A few nights ago my wife thought it would be cool for us to watch a DVD of me speaking at my home church from eleven years ago.
It was excruciating…for me.
She, on the other hand, loved it.
After all, it wasn’t her up there mumbling and bumbling and publicly making a mess of things.
As we watched, true to form I over critiqued myself – “I never knew a person could fit so many ‘and-ums’ into a single sentence”, “What on earth does that dumb story have to do with my main point?”, “Do I even have a main point?”...it went downhill from there.
Free of such public flagellation, my wife just had a grand ole’ time picking out people in the crowd, noticing how much they’ve changed. She even lol’d at a few of my jokes if I must say so myself.
One thing we could both agree upon is that it is unsettling just how much life can change in eleven short years.
We noticed people in the crowd who went on to die untimely deaths in the past decade. There were several married couples in the camera shots that have since divorced. Sadly, there were many in the congregation that day who no longer profess to be followers of Jesus Christ.
And the tall, skinny, comedian-preacher with the microphone, he’s almost unrecognizable.
For example, my wife said my southern drawl isn’t a thick now as it was back then. Perhaps those two years we spent in Chicago trying to plant a church nine-hundred miles away from home increased the number of syllables that I take a stab at annunciating these days.
Then there is my hair. Oh man. It was so much fuller and darker then.
Premature grey and receding hairlines are hereditary in my family, but I can’t help but wonder how much of my worse-for-wear mop I see in the mirror these days might be attributed to things like simultaneously raising an epileptic child, fighting to keep our church alive, and working a day job in order to stave off bankruptcy.
More than a little wistfulness crept upon me as I watched my former self and longed for a return of some of the things I’ve lost.
But I’m not talking about my size 30 waist, my darkened locks, or my offhanded wit.
Sure I wish I had some of those things back, but the thing I miss most about my twenty-eight-year-old self is my unwavering confidence in my calling.
The DVD we watched happened to be the day I announced to the church that Sarah and I would be leaving the church we were raised in to go be involved in church planting in Chicago.
Although I got emotional when referencing how difficult it was going to be to leave my spiritual birthplace and friends and family that were there that day, when I spoke of the things that God was calling us to do for Him there was no tremor in my voice, no tripping over my words, not a single “and-um’.
When I spoke of God’s miraculous call on our lives, I did so with absolute certainty. When I talked about the great harvest of souls that God had commissioned us to reach, it was never a matter of if, only when.
I absolutely KNEW what God called me to do. I absolutely KNEW that God was going to do it.
There was not a doubt in my mind.
But that was then.
Do I Still Have What It Takes?
My wife makes the best ham sandwiches. She always nails the perfect mix of cheddar cheese, onion, tomato, and ham. A few months ago I was woofing one of those down on my vapor of a lunch break and received a text message from a pastor.
Jathan, I was praying and really felt like God wants you to come speak at our church within the next few months. It would be great if you could squeeze us in sometime before the end of the year. If not then, maybe January.
I smirked and said out loud to myself through a mouth full of wheat bread and spicy mustard, “I’ll try to squeeze you in, pastor, but I can’t make any promises. Besides, I don’t know if you can afford me.”
The truth is, since I resigned my church over two years ago, I rarely preach anymore. He didn’t know it but I had EVERY weekend open.
Don’t get me wrong, I do speak every couple of months at my home church where I serve as a volunteer and I have had sporadic speaking engagements at several other churches in the past few years.
But although these opportunities went well and I was thankful for them, there was no requisite momentum and for over a year now, my phone has been quiet and my ministry seems to be like one of those old ships far, far away from shore, just sitting atop the still water, painfully stuck in a motionless doldrums.
No wind. No movement. No progress.
To be truthful, I stared at that text message for several moments and fought back the urge to make up some kind of excuse why I couldn’t come.
It’s not that I’m too good to preach for his church, or I’m too busy, or the drive would be too hard for my family. I almost turned him down because I really questioned whether or not my ministry would do his church any good.
How the mighty have fallen.
Such a faithless thought never would have entered the mind of that dark-headed, joke-cracking, pulpit-banging, twenty-eight-year-old.
But that guy hadn’t yet tried everything he knew only to see it produce middling ministry results.
That guy hadn’t yet started a small church while working a full-time job and taking care of a sick kid.
That guy hadn’t yet burned himself out and battled depression before waving the white flag and limping back to that church he’d left nine years earlier…only a shell of the one he was when he’d so confidently departed.
A Taste of What I Once Was
I’m thankful to say that I did muster enough fear of God to go preach for that pastor.
I’m so glad that I did.
We even found someone crazy enough to babysit our four small children for the weekend and I got to bring my wife along. It was like we were twenty-eight again.
It was amazing.
The church service was very powerful. Many supernatural works took place and God actually used me as his vessel to perform many of them.
The icing on the cake was that the next day we got to spend the whole day with several other pastor friends of ours.
It was so encouraging to be in an environment so saturated with ministry. The combination of having been used by God that Sunday and being saturated in a ministry environment on Monday poured over us a healing balm of ministry validation that we’ve not felt in quite some time.
It felt like we were home.
I felt twenty-eight again, only wiser, more seasoned, more ready.
I felt like I could do this again, that God wasn’t finished with me yet.
Working for God Much?
Sometimes I pull up Les Montgomery and Anthony Wilson albums on YouTube when I’m writing. Inevitably I have to turn them off because I get too distracted by the magical sound of a jazz guitar in the hands of a master to be as productive a writer as I need to be.
I can play a bit myself, but I’ll never be able to get THAT kind of sound out of a jazz guitar.
But it’s not because I don’t own one.
My grandfather needed to sell his Gibson Les Paul some time ago and my father took it off his hands in order to keep it in the family. Knowing my love for jazz guitars, my father generously passed it on to me. After which I promptly loaned it back to my grandfather so he could keep playing it in church.
I saw my grandfather today at a Christmas gathering and he said something that would have bounced off of twenty-eight-year-old Jathan like a toy arrow off of a flak jacket.
Having sufficiently stuffed ourselves on peach cobbler and ice cream we inevitable engaged in casual conversation. At some point, my grandfather decided to “thank” me for loaning his guitar back to him.
Here’s how he worded it: Jathan, you might not be doing much for God these days, but your guitar sure is.
It was a joke I know. And I also know my grandfather well enough to be able to contextualize his humor. I also know that in many ways this is not true.
I’m not doing nothing for God.
First of all, I’m being a present father to my children. I feel like my family is my most important ministry, especially in light of the tragic fact that an unfortunate number of pastors neglect their family in favor of doting on high-maintenance parishioners.
Secondly, I volunteer at my home church in a significant capacity.
Third, I write these little articles that a surprising number of you read and email me back telling me how much they’ve encouraged you. Thank you.
All of that notwithstanding, my grandfather’s words came a month since that ministry weekend that my wife and I so enjoyed and the doldrums have stalled us once again.
The sails are limp, the water a shiny sheet of glass in every direction.
At first, a retreat from my ministry peak back to the obscurity of the classroom didn’t phase me. I stayed strong.
I even got several shares of a social media post that went something like this: Joseph was a servant in Potiphar’s house but he wasn’t a slave. He was a prisoner on lockdown but not a criminal. You are not always your circumstances. Keep believing.
And I did keep believing. For about two weeks.
But the long, weary days in the classroom, then home to do homework, baths, and cleaning up behind my four children eventually took their toll. Our current financial realities hurt a little more at Christmas time.
By the end of the month, therefore, those accusing voices in my head that tell me it’s my fault I’m stuck, that I could have done more, that if I had what it took I would have been more successful in ministry at this point in my life took their usual place of prominence in my psyche.
This is something twenty-eight-year-old Jathan never would have tolerated.
Enough Faith For Today
A few minutes ago a minister buzzed my phone once again. Only, it wasn’t a pastor this time.
Instead it was an itinerant minister friend of mine who has plenty struggles of his own. Nor was this minister touching base to see if I was available to fulfill some ministry request of his. In fact, he wasn’t even asking me to pray that God would heal him of the West Nile virus so he can get back in the pulpit after what has been several months flat of his back.
Instead, he told me that God had put me on his heart very strongly over these past two weeks and that he’s praying for me. He also wanted me to know that I was on God’s mind and He’s for me and my little family. He concluded by saying that what I was doing was pleasing to God.
And for a moment, for a peaceful space in time, the wind stirred a faint ripple on the water. I could hear a smattering of flaps in the sails.
I could also hear the voice of He who called me rise above the one who accuses me.
And that’s why I wrote this piece.
Perhaps you need that same voice today, that whisper of encouragement that will keep you believing. And for today, that will be enough.
It was for me.
Get unstuck by believing the TRUTH about yourself.