“He sighed. Other people could stand up and speak to an assembly, apparently, without that dreadful feeling of the pressure of personality; could say what they would as though they were speaking to only one person.”
The above lines were thought by the small boy Simon in the classic Lord of the Flies. Simon was a quiet boy, a thinker and not a speaker. When he had a thought that he wanted to share with the other boys, he would get tongue-tied; his words never came out the way he meant to say them. I’ve always identified with Simon. I share his dread of speaking in front of others. And sometimes I feel inferior when I compare myself to preachers who are comfortable in front of a crowd, just as Simon compared himself to Ralph and Jack and Piggy.
You know the preachers I’m talking about: they get up to preach on Sunday without notes or a scrap of paper to go off of. They don’t stutter, they don’t say ‘Um’ or ‘Uh’ every third word, they make eye contact with everyone. They have a conversation with the congregation, looking each person in the eye, holding their attention with a combination of charisma, humor, and urgency that not even the most reluctant attendee can ignore. Yeah, you know them. You like them and I like them. I understand why God calls them to be preachers, and I’m thankful that he does. They are born to be in front of people; they have confidence.
I have confidence that I’m not one of them.
As for me, if I have to speak in front of a small classroom, my stomach churns and my hands shake. Put me in front of a congregation to preach and you can add to those other symptoms hurried speech, poor eye contact, and the driest mouth north of the South Pole.
This is a story about how I came to have confidence in the mercies of God even when I can’t be confident in myself. I have wanted to write this post for a long time, but I sure had a lot of trouble when it actually came to putting it into words. This wasn’t because it is hard to talk about, but because I realized that I still don’t really understand God. I’ve learned a whole lot about him in this process, but I can’t always explain why he works the way he does. Maybe that’s what I was supposed to learn all along.
As I’ve mentioned many times lately, I went to Israel this summer. It was a momentous occasion for me, a chance to travel and learn and do it all in the context of the Bible. I couldn’t be happier.
The saga of how I ended up in Israel this summer goes back about five years to the day I gave in and decided to answer God’s call on my life to pastoral ministry. Actually, it goes back further than that, to the two years I’d already spent in school running from God’s call. For two years I tried to convince God that I wouldn’t make a good pastor. I couldn’t preach because I was scared to death of speaking for half an hour in front of people every week. Never mind that I hadn’t tried it yet; I knew I couldn’t do it.
And so it went. Time and again God would softly call me towards the ministry. Time and again I would fold my arms and refuse. But God is ever so tricky. He was a way with hearts, you know, and sometime during my sophomore year mine finally caved in. The big blow came during a chapel service with Dr. Fullingim as he talked about his mission work in Papua New Guinea. I still don’t think his message had much relevance for my own future, but for some reason God asked me again if I would do what he asked, and this time I answered that I would because my heart didn’t want to do anything else. God had won; I was going to be a pastor.
Now that I was committed, I had to face two things that seemed like tragedies to me at the time. I was going to have to take preaching classes (which turned out to not be so bad). Even though I was so nervous the night before my first sermon that dropping out sounded better than preaching, I learned that God would not call me to do something he wasn’t going to give me strength to do, that I could trust him. I may not preach like the great preachers I envision in my mind, but I preach with the ability I have been given. That is all he asks.
The second tragedy was that I was not going to graduate on time. I would have to spend one extra semester at OWU to fit all the pastoral classes in. I tend to be a perfectionist, and so not graduating when I should was a bit of a blow to my ego and a bit of a blow to what I thought were my plans.
Today I thank God for that extra semester, because my life would be totally different today had I not stuck around at OWU for a few more months. My plans had been to graduate in four years and then go to a seminary for Biblical Studies. The only school on my radar at the time was Nazarene Theological Seminary, and I probably would have gone there had I graduated on time. However, midway through my extra semester, a new professor sat me down and suggested I look other places. He named some schools, including Asbury.
This was irony at its finest, because four years earlier as a freshman I had laughed to myself when I saw an Asbury representative advertising the school in our student center. “Yeah right, like I would ever go to some podunk school in Kentucky,” I thought. But now my professor suggested it, I checked it out online, I saw it had the exact Biblical Studies program I wanted, I got accepted, I visited campus with another new professor who just happened to be an Asbury grad, and I immediately sensed as we drove into Wilmore that here was where God wanted me to go next. To a not-so-podunk school in Kentucky.
If it hadn’t been for that extra semester, I would never have met the two men who suggested I look other places, who said maybe Asbury would be a good fit. If it hadn’t been for that extra semester, I wouldn’t have taken the incredible classes I’ve been lucky enough to be in for the past two years. I wouldn’t have met friends and teachers who have taught me so much. I wouldn’t have gone to Israel on an archaeological dig this summer.
Other life-changing things happened because of that extra semester. In my semester off, I sort of fell into an assistant coaching position for my college track team. And when the coach quit a week into the season, the other assistant and I took the reins and did our best to carry on. It gave me a chance to gain leadership experience that was much needed.
That summer I was lucky enough to get one final job as an OWU student. I was placed on a church plant team to Westlake Community Church in Saratoga Springs, Utah. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would spend two summers out there learning in the best internship I could imagine. I love that little church, and I can’t imagine what my future would be like if I hadn’t had those two summers to train for ministry.
Asbury, track coach, Utah, Israel: all enormous blessings that I have been fortunate enough to experience as I followed God’s call. And, as far as I can tell, all of them made possible because of my own reluctance to answer God’s call, because I drug my feet for so long.
If I hadn’t refused to be a preacher, if I had answered the call to the ministry a year earlier, I would have graduated on time. I wouldn’t have been a track coach, interned in Utah, enrolled at Asbury, traveled to Israel. None of those opportunities would have been available to me a year earlier. I can’t imagine my life without these things, and I realize now that the whole course of the rest of my life may have been affected by the softening God made in my heart that one day in chapel.
The very fact that I’m sitting outside tonight in the park in front of the university in Wilmore, KY writing this confession is somewhat contingent on this timing. I said it was my reluctance that got me to this point, but that probably isn’t the best way to put it. Maybe I mean that, in spite of my reluctance, God has gotten me to this point.
You see, this is the thing that I have been struggling to understand. How can I feel like I am in exactly the place God wants me to be right now, learning from the right people, being prepared academically and pastorally for whatever lays ahead, when the only reason I am at any of these places is because I was so stubborn at first? Did God know all along I would be so stubborn? What if I had said ‘yes’ to God’s call as a freshman at OWU, graduated on time, went to NTS, and took my first pastorate this summer? What if I never went to Kentucky or Utah or Israel because I was MORE obedient, MORE willing to trust and have confidence in God?
I can’t really answer those questions. I can’t know what would have happened if choices had been different. I don’t need to know, and it is silly for me to question why I have been so blessed by God these past few years. It is likely that, had I been quicker to listen to God at the beginning, my path would have been equally difficult and wonderful and in the will of God. And so is where I am now.
But I still wonder about how God works. It seems amazing to think that our all-powerful God was patient with me, waited until I could put my trust in him that he wouldn’t let me fall if I attempted to stand and preach, and then went ahead with his plans when I was ready. To dip briefly into the Calvinist/Arminian debate, the sovereign God is getting what he wanted in the end, but I had the free will to choose to go along with it, even as he worked on my heart and my desire..
I’m not entirely sure how accurate that is, but it seems to line up well with the experiences of many people in the Bible. Jacob was a liar until he wrestled with God and got a new name. God took the new and improved Jacob and went on with his work. Moses (who I can relate to best of all) was frightened of speaking to Pharaoh, but his heart was softened, and he learned to trust God, and God’s work went on.
Gideon questioned, Samson was weak in more ways than one, David sinned, Elijah complained, Jeremiah complained even more, Peter denied, the other disciples fled, and Thomas doubted. Each time God was patient until they were on board, and when they were ready he put them to work. God was always merciful, and always his work went on. Paul persecuted Christians until God intervened directly in his life. Paul was transformed, he was put to work, and God’s work went on.
These are some of the endless mercies of God; he has patience with us when we are stubborn. He knows how awful we can be, and he still puts us to work. Some of us are a little slower on the uptake than others, but at some point we have to decide to go along with what God is doing.
Romans 8:28 is an oft quoted verse that makes us feel good. “But we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Yes, God works for good, but it may not always be the good we imagine. I thought ‘good’ meant not having to preach, but God thinks ‘good’ means that everyone hears the good news about Jesus. I was called for that purpose; I had to get on board with what was really good, not what made me feel good. The ‘good’ things in my life that I am so grateful for have come as I have joined in the hard work toward the ‘good’ that God is working for.
God works for good and he works in mercy. His mercies mold, transform, prune, embolden, strengthen, and purify us so that we too can work for good. I don’t know why he chooses to work this way, but it’s clear he does. Maybe he has called you to do something, to follow him and work with him. And maybe you are scared because what he is asking doesn’t sound good to you. Maybe your idea of good isn’t what is important. Mine wasn’t.
God is working on many things, in many places, with millions of workers. But all this work is for one purpose, to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, to bring peace, and joy, and love through Jesus. To work for good through mercy. And I am one of the chief beneficiaries of said mercy.