My career in professional ministry was short, unsuccessful, and ended about three years ago. I was an “interim youth pastor” for nine months. When my services were no longer required, I told God, myself, my wife, my pastor, and my friends, “I never want to do that again.” And, considering the matter closed, I proceeded to get on with life.
I found a new church, found a new job, and basically revamped my worldview, (if such a thing can be done basically). So when folks in my new church asked me if I’d start a youth ministry, I declined. “There’s hardly even any teenagers in our church,” I pointed out. It was a handy response, because it had the benefit of being true. I did agree to pray about it, however. I am the sort of person who will give any idea at least some consideration.
They say prayer is not so much about changing God’s mind, but allowing our minds to be changed. Maybe that’s true. I certainly had no expectation at all that my mind would be changed though. See, I had finally figured out that I wasn’t any good at youth ministry. People of a certain group have been telling me that in one way or another for my whole life. But it took me actually doing it professionally to realize that they were right. Why would I say such a disparaging thing about myself?
•I lack what many people call vision, because the only goals I know how to set are small and simple.
•I am terrible at the administration aspect of leading a group. My attempts at setting a budget for the youth group were as successful as my childhood attempts at digging until I reached lava.
•I have absolutely no stomach for the interpersonal conflicts known as “church politics.”
•Most importantly, I don’t have the right sort of personality to lead youth, (this last bit of information was directly stated to me by a superior during my time as a professional youth pastor). I have a quiet, introverted, morose mode of living. But what was needed was an extroverted, excited, exuberant personality.
•I also have an awkward attachment to alliteration.
I knew all these shortcomings about myself before I began professional youth ministry. Yet I still decided to give it a shot. I can change, I told myself, I can pretend to be an extrovert who knows how to do stuff!
The effort drove me back and forth between fragile self-assurance, and stable despair. It was exhausting, confusing, and ultimately doomed. Thus, after a predictable ending to that career, I swore it off. I took a job building non-lethal, blade-based robots that was both interesting, and repetitive. I loved it, loved it, because it was the perfect antithesis of what I had just come from. And then, some months later, came the request to return.
So, yes, I refused. I gave my excuse about how the lack of teenagers showed that there wasn’t really a need. But I also prayed, and I started paying closer attention to how many teenagers came to church every week. One this week, then none, three the week after that. Then four. Then two. I recalled the promise I had made to God many years ago, that I would never, ever turn down an opportunity to teach his Word. That promise bothered me, because I was breaking it. Gears turned in my mind. I found myself planning out what book of the Bible I would start out teaching. I wondered what it would be like. Returning to ministry no longer felt impossible, it felt inevitable.
So, I built a wall that I felt wouldn’t be breached for a long time. I decided that I would start a youth group if six teenagers showed up at church two weeks in a row. Of course, six teenagers showed up two weeks in a row almost immediately. God broke through the barriers I had set up. Still, I hesitated.
The problem was that what God wanted was the opposite of what I wanted. He wanted me to serve, and I wanted to be left alone. We had to come to an understanding. And so, I literally sat down to have a talk with him one night. It was a one-sided conversation, and it went like this:
“Listen, you’ve got the wrong guy for the job. We both know what happened the last time I tried this. I thought we were in agreement that the whole thing had been a mistake. But, I know my place, and I know yours. I’ll do what you tell me to do. And I will fail. So if you want this thing to work, then you have to make it happen. I have nothing good to bring to the table, so I’m not going to bring anything at all. I’ll show up on Sunday mornings and get the youth together. If you don’t come and take over, then it’s not going to go well. This is your idea, not mine. And I’d like the record to show that I think it’s an awful plan.”
Maybe that was arrogant of me to try to dictate terms to God. Maybe that was faithless of me. I’m not proud of that prayer. It was perhaps a new low point in my service to God. But I think that it was necessary for me to reach that low point, because it had the benefit of being true. I’m not good at this. I’m not a natural. I needed to recognize that.
Some of you are wondering how that scenario worked out. Others are asking yourselves, “What the heck? Tom works for a church. His professional career didn’t end three years ago.” Ah, but I make a distinction. I did start teaching again. I have been a youth pastor for about a year and a half now. And I have been getting compensated for it since January. But I am not a professional. It is a fine line that I draw. It’s the difference between getting paid because you do something, and doing something because you get paid. It’s the difference between working, and serving. How do I make sure that I’m on the right side of that line?
For me, the distinction is embodied in the way that I pray now. In the past, I typically said something like this prayer before I preached: “God, help me do this work well. Open up the hearts and minds of the people who will be listening, and make up for my shortcomings.” Nowadays, I don’t leave the house Sunday mornings before saying a prayer that goes more like this: “God, do this work. Bypass me completely, because I am wholly made of shortcomings. If you don’t show up, we’re all wasting our time.”
So far, our arrangement has been working out nicely.
It’s Ray Day again. That means that today is the anniversary of the sudden end of a man’s life. For all the hand wringing and surviver’s guilt I’ve gone through for the last five years, today I feel nothing but gratitude. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel awful that we couldn’t save Ray. But I am thankful that I am still alive, and I am thankful for all the good and bad things that have happened to me since then. Life goes on, at least for some of us. Let’s not waste it, friends.
“Jeeze, Tom! Do you know everybody in this town?” The grocery store bagger asked me this question because I was holding a conversation with the customer behind me while at the same time waving hello to a cashier a few aisles down. It took me off guard, not only because I didn’t actually know the other customer, or because I was surprised that the cashier considered me somebody that she knew enough to wave at, but because I don’t generally consider myself a friendly person.
“No, not everybody,” I replied, “there are still a few people. I’m working on it.” I was playing along, because I could see why he would say that. But his question got me thinking about the four employees of that particular grocery store whom I did know by name. And, oddly enough, there were three customers within my field of view whom I also knew.
It was a surreal moment, because I immediately realized that I knew more than those peoples’ names. I actually knew at least a little about each one of them. That man had his only child late in life, and quite unexpectedly. This guy had once been investigated for gang activity, but had pulled his life back from the brink for the sake of his own unexpected son. I’d gone to youth group with that girl when we were young. I grew up with that guy’s big brother.
I felt strange, as if I’d just realized that I’d grown a mustache without noticing. I paid my bill, said hello to two other people on the way out the door, and pushed my groceries out to the car. When had this happened? How do I actually know so many people? Am I friendly? It might be time to re-evaluate my life.
We’ve had a netflix streaming account for maybe six months now. I can’t even remember how much we pay for it, but I just cancelled it a week ago. My kids have had countless adventures with Diego and the Backyardigans. My wife has watched some movies, tried out a few series. In all that time, all I have watched is:
Trollhunter, a Norwegian movie with subtitles
Primer, a mind warping time-travel movie made on $7,000
and the whole series of the Mr. Bean television show, which may very well be the best thing ever done with video recording technology.
I stand by my choices. I will not miss netflix, (until the new episodes of Arrested Development start airing).
Ever since I started attending Simple Truth church, I’ve been fielding questions about our youth group. The funny thing about it was that there wasn’t a youth group at Simple Truth. We were small, we still are small in a relative sense. I honestly didn’t feel there was a need for a youth group at the time. But there were rumors going around that I was the youth pastor for our small church. Indeed, there were rumors going around that the reason I went to Simple Truth was because they offered me that position. People are funny.
Anyway, things change, the needs of the church change, and so do I. So at least some of the rumors are going to become true. Simple Youth starts this Sunday for High School and Junior High. Show up at 9:30 to eat and hang out, services start at 10:00.
Here’s the website with the address: Simple Truth
I tried to write a long post about Holy Week, human nature, and who knows what else. It got too complicated for me to follow my own thought processes. But the main point was intended to be simple, and it is this:
The crowd shouted, “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday because they had certain expectations of Jesus. Then they shouted, “Crucify him!” on Good Friday because Jesus didn’t meet those expectations.
Jesus rode a donkey instead of a white horse on Palm Sunday to show that he had a different agenda than the crowd. Then he died on Good Friday to fulfill his agenda.
The crowd wanted Jesus to deliver them from Roman rule. But Jesus came to deliver us from the dominion of sin.
So many times, my own prayers sound like the hosannas of Palm Sunday. I have my expectations of God. And when he doesn’t meet those expectations, my heart turns from him the same way that the crowd did. But God has plans for me that are so much better than mine. He goes ahead with those plans even when my heart betrays him, just as he did on Good Friday.
My job is not to dictate my wishes to God, he is not a genie. My job is to receive what he has for me.
The following story has three titles that you may choose from:
the right way to be late for work
what it sounds like when the voices in your head are smarter than you
how it is to be trapped in the body of a moron
Whichever title you decide upon, I hope you enjoy my morning commute.
If you could admit it to yourself, you would have confess that you are expecting bad news. But, it’s hard to be that honest with yourself. So you shrug and say things like, “We’ll see,” and, “Hope for the best!” Or, you don’t say anything at all. You clench your teeth without realizing you’re doing it until your jaw begins to hurt. Your stomach twists. You avoid people. You sweat.
But when you suddenly receive good news instead of what you anticipated, there’s no other relief like that that kind of relief.
Yesterday I put out a request for stories. Here, in the raw format in which I received them, is what has come in so far. I am very grateful. If anything more makes its way to me over the next few days, I’ll put up another post. I’m working on my own story to throw into the mix too. Thanks for playing along, everybody!
The night was alive as Jake and I arrived in Munich Germany. Both 18, we had finally accomplished our escape, though we didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. Had little reason to even think it really. We weren’t from some dying town in the Midwest which cultivates that acute sense of claustrophobia and subsequently, an overwhelming need to get out of Dodge ASAP.
We were from a thriving area of paradise not far from the fabled Santa Barbara. More fabled then I knew before taking my first missions trip to Russia when I was 14, only to find that seemingly everyone in the USSR had seen the soap opera Santa Barbara and knew exactly where on the map we lived, how we all lived in enormous mansions and had affairs in the middle of the day.
Anyway standing in the Munich airport with a steady buzz of people humming around from here and there it was easy to feel fully alive as I looked out the glass wall of windows with snow gently starting down and some city lights in the near distance. With our train not coming until morning we had the whole night to kill-meaning try to find somewhere to stay warm and get some grub (preferably without spending too much of our precious dough).
So we set off on foot into the oncoming snow with all our luggage, into the distance and, low and behold, after what seemed to be an unreal amount of time, came to a beautiful 4 star hotel of towering glass and steel.
So, after the careful consideration that young men are known for, we went in and found a world that we had only seen in the movies. It was like on Titanic where everyone had already paid for the ticket and was just going up freely to take as much food as the wanted. Glorious piles of amazing looking food everywhere and no one was paying for any of it! So far, we were loving Erurope. We grabbed some plates, stuffed ourselves and chatted a couple of people up to find out what was going on. Apparently some flight had been delayed overnight, so everyone had been diverted for a free stay at the hotel which included dinner and we just happened to be there to cash in on it. We then crashed on a couple of couches on one of the quieter floors to be awaken by management (which happened to be around the same time we needed to get going anyway) who, it turns out, were very cool and gave us a free breakfast on our way out the door. It felt like a personalized and very gentle wake up call more than an eviction really. We then proceeded to find our way around the famously punctual transit syste. Well Jake was finding our way around and I was, preoccupied as I sometimes am, my brain working Fuhrer- I mean furiously, to figure out the connection between the obvious ability to make trains be on time and having a fiercely ingrained take-over-the-world gene that would make you try to take over every so often.
We were both so wrapped up in these important questions of finding our way around and solving the mysteries of the German people that we didn’t find it very odd that we were hopping on and off trains and not paying anything.
After several free rides on the public transit we finally got to our train which, by the way, was taking us to Spittal Austria, a small idealic town set in the Alps. A perfect place. It was the home of the European Calvary Chapel Bible College, a place that Jake had found surfing the web. He then called me up and asked if I wanted to move there instead of Tahoe which is where we had been saving and planning on moving to be ski bums. In fact we already had jobs there. I said “sure” and I guess Jake didn’t use the internet anymore that week because we were headed to bible college a week later with no further interruption.
On the main leg of the train trip to Spittal we ran into a guy named George who was actually from our home town of Paradise and was headed to the Bible college for a semester as well. I’ll never forget the worried/superior look on Georges face when he said that Christians really irritated him.
My favorite part of this whole little jaunt from the airport in Munich to our arrival at the Bible college was when Jake rehashed all these afore- mentioned happenings on the welcoming worship and testimonial night during the share stories of how God provided for you to get here. Jake had a lot of confidence and easy smile and an overall creepy story to tell of how we mooched, took without asking and basically cheapskated our way into town, with the unique Christian spin that God has really guided and provided for our whole way. Luckily I was quick enough to play it cool and look around curiously whenever Jake motioned to me during this testimony to play it off as if I too were looking to see who his mysterious partner in crime was. This also afforded me the option of looking back to see a couple of people cringing and a couple of teachers trying not to laugh. To top it off Jake made what he meant as respectful remark about how cool it was to see so many great Christian girls around. This time there was not suppressing the laughter at this dude on stage and his mysterious friend no one seemed to be able to locate.
Janet Gillett – Too large a heart
When I was 12 I had a best friend named Marilyn, who was one of 7 children. Her older brother Terry, who was 15 had a terrible crush on me. I was too young to pay any attention to this until one Valentine’s Day. He gave me a giant heart shaped box of chocolate, which of course I could not refuse. I had only one problem about this transaction, how to get it home and safely under my bed without my mother seeing it. She would make me return it no doubt, plus even more concerning to me was the size of it. It was twice the size of the one I had bought for her. So I decided to break in to my own house. I climbed up to the bathroom window but struggled with removing the screen quietly and in my haste tore a huge hole in it. Now even though I made it safely inside with this treasure of chocolate , a confession was necessary. As you can imagine , all did not go well.
Lilianna Gillett – Lili and Levi
It is my birthday tomorrow, (I can keep track of things this far in advance), and I have a request: tell me a story. That’s what I want. It can be real, it can be complete make believe. I don’t even care if it’s well told. Write something up and send it to me: firstname.lastname@example.org. With your permission, I’ll make a post of whatever stories come, giving you as much notoriety or anonymity as you desire. Or, if you want me to keep it to myself, I’ll just keep it to myself. Sound good? I think so.