I first arrived in Kolkata, India in the quiet hours of the early morning. The calm on the streets was strangely incongruent with the chaos that would follow; it was as if the deserted street had to catch its breath before the onslaught of another day.
Once the city awoke, overwhelm and sensory overload became my normative experience. Kolkata is a city bursting at the seams with people, movement, noises, and smells, all of which left my head spinning. In addition, everywhere I looked there were signs of need and poverty. By the end of my first week on this short exposure trip, I was questioning how any person wanting to catalyze change in this setting could hope to make even a small dent.
Where would one even begin?
Yet this is the very setting where, nearly 70 years ago, God called one tiny little nun to start a movement of compassion. Despite the chaos and overwhelming nature of the city, the influence of Mother’s Teresa presence can still be felt nearly 20 years after her death.
In learning more of her story since that visit, I’ve found that Mother Teresa has a surprising answer to the question I asked on the streets that day. Where do we begin? Her answer has hit me at my core, even as I try to serve Jesus in contexts that are arguably much less extreme. I believe it is an answer for all of us.
Put simply, that beginning place is the love of God.
When I dove into Mother Teresa’s story as told in the book Mother Teresa, Lord Be My Light, I found that loving God and seeking to know his love personally was woven throughout everything in her life. It was the foundation upon which she trained co-workers for ministry. It was the heart of her vision for the poor. It was even the catalyst of the setting where she received her vision. I have found few people who have built as much of their life on the genuine love of God as Mother Teresa did. It was her greatest strength.
A Vision Birthed in Love
It was on her annual spiritual retreat that Mother Teresa had her now-famous vision to form an order of missionaries to the poor in the “slums and streets” of Kolkata. She had already been serving with the Loreto sisters in Kolkata as a school teacher for 17 years, doing work she loved alongside a community she loved.
In those 17 years of service she had become deeply committed to the disciplines of surrender and immediate response to Jesus’s commands. Her love for God trumped her love of everything else. It was on retreat, in a time set apart to simply be with Jesus, that she heard words that would change the rest of her life.
Mother Teresa's vision and call to love the poor came as a call to care for the suffering Christ. Walking the lanes of Kolkata past the Temple of Kali (the goddess of death and destruction), you can still see the words of Jesus that propelled Mother Teresa, inscribed on the outer wall of the Home for the Dying: “I Thirst.” It was only her love for Jesus that made her willing to leave the community and work she cared about and do something quite risky and unorthodox.
In my own life, I tend to put the proverbial cart before the horse. I want a world-changing vision, and then I will love Jesus by living it out. In her rhythm of retreat, Mother Teresa first sought God just to love him, and then he asked her to love the world.
For the Purpose of Love
In speaking of her purpose and focus, Mother Teresa said very clearly, “My call is not to serve the poor. My call is to follow Jesus. I have followed him to the poor. But if he called me to the rich, I would go to the rich.”
Though many focused on her outward actions and impact, for her the center never shifted. It always was, and always would be, simply loving and obeying Jesus. I’ve walked out the painful path of pressure and guilt that comes when vision and results take center stage in life and ministry. They can be a cruel task-master. In the midst of that discouraging journey, I felt God tugging at my heart to set my goals aside and just be with him. He was gently reminding me that he doesn’t only love the world; he also loves me.
Exploring Mother Teresa’s “starting place” reminds me that our primary call is to seek God, not vision. The latter comes out of the former. And even if it doesn’t, my primary call is to love Jesus first. When I feel pressure to keep putting the cart before the horse, I have to remind myself that God actually wants to reach the people of the world more than I do. He passionately wants every heart. But he wants to start with mine.
Begin With Love
There is no such thing as an easy place to serve Jesus, whether following him as a full-time minister in the slums, or seeking to live a life of integrity and love toward our co-workers. Needs surround us and will overwhelm us if we make them primary. It is so easy to get caught up in focusing solely on those realities and the impact we hope to make for God, but connecting with the love of God is both the birthing place and the sustainer of vision.
We can’t expect our dreams of what we want to do for Jesus to fuel us and keep us going. There is no substitute for taking the time and space necessary to cultivate a deep, thriving place of connection with the love of God — letting that be our sustaining force and vision. If we have that love, the chaos will not overwhelm us. We may not have all the answers or be able to mend all the pain that we see, but we will know where to begin.
We begin, and end, simply loving Jesus. And letting him love us.
Take the Next Step
Contemplation. There are many ways to begin to cultivate love for Jesus. One practice that many believers have found helpful is contemplation. Contemplation in its simplest form is simply being present with Jesus. Try taking just five or ten minutes in your day to pause and focus your heart on God. One way of doing this is to imagine yourself being submerged in the river of God’s love. As distractions and worries come to mind, imagine them being carried away by the stream as you continue to rest in God’s love.
Meditation. Choose a verse of scripture that speaks to your heart about the truth of God’s love. Spend a few minutes each day quietly reflecting on the words. Let the Holy Spirit take that truth deeper into your heart.
Retreat. Schedule a time to get away and connect with God. Choose a place with minimal distraction that will give you a sense of rest, such as a quiet hotel room or somewhere connected to nature. Try to let go of any specific agenda. Take a Bible and a journal, maybe some art supplies or a beloved book, and ask God to reveal more of his heart to you. You may want to consider making this a regular pattern in your life, whether it’s one day every few months or one weekend per year.
Spiritual Direction. One of the gifts of being part of the body of Christ is that we don’t have to be on our journey of following God alone. A spiritual director is trained to deeply listen to your life story and create space for you to discover how God is revealing himself in your daily life. They can offer perspective and help in uncovering the ways your heart uniquely connects to the heart of God, and suggest different spiritual practices that have historically helped many believers know the love of Jesus personally.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Megan (Beehler) Reynolds and her husband Dean live in Aurora, Colorado. Megan has been involved with the InnerCHANGE Denver team and enjoyed getting to know refugee neighbors from many nations. She has been with CRM since 2014 and with CRM's Communications team since 2015.
For further reading: Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk
This post was originally shared in 2015.