In The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink, historian William Inboden tells a chilling story I had not heard before about Stanislav Petrov.
On September 25, 1983, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov walked through the gate at the Serpukhov-15 early warning base south of Moscow, where he would begin his twelve-hour command shift. The Kremlin had recently deployed a new satellite surveillance system known as Oko (“Eye”) that could detect American ICBM launches as soon as they left their silos.
An engineer, Petrov had helped design and program the new system. He knew that when Oko worked, it gave the Kremlin a new way of monitoring America’s missile basis.
But he also knew that Oko did not always work.
A few minutes past midnight on September 26, the red letters “LAUNCH” lit up an alarm panel. An alarm siren began to wail as well. Petrov ordered his operators to double-check their systems. Though they reported that all was well, he thought it must be a false alarm.
Then the screen burst with lights showing at least five American ICBMs coming, possibly many more. Standing orders dictated alerting the Soviet high command so they could launch retaliatory strikes before the American missiles impacted.
That decision window was closing fast.
However, something did not seem right to Petrov.
He did not believe America would launch a preemptive strike and did not want to be responsible for a nuclear war. He saw no detection of the missiles by ground-based radar. As Inboden writes, “He did not trust Oko. He made a gut decision and told the duty officer it was a false alarm. He waited, knowing that his career—and the fate of his nation, even the world—rested in the balance.”
Of course, he was right.
An investigation would later reveal that reflections from high clouds over US missile bases in Wyoming had triggered the system. Inboden concludes: “Petrov’s quiet heroism in preventing a nuclear war would not come to light until a decade hence. The United States knew nothing of it at the time.”
Stanislav Petrov and our “calling within our calling”
If nuclear war between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had broken out in 1983, I might not be writing these words. You might not be alive to read them. My sons might not have been born.
We owe an unpayable debt to a Soviet engineer whose courage saved us from nuclear disaster.
Of all the lessons this story can teach us, one that might be less apparent seems to me to be especially relevant for pastors.
Like military officers assigned a specific rank and responsibility in serving their country, you and I have been assigned a specific calling in serving God’s kingdom. I don’t just mean as pastors of churches. I mean that you and I each have a specific set of gifts, abilities, challenges, educational experiences, and opportunities that have uniquely prepared us for our calling.
However, unlike military officers who have a singular responsibility within the chain of command, senior pastors have five jobs:
- preaching the gospel
- teaching God’s word
- leading God’s church
- ministering to the needs of God’s people
- evangelizing the lost
Each of them could easily be a full-time job. In fact, in large churches, they often are. But even in such settings, the senior pastor is expected to play all five roles in at least some way.
Here’s my point: no matter how large or small our church and staff, it is vital that we do everything we do as an expression of our “calling within our calling,” our unique assignment by which we can serve God’s kingdom most fully and effectively.
The difference between a laser and a light bulb
For example, my primary spiritual gift is teaching. However, when I first became a pastor, I thought that teaching was just one of my many responsibilities and began trying to master the others as independent disciplines.
Over several years (and much frustration), I came to discover that I could:
- preach as a teacher by delivering expository sermons that focused on the biblical intent and narrative
- lead the church as a teacher by seeking and applying biblical principles to the opportunities and challenges we faced
- minister to our members as a teacher by showing them biblical truth and promises they could claim in their times of need.
- evangelize as a teacher by explaining the gospel clearly and practically to lost people, many of whom had never understood its basic truths
I have known other pastors whose primary gift was pastoral ministry. This calling came through in their preaching, teaching, leading, and evangelizing. The pastor whose ministry led me to Christ was primarily an evangelist. This calling was obvious in his preaching, teaching, leading, and ministering. And I have known pastors whose primary calling was leadership. They expressed this gift in their communication, ministry, and evangelism.
To me, this focus on our specific calling reflects Paul’s analogy of the church as a body with many members. As a foot is not a hand and an eye is not an ear, so we are what we are uniquely made to be (1 Corinthians 12:14–20).
It’s been said that the difference between a laser and a light bulb is focus. (While this is not technically true, you get the point.)
“A musician must make music”
Winston Churchill stated, “I have but one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.” Biblical scholar William Barclay observed, “A man will never become outstandingly good at anything unless that thing is his ruling passion. There must be something of which he can say, ‘For me to live is this.’”
This observation by psychologist Abraham Maslow has been very powerful for me: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.”
Tenor Luciano Pavarotti said that his father, a baker, introduced him to music and urged him to work hard to develop his voice. A professional tenor in his hometown of Modena, Italy, eventually took him as a pupil. Pavarotti also enrolled in a teachers’ college.
After graduation, he asked his father, “Shall I be a teacher or a singer?”
“Luciano,” his father replied, “if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.”
Pavarotti added, “I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now I think whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book—whatever we choose—we should give ourselves to it.
“Commitment, that’s the key. Choose one chair.”
What is your “one chair”?