm churned the Pacific into a tempest that tossed our ship like a toothpick. The driving rain and fifty-foot swells mirrored the chaos that had become my spirit. With two more weeks to go before reaching the other side of the world, I read the book again. Only this time, I didn’t see just Elisabeth’s account of the events leading to January 8, 1955, on the Curaray River; I saw God’s hand at work in the lives of each of those five men. Each in a different way, He brought them all together and led them to the right place at the right time to accomplish something profound. In retrospect, their deaths inspired thousands of men and women to devote their lives to teaching and preaching the Bible, serving Christ all over the world. While it didn’t answer my questions or even dispel my confusion, I began to accept as fact that God had a purpose in my transfer to Okinawa. His calling on my life was now in its infant stage.
By the time I reached Yokohama and finally my Marine Corps base on that tiny South Pacific island, I felt a sense of destiny. I had no clue how valuable that time would be, but I had some sense that my unexpected “calamity” was not an accident. Disappointment with God yielded to acceptance of His wisdom beyond my understanding. Bitterness slowly gave way to submission.
Soon after arriving, I found myself in a dangerous environment not unfamiliar to military bases. Camp Courtney was a volatile mixture of red-blooded young men, boredom, and unaccountability. I knew right away, I needed the support of other Christian men. Fortunately, I heard about a ministry called “GIs for Christ” meeting somewhere between my base and the capital city of Naha. That first Friday night, I sat among a group of uniformed men as GIs put on a little skit, led the singing, and offered a short message. As the meeting closed, I moved toward the door to leave and noticed a man sitting near the back wearing a dark overcoat. His five o’clock shadow and gruff appearance convinced me he was a man off the street, perhaps curious about the meeting. So, I engaged him in conversation and before long, spoke openly of Christ as I explained the gospel to him. Having finished my presentation of the fundamentals of the faith, he responded, “That was very well done.”
The man turned out to be Bob Newkirk, a missionary serving with The Navigators. He said, “Any guy who’s got the guts to walk up to a stranger and do what you did, I want to know more about him.” That began a friendship that turned out to be life changing.
I got to know Bob and his family as he poured his life into mine. I completed The Navigators Scripture memory program, continued as part of the “GIs for Christ” program, and eventually led the group. Throughout that time, Bob became a mentor. He and his wife, Norma, allowed me to spend my days on liberty and numerous holidays with them. Bob let me tag along when he ran ministry errands and fulfilled his duties on Okinawa. As I look back, I clearly see that my time with him not only kept me out of trouble and strengthened my spiritual life, it gave me greater opportunity to give further thought to my calling. Of course, I couldn’t see that at the time; nevertheless, if awareness of my calling were a seed, it began to germinate during those early months.
When you begin to learn the Word of God, and really begin to believe its promises, and make them personal, it gives you courage and galvanizes you against other people’s rejection.
Part of Bob’s ministry included street meetings—sometimes on the back of a flatbed truck—which included leading the crowd in some singing and delivering a short gospel message. Before long, Bob had me taking a lead role in those street meetings. I struggled at first, but my confidence grew over time. When you begin to learn the Word of God, and really begin to believe its promises, and make them personal, it gives you courage and galvanizes you against other people’s rejection—not only when speaking publicly, but in your personal relationships.
When I first arrived on Okinawa, the company sergeant learned of my Christian faith and dubbed me “Friar Chuck.” That troubled me at first. I wasn’t ashamed of my worldview; I just resented being singled out and mocked. As the Scriptures became more a part of my life, I paid less attention to the ribbing. I liked being known as “the Christian guy,” a designation that gave me the opportunity to lead a few of my fellow marines to Christ.
As my confidence grew, I discussed my growing interest in spiritual things with Bob. He affirmed me along the way. Late one evening, after one particular street meeting, I said to Bob, “I think God may be calling me to ministry.”
Bob smiled and said, “As I have observed you, that makes a lot of sense, frankly.” He never pushed. In fact, he deliberately steered clear of interfering with God’s activity in my life. People in positions of great influence need to be careful; their impact can sometimes cause confusion rather than clarity when someone in their care is in the process of discovering his or her calling.
We discussed my growth as a leader over the previous several months. I had completed every part of The Navigator program and I was leading other men. I had led several men in my Quonset hut to Christ. I was comfortable leading the “GIs for Christ” gatherings and speaking at public meetings. Bob affirmed me and agreed to pray with me over the matter. Before long, the feeling of vague possibility solidified into a firm conviction. I wrote Cynthia and she immediately affirmed my calling, enthusiastically pledging to follow me anywhere the Lord might lead us.
As I reflect on that time when my calling to ministry became clear, several truths about a “calling” emerge.
Support of Spouse
When you’re married, the calling is yours—God didn’t call Cynthia to ministry; He called me—yet the support of one’s spouse is essential. If a husband or wife is reluctant or tentative, either the timing is wrong or the calling needs to be reexamined. You need to move forward as one, in complete unity. And that can sometimes be a difficult matter to resolve. If your spouse isn’t completely on board, wait.
If your spouse isn’t completely on-board, wait.
Resolve to take the pressure off your mate to see your call as clearly as you do. Resist the urge to manipulate, coerce, or convince him or her. Reject any feelings of resentment toward your spouse, choosing instead to regard your mate’s reluctance as the Lord’s signal to slow down and to examine the issue together. And, by all means, pray—individually and together—asking God to bring clarity to both of your minds.
As I have helped other men and women discover their calling, I have found the reluctance of a mate to be an invaluable source of wisdom. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of timing; the call was genuine, but other issues needed to be resolved first. Other times, the marriage needed work before moving forward. There have been situations in which the calling needed refinement. In every case, when the couple resolved to wait until both could proceed in complete unity, they avoided disaster. I have observed over many years that when one dragged the other, the couple struggled for years.
In my case, Cynthia affirmed my thinking and excitedly asked, “What’s next? Where do we go from here?”
The Affirmation of Peers
When a calling is authentic, you don’t need the approval of others. In fact, some may resist your calling because they have a personal interest in your staying put. Yet it’s not a good sign if impartial people who know you well express doubts. As the proverb says, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed” (Prov. 15:22). The general consensus among wise, impartial people you trust should be “That makes good sense; I can see your doing that.”
In my case, Bob saw in my past clear indications of future success. Other Christian friends on Okinawa were not at all surprised when I spoke of my calling and explained my plans for the future.
The Appraisal of Challenges
Every calling involves sacrifice. There’s no such thing as a decision without a downside. On occasion, what you have to give up is significant. In my case, I would be giving up my original plans to put down roots in Houston, near family and all that I had known and loved. I would be trading a stable, well-paying job as a mechanical engineer for the uncertainty of becoming a seminary student. The investment of my previous employment would yield no financial fruit. I was, in fact, starting over. Furthermore, I was entering a whole new world with no guarantees and zero financial stability.
When a calling is genuine, you count the cost but none of the sacrifices feel like a hindrance.
When a calling is genuine, you count the cost but none of the sacrifices feel like a hindrance. On the contrary, the challenges become invigorating. I no longer had any interest in mechanical engineering. As I embraced my new calling, the unknowns both scared me and thrilled me; and the thought of returning to the stability of my old job—which I had once enjoyed and was familiar with—now felt like a prison sentence.
When I first spoke to Cynthia about my calling to ministry, I said, “You realize, of course, that I have no idea what this means exactly.” A calling rarely includes a detailed picture of what you’ll be doing, where you will go, or even how you will fulfill your purpose. That can feel troubling because many have the mistaken notion that a calling comes with a supernatural, clear vision of the future. It doesn’t. All I could tell anyone at that point was that I would be devoting myself to a vocation in Christian ministry. Missionary to China? Traveling evangelist? Serving some role in a local church? Teaching? Writing? Chaplaincy? I honestly had no clue.
A clear sense of calling rarely comes with a detailed plan. In most cases, God supplies only one detail: the next step. I’ve noticed that’s where a lot of people become paralyzed. They refuse to release what they have or walk away from where they are without first receiving a detailed vision of their destination. They want the entire journey handed to them in a mental map before committing to the first step. Consequently, some never fulfill their calling. Those who do embrace their calling as more than a pipe dream sometimes fail to take the first step because they do not trust their own instincts, or they do not receive encouragement from their loved ones, or they do not trust God to sustain them along their journey through the unknown. Initially, we do not know where the calling will take us, but the first step flashes like a bright neon sign.
For me, the first step was training. I didn’t know for certain where I would receive instruction, but I knew I needed to be better equipped. I would return home to my job at the Reed Roller Bit Company to put food on the table, but I would waste no time submitting an application for admission to my first choice: Dallas Theological Seminary.
A Sense of Destiny
With a genuine calling comes a settled assurance. A conviction that’s hard to describe takes root in the deep, quiet depth of your soul. While tempests churn your conscious mind into fifty-foot swells, down in the ocean depths of your being, beyond the reach of circumstances, you know what you should be doing and you know that you can find no satisfaction in any other pursuit. In fact, as you embrace your calling, you begin to recognize a profound sense of destiny. Not only were you created to fulfill a divine purpose, you acknowledge that the events of your life have prepared you for the next step in fulfilling your calling.
Not only were you created to fulfill a divine purpose, you acknowledge that the events of your life have prepared you for the next step in fulfilling your calling.
There in the crucible of Okinawa, I awakened to the calling of God to proclaim the truths of Scripture. I finally realized that it was necessary for me to be there. God had to interrupt my life plan—as good and as godly as it was—to get my attention. God had to remove me from the distractions of what I thought was an idyllic life to show me something greater. God had to isolate me from all other voices and all outside influences so that, in the solitude of that remote South Pacific island, my reason for being would become obvious. Once I accepted that difficult truth, my past made more sense. I recognized that my path thus far could have led nowhere else and that it was leading me toward a God-ordained future.
For example, I first began to consider ministry because of the success I enjoyed as a leader. When I entered the ranks of the Marine Corps, I didn’t know I had the qualities necessary for leadership until one day, while on the rifle range, my drill instructor shouted my name. As I stood at attention before him, he handed me a red armband, designating me the “right guide,” that is, the company leader. He said, “Take this. You’re a leader.” I was stunned. He could have told me, “You’re Chinese,” and I would not have been less surprised.
I also entertained the idea of ministry because I had developed a measure of confidence in public speaking. I felt at ease in front of an audience. I could think and speak fairly well on my feet, and with preparation, I had the ability to express myself with even greater ease. But this ability was anything but natural.
While I was growing up I never thought of myself as a public speaker, and I certainly would never have imagined myself a preacher. I was raised around churches and had gotten to know a few preachers, but the thought never entered my head that I would one day stand and deliver. Not only was I not interested, I lived with a major struggle: I stuttered. Who knows why? All I can tell you is it grew steadily worse during my early teenage years. By the time I entered high school, speaking in front of a group was the last place I wanted to be.
All that changed the day I met Richard Nieme.
Mr. Nieme (pronounced “Nee-mee”) was the drama and speech teacher at Milby High School. For some reason unknown to me he determined to get me into at least one of his courses. I’ve often wondered if my sister, Luci, tipped him off, since she used to endure my strutting around the house q-q-q-q-quoting lines f-f-f-from various p-p-p-poems I’d m-m-m-memorized. I’ve always loved great poetry. I found that memorizing the lines came easily, but delivering them was another story. But I didn’t let that stop me from committing poetic lines to memory—I loved doing that! My problem was punching out those lines smoothly. I could see them in my head, but my tongue and lips didn’t cooperate. Trying to impress my family as the poet laureate of the Swindoll clan while quoting several of Coleridge’s moving lines from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or a passionate section of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” I sounded more like Porky Pig on a bad day.
That explains why I looked down and backed away when Mr. Nieme first approached me in the hallway. I was convinced he was talking to the guy at the next locker. That kid had everything; he was muscular, handsome, and popular. He had a harem of girls hanging around him before every class. It made all the sense in the world for Mr. Nieme to recruit him, not me. But that clearly wasn’t his plan. He didn’t seem to realize that I was already well on my way to winning the “Least Likely to Succeed” award at that school. When he pressed me for an answer, all I could squeeze out was, “M-m-m-m-me? Are y-y-you t-t-talking to m-m-m-me?”
He flashed a big, toothy smile and responded, “Of course! You belong on our debate team and in my drama class!”
That made absolutely no sense to me and I told him so—or I tried to. But he wouldn’t give up. He said strange stuff like, “You’ve got what it takes—you really do. I’m convinced that you will one day star in the leading role of one of our plays.” By then I was stunned. Those words seemed incredible to me. I couldn’t believe he used the word “convinced.” The only thing I was convinced of was that he thought I was somebody else. But he didn’t let up. I couldn’t believe what he said next: “After you and I have spent some time together, you’ll be as convinced as I am.”
Could he really help me speak without stuttering and stammering?
Now, that intrigued me. What could he possibly do or say that would enable me to punch out my words like other kids? Did he do magic? Could he really help me speak without stuttering and stammering?
Nieme was smart. He never pushed too hard… never shamed me or tried to force me. He would drop the bait in subtle ways each time he saw me, always reassuring me that (1) I had what it takes (whatever “it” was) and (2) he would show me how. His blend of enthusiasm, affirmation, and confidence finally broke through my resistance and doubt. I signed on. His beginning drama course became one of my electives. Little did I know the difference that decision would make, not only for the rest of my high school years, but for the rest of my life.
He didn’t waste any time. He and I met regularly that summer, just the two of us, as he mentored me in the basic rudiments of speech therapy. He took his time helping me picture in my mind all those words that I had previously rushed into. He gave me exercises that encouraged me to “pace” my words, each time very deliberately. We would go over all the exercises again and again as he patiently instructed me… always encouraging me. He helped me see that my mind was running ahead of my mouth (I now have the opposite problem!). I needed to slow the process and think about what I was saying in order to coordinate the flow of words. He emphasized the value of enunciation. He underscored the importance of projection. Slowly, I began to get the hang of it. In fact, before school started that next fall, I was making real progress conquering a habit that had embarrassed me for years.
Tears ran as I sat all alone, remembering the man who accepted me and loved me and believed in me long before I could ever believe in myself.
No one was more excited than Mr. Nieme! He couldn’t wait to cast me in a minor role in the first of four plays we did that year. I found his enthusiasm contagious, so I threw myself into the part with gusto. I not only said each one of my lines, I stuttered only a time or two. He was elated. In fact, he made sure I had a part in each of the other three plays that year. Believe it or not, by my senior year, we did a three-act play, George Washington Slept Here, and I played the leading role. As the final curtain closed on the last act, guess who was first on his feet yelling and whistling and screaming for a curtain call?
Sadly, Richard Nieme died several years ago. I grieved his passing. Though I wasn’t able to attend his memorial service, I was asked to write the eulogy, which I was honored to do. Tears ran as I sat all alone, remembering the man who accepted me and loved me and believed in me long before I could ever believe in myself. He passed along some of the most helpful principles I’ve learned. Thanks to him, I discovered how to communicate with ease and authenticity before an audience. I still use some of those principles he taught me each time I speak or preach publicly. Admittedly, there are times I still find myself almost stuttering on certain words, but thanks to those summer days he patiently worked with me, I rarely stumble badly. My gratitude for the investment Richard Nieme made in my young life knows no bounds. And, were it not for his dedication to a stammering nobody in the halls of Milby High School, my days on Okinawa would have passed without consequence. I never would have taken a lead role in Bob Newkirk’s ministry and would not have been prepared to recognize my calling, much less respond to it.
This growing sense of destiny not only brought the realization that God had been systematically removing barriers to fulfilling my purpose—the terrible speech impediment being the most significant—I also saw His hand at work very early in my life. I recall one particular moment when I was eleven years old. As I raced through the kitchen toward the back door, eager to join my friends in a game of sandlot football, my mother stopped me. “Come here, Charles, I want to show you a Bible verse I am claiming for you.”
At that moment in time, I had one objective in life: to get to the sandlot before they chose up sides. That was very important to me because I wanted to be on Bruce’s team. Either Bruce had flunked a couple of grades or he was the biggest kid in the history of the sixth grade. So, the formula for winning was simple. If you had Bruce on your team, you won. I liked winning, so I had no interest in Mom’s Bible verse. But she insisted, “Come here!”
She showed me a proverb:
A man’s gift makes room for him,
And brings him before great men. (Prov. 18:16)
She said again, “Charles, I’m claiming that for you.”
“Gee, Mom, that’s great. Can I go now?”
Fast-forward to the early 1980s. A group known as Christian Embassy invited me to speak at their annual event, which was held at The Homestead, a historic retreat center in central Virginia, not far from the Capitol. I arrived the day before to settle in, finish preparing my talk, and attend their evening reception. That’s when I discovered the audience would include two members of the president’s cabinet, numerous high-ranking officers serving at the Pentagon, more than one ambassador, and administrators representing several levels of government. It was one impressive group of people!
The next morning, I went for an early run on the grounds of that historic inn, which had been welcoming guests since 1766. On the advice of another guest, I followed a particular path through those Allegheny old-growth woods until I reached an enormous oak said to have been familiar to Ben Franklin. I doubt five men could have joined hands around the base of that tree and it towered above all its neighbors. As I paused before that historic tree, I was overcome with a sense of history and the gravity of what I was about to do became unmistakably clear. As I ran my hand over the bark of that tree, touching that living witness to history, my mother’s words suddenly returned and washed over my mind, bathing my memories in the warm assurance of my call. That night, I would indeed stand before great men. Though not a prophetess, her prophecy would be fulfilled. She had spoken as a mother expressing great hope for her son… but that day I realized the Lord had woven her words into His purpose for my life.
I knew I had nothing to fear standing before those men and women holding positions of immense power. God made me for this. He had prepared me. He guided my footsteps from my mother’s kitchen, to the Marine Corps, to Okinawa, to Bob Newkirk, and from there to Dallas Theological Seminary.
And so… as I sat with my wife before Dr. Campbell that May morning in 1959, his question resonated in the hollows of my heart. “Could I be happy and fulfilled doing anything else, in any vocation other than ministry?” I knew where I had been and I had a strong sense of where I was going. If there were any doubts before I walked into his office, his question convinced me that I would be a frustrated shell of a man pursuing any other endeavor. I raised my eyes to meet his and I replied, “No, sir, I could not be happy or fulfilled doing anything else.”
I knew where I had been and I had a strong sense of where I was going.
Calling and Speaking
So, what does this have to do with public speaking? Why did I devote an entire chapter to exploring the topic of “calling”? The answer is simple. One’s calling—knowing who you are and for what purpose you have been selected and equipped—is foundational to success in all areas of life, not the least of which is public speaking. A clear sense of calling transforms good public speakers into great communicators. There are two powerful reasons for this.
Great communicators speak with passion.
One writer noted that the most effective sermons are preached on tip-toe. In an article written nearly a century ago, he compared two evangelists who had been invited to address soldiers at a military base.
One preached a wonderful sermon full of spiritual truth and intellectual food for thought. It would have been welcomed in the pulpit of any great evangelical church in America. But there were no results among the soldier boys. It lacked heart and warmth. The preacher kept his facts with his feet on solid ground and I enjoyed it, but the soldiers were bored and left him by scores until he did not have half an audience.
The sermon of the other preacher was not half as good in material or in intellectual or spiritual insight. In fact, the next morning one of the army chaplains told me that he would not like to see in print such a common sort of talk and call it a sermon. It was rather weak in logic and in spiritual discernment. But it got the boys and led literally hundreds of them to confess Christ. Why? He preached with the deepest heart earnestness and longing for the lives of the men before him. He was possessed with a passion which put his soul on tip-toe in his anxiety to lead men to God. And they felt it and they responded to that appeal.
Any reasonably intelligent person can gather relevant facts; that’s simply a matter of knowing how to search the Internet or utilize a library. Most any person with average critical thinking skills can arrange those facts into a logical sequence to prove a point or present new information. In fact, I can say with confidence that given sufficient time, I can prepare a talk on just about any subject. Dentistry, stamp collecting, astronomy, flying an airplane—it really doesn’t matter. It is doubtful, however, that many will stay around long enough to hear what I have to say. Not because the subject is boring or because I didn’t spend enough time preparing, but for the simple fact that I don’t find any of those topics all that interesting. And if I don’t find them riveting, my audience won’t either. Great speeches and life-changing sermons begin with good material, but it’s the speaker’s passion that seizes an audience and compels their attention.
Great communicators know their calling. They joyfully sacrifice anything that distracts them from fulfilling their purpose. They relentlessly devote themselves to the pursuit of more knowledge and greater expertise. They delight to know the latest developments, the most current methods, and the secrets of emerging leaders in their field. They have strong opinions about their realm of expertise—what has worked in the past, what needs to happen next, and what must change in the future. Consequently, all of that dedication and the full measure of the communicator’s passion set him “on tip-toe” when speaking. When you give someone who knows her calling a stage and a microphone, her enthusiasm invariably holds her audience in rapt attention long enough to transform their thinking until she’s ready to let them go.
Great communicators know their calling.
Those who do not know their purpose in life and who have not given passionate pursuit to their calling may become competent in the craft of public speaking, but they will never achieve anywhere near their full potential, to say nothing of greatness. They can try to manufacture enthusiasm, but bigger gestures and more shouting won’t fool audiences for long.
Great communicators stay in the zone.
A great speech
Serves the audience.
Honors the occasion.
Utilizes the venue.
Acknowledges the times.
We’ll develop these points later on, but for now, I want to focus on the effect of knowing one’s calling. Accomplished public speakers eventually develop the skills to achieve all four goals, regardless of the circumstances, even when called upon to speak extemporaneously. However, great communicators carefully screen their invitations, accepting only those that offer the greatest opportunity for success in all four endeavors. When you know your calling, you know your audience intimately and you gain a keen sense of what they need. Furthermore, knowing your purpose in life will sharpen your instincts to a razor-fine edge. You will know which occasions are ripe for your perspective, you will learn how to make the best use of a venue, and your timing will become borderline impeccable.
Great communicators know their calling and they learn to stay in “the zone.” Those who haven’t come to terms with their calling can become competent speakers but, without a clear life focus, their speeches lack that certain “something” and they just can’t figure out what’s missing.
What about you?
The concept of a “calling” envisions the sovereign work of God.
People most naturally associate the idea of “calling” with ministry. And rightly so. God does select a handful of men and women from each generation to lay aside other pursuits in order to serve Him full-time in vocational ministry. Our culture also uses the term “calling” in conjunction with vocations our society has deemed lofty or noble. For example, one might say he is called to the field of medicine. Another may follow her calling in the fields of law or social work. That’s because the concept of a “calling” envisions the sovereign work of God in the selection and preparation of an individual to fulfill a particular role or accomplish a specific task. He or she is divinely selected and then systematically prepared to fulfill his or her purpose in life.
I don’t want to diminish the high and holy calling of service to God in ministry, and I don’t intend to cheapen other noble professions. Nevertheless, I do believe each person has a calling upon his or her life to fulfill a special purpose. This calling may or may not affect one’s vocation; not all callings demand a career change. In fact, many people make their living at one vocation in order to finance their calling. Artists, musicians, and other gifted individuals commonly do this. Even Paul the Apostle used his trade in tent making to finance his evangelistic efforts (Acts 18:3; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8).
I draw my conviction from my understanding of the Bible, a perspective that can be summarized nicely with two proverbs:
The mind of man plans his way,
But the Lord directs his steps. (Prov. 16:9)
Man’s steps are ordained by the Lord,
How then can man understand his way? (Prov. 20:24)
Both proverbs affirm that each person has a divinely ordained purpose. When the Creator fashioned the universe out of nothing, He had you in mind—among a great many other things, of course. Nevertheless, you factored into His idea of how the world should work. He gave you specific gifts and He ordered certain events to help nurture those abilities. In my case, He gave me a teacher named Richard Nieme, who cleared away a speech impediment in order to release my gift of public speaking. He provided a mentor named Bob Newkirk, who gave me many opportunities to speak and to lead. I suspect that if you review your own history, you’ll discover the imprint of God’s design on your life as well.
Even so, these two proverbs dispel any notion of fatalism. While God has given each individual a unique purpose to fulfill, a personalized path to follow, He also grants us the freedom to choose whether or not to walk in His way. In other words, the Lord has prepared a plan for your life, but you are not compelled to follow His design. He has gifted you and has nurtured you, but you don’t have to follow His plan. You can shape your life as you please; you have a range of freedom in which you can ignore your design and make your own way. If God designed you to be a screwdriver, you can try to hammer nails if you want. But I don’t recommend it. The price you pay in terms of frustration and mediocrity is too high.
If God designed you to be a screwdriver, you can try to hammer nails if you want. But I don’t recommend it.
For now, set aside any thoughts of public speaking. Don’t worry; I’ll come back to it soon enough. But for the time being, focus instead on discovering your calling, your purpose in life. Don’t move on to the next chapters until you have come to terms with this foundational issue. Otherwise, they will hold little value for you. Indeed, excellence in public speaking will elude you like quicksilver.
The world is waiting to hear an authentic voice, a voice from God—not an echo of what others are doing and saying, but an authentic voice.
—A. W. Tozer
Saying it well” has everything to do with preparing well. Poor preparation—weak message. There is no exception.
I didn’t go to seminary to learn how to preach; I committed myself to training so I’d have something to say. Once I discovered my calling, I found direction, but I had a long, long way to go before I was ready to stand before an audience and deliver the goods. At the time, I could not have known how long that journey would last, but I knew my first priority was preparation.
This might seem obvious, but I think before you speak to others, you should have something to say. And, for sure, you should know what you’re talking about.
You laugh? How many times have you heard someone stand before a crowd and then say nothing eloquently? How many well-executed speeches or sermons have you heard that offered no fresh information, no creative insights, no stimulating motivation, no passionate call-to-action? I can’t speak for you, but I’ve heard more than I care to remember… usually from a pulpit. I call them “longhorn sermons”—a point here, a point there, and a lot o’ bull in between.
I didn’t want that to be true of me. I loathed the thought of clothing the riches of truth in rags. I had been called to proclaim the truths of Scripture and to urge women and men to apply its principles. But before I could do that, I needed knowledge and skills. I needed to know what the Bible was all about. Admittedly, I lacked the skills necessary to dig practical, relevant answers out of the Scriptures when faced with the ever-changing needs of those who listened. Following my growth in biblical knowledge and the cultivation of my theological understanding, I then made the mechanics of public speaking my focus.
While on Okinawa, I took on more responsibility in the leadership of “GIs for Christ” and accepted greater participation in street meetings with Bob Newkirk, all the while growing more comfortable before others. That, as I explained, led to a realization that I had been called to full-time, vocational ministry. In what capacity, I didn’t know. To what part of the world, I hadn’t a clue. But the next step could not have been clearer. In fact, when Cynthia responded to my letter telling her of my call, her next sentence was, “What about training? Where will you go to prepare?”
Any worthwhile calling demands preparation.
Any worthwhile calling demands preparation. Instruction. Guidance. Knowledge. Skills. Training. Natural talent may be sufficient to do an adequate job, but it’s not enough to get anywhere near excellence. Those who rush into their calling without adequate preparation invariably make mistakes. Most of those mistakes could have been avoided with the advice of someone more experienced. Moreover, they learn the hard way what a mentor could have taught in a brief period of time. How often I have seen God-given talent run amuck by human pride.
Cynthia and I agreed that any work done for God was worth the investment of preparation. It was just a matter of choosing the right place, sitting at the feet of the right people.
Just a couple of years earlier, any distance to prepare for a lifetime of ministry would have been a daunting prospect, but my perspective of geography changed while on Okinawa. I was willing to go anywhere. So, when deciding on a seminary, I thought about my most significant influences. I recalled a pastor in Houston who whetted my appetite for theology and the deeper truths of Scripture. He was a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate. I reflected on my brief encounter with Ray Stedman while stationed in San Francisco, also a product of DTS. I scanned my bookshelf and saw a distinct pattern in my reading habits: Salvation and True Evangelism by Lewis Sperry Chafer, Things to Come by J. Dwight Pentecost, even some works by W. H. Griffith Thomas. I also respected a few notable names, including J. Vernon McGee and Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life. Each author had prepared at that same school.
It didn’t take me long to set my sights on Dallas Theological Seminary. If forced to consider another school, I would find training somewhere… but DTS quickly became my first choice. Unfortunately, the seminary offered master’s-level degrees and, therefore, might not accept my limited academic background and practical years of apprenticeship in lieu of a traditional bachelor’s degree. To make matters worse, they had far more applicants than available seats. Still, I had to try.
In April 1959, after another seventeen-day transport across the Pacific—this time much smoother, in more ways than one—I mustered out of the Marine Corps on Treasure Island, not far from where I began active duty. I boarded a flight for Houston, where Cynthia and I stole away for a second honeymoon. Within a couple of weeks after returning home, I began the application process. Much sooner than I expected, an invitation came from the registrar to visit the campus and allow him to interview the two of us in person. So, one spring morning, Cynthia and I made the four-hour-plus drive to Dallas… I freely confess I was more nervous than a witch in church.
“Good luck, buddy. You haven’t the slightest chance with this background.”
While we waited to see the registrar, Cynthia and I held hands and prayed, which helped calm my nerves. That is, until my name was called. I stood at attention before the desk of a very severe-looking woman who stared at me over the top of her glasses. She glanced at my file and then back at me with an expression that said, “Good luck, buddy. You haven’t the slightest chance with this background.” I thought she was the registrar until Dr. Donald K. Campbell emerged from his office to greet me. As it turns out, she was merely the gatekeeper. I had yet to face the decision maker.
Initially, Dr. Campbell seemed stern, to me, but he quickly warmed up. He asked us to tell our story, so I gave a brief history of our marriage and my call, and explained how I arrived in Dallas from Houston by way of Okinawa.
After asking several penetrating questions about my call to ministry, He expressed his reservations in unguarded terms. “This is master’s-level work and you don’t have an academic record to demonstrate you can handle it. I want you to complete a couple of exams before we go any further.” He handed me a packet and said, “Complete these at home and return them by mail. We’ll proceed from there.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”
“If we accept you as a student, you’ll be on probation for a year. Do you understand?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir. I accept those conditions, and I’m grateful you’ll even consider that.”
“And you’ll need to give this your all. One hundred percent.”
I assured him, “I promise to give it my best.”
“Because,” he pressed further, “two other candidates who want your slot will be receiving a disappointing letter.”
I suppose that should have made me more nervous, but for reasons I can’t explain, the overwhelming odds against my admission gave me great peace. If accepted, it would be a clear affirmation of God’s desire that I attend Dallas Seminary and nowhere else. If I were denied admission, He obviously had other plans. Regardless, the challenge cemented my resolve, and, somewhere beneath the doubts and fears I felt a settled confidence that my next four years of preparation would be spent at that institution. I completed the exams, returned them as promised, and then received a letter inviting me to begin my studies in August. The letter reiterated that I would be enrolled as a “special student” on probationary status. I was expected to meet with Dr. Campbell two or three times each semester to review my progress. Fine with me… grace abounded… I was in! Continues...
Excerpted from Saying It Well by Swindoll, Charles R. Copyright © 2012 by Swindoll, Charles R.. Excerpted by permission.
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