TEXT: Psalm 145 (selected verses)
This is our second week with Psalm 145 and the last one in the “My Story, My Song” series. Last week we looked at the meaning of praise, described and demonstrated in Psalm 145 as remembering who God is and what God has done. That act of remembering through praise is not only an expression of faithful worship to God, but also a spiritual resource for us as we face challenges and obstacles in the presence and the unknowns of the future.
Since I went through the Psalm in some detail last week I want to do something different this week. I want to share some of my story with you as the kind of remembering through praise that the Psalm teaches. I’ve picked a few significant times from my faith journey… and I agree with John Wright; it has been a journey! I want to share seven significant points in my journey, hoping that you will find one or more to connect with.
Age 5: Praying the Prayer
For many people the beginnings of the Christian faith begin with praying the prayer. Some call it the “sinner’s prayer”; others simply recognize it as a discrete moment when we invite Jesus into our heart and lives. I believe God was at work long before I did that, not only in my parents’ speaking into my life, but as Ephesians says, “before the foundation of the world.” (Eph 1:4) Nonetheless, from my point of view I prayed the prayer when I was five years old in response hearing about my sin, God’s love, and the invitation to trust in Jesus Christ. It was at a neighborhood kids’ Bible club kind of thing led by a man we called “Mr. Bill” – or at least that’s what I remember. I’ve shared before that I prayed the prayer a couple of times over successive Bible clubs until my mom assured me that it worked the first time. Even before that I was praying with my parents, have memories of church (even the nursery), and was learning Bible stories. So I really don’t remember a time I didn’t know about or trust in God. But praying that prayer remains as a distinct memory in my mind and heart.
Age 12: Why Do Bad Things Happen?
At age 12 I had the first major challenge and shake-up to that simple, childhood faith. I’ve shared about this several times before because it is one of the most significant parts of my faith journey. I won’t go into great detail today, but the three-year-old sister of one of my closest friends had a medical emergency and almost lost her life. And the end result of that was damage to her brain that locked her in at an infant-stage of mental development for the rest of her life. There are many significant parts to that story, but one of those for me was coming face to face with the hard question, “Why do bad things happen to innocent people?” Many people ask this question in college as they study philosophy and religion. Many others face this question as adults when someone they love gets cancer or is in an accident or dies prematurely. For me it was at 12 and it forced my faith to “grow up.” Actually I think the two alternatives for most people are to bail out or to grow up. And I don’t blame many for bailing out. There is not one simple answer to that question, and I don’t think any of the theological or philosophical answers are satisfying when we are reeling from loss and confusion. I think the more helpful path, and the one I am thankful to have experienced, is trusting God even when we don’t understand, and being around others who trust God even when they don’t understand. I think of the story in John 9, when Jesus and the disciples passed a man blind since birth. They wanted to know why. Why did this happen? Did he do something wrong? Did his parents do something wrong? And Jesus said, “Neither… it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (v.3) Lisa alluded to this passage in her story a few weeks ago. I don’t believe God causes things like this, but I have witnessed how God does work even in situations that we think are hopeless. He did in the lives of my friend’s family and through all that happened. It is less of “why did it happen” and more of “look what God did.”
Age 18: The Valley and the Pit
The summer after I graduated high school I spent the summer in the Dominican Republic with the predecessor group to Son Servants. It was meant to be a spiritual high point after years of youth group and short-term missions. My summer staff group was there ahead of the short-term high school groups to prepare the camp and work sites for the arrival of the students. One particularly hot day I was working at a site, had run out of water, and saw all the Dominicans drinking from a clear, flowing stream nearby. We had been warned time and time again not to drink the water. But I drank the water. And I got extremely sick. I was unable to eat at all for about a week, then could only drink chicken broth for about four weeks after that. I saw a doctor in the main city and they took good care of me, but it was scary and I felt helpless (and unhelpful), not at all what I had imagined for the summer. I think it took some time after that to fully process what I experienced, but when I’ve looked back on it I think I learned what the Psalmists meant when they would cry out from the pit or talk about things like the “valley of the shadow.” It was a lot of “God, where are you?” and “God, can you hear me?” And indeed, God was with me during that and did rescue me out of that. But it gave me a glimpse into what it’s like to be completely helpless and depend utterly on God.
Age 23: Drought and Dream
I came back and went to college, which was a spiritually rich time for me. I met Heather and a strong group of Christian friends through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I found a good church and different ministry and mission opportunities eventually led me to discern a call to ministry as a pastor. But I’m not going to focus on or elaborate on that time of plenty. Rather, I want to mention another period I’ve talked about before: the two years right after college. I moved to Nashville for a two year period to explore music opportunities before going to seminary… and to stay within driving distance of Heather, who was still in college. And cut off from all the support systems and church and fellowship of college, I began to experience a real drought spiritually. I reached that point many of you may have experienced where you feel like your prayers aren’t going anywhere… just kind of bouncing off the ceiling. My “God, where are you?” stopped being addressed to God and was more like “Where is God? Do I even care anymore?” And that went on and on and on… for almost a year and a half. I’ve also shared before what brought an end to that period. It was a dream. My prayers – or thoughts by that time – were along the lines of “If God is there, He is going to have to find and help me.” And one night I had a dream, set in a familiar Nashville setting. In the dream I was sitting alone and Jesus came to me and helped me to my feet and we skipped around like little children. And something unlocked emotionally and spiritually. A few weeks ago we talked about the parable of the Shepherd going to find the one lost sheep. That’s what it felt like. I was lost like the prodigal – it wasn’t wild, crazy living. But I was lost like the sheep who was cut off from the rest and stuck. That it happened in a dream fascinates me even still, but I am profoundly thankful for the Good Shepherd who seeks and finds and rejoices when lost ones are brought home.
30s: Calling and Gifts
I’ll briefly share a snapshot from my mid-30s. I had been serving a church as an Associate Pastor for about six years and met the search committee from Good Shepherd: Quay Youngblood, George Houston, Melvin Graham, David Butler (Matt’s dad), Angela Hinton, Ashley O’Steen Butler, and others. They were looking for a pastor who loved Jesus and God’s Word. I was looking for a church that loved Jesus and God’s Word first, and one where I could fully be me, using all my gifts and quirks to their fullest. I was very musical… was that ok? If it served the Lord, absolutely! I had spent most of my 20s and early 30s trying to figure out how to be a pastor and use my musical gifts, my math/science brain, and all the other things that make me who I am. And the Lord called me to a church where I get to use all that fully and joyfully. I believe that’s what God desires for each of us – to figure out where we fit into the Body of Christ – and thrive there. I don’t believe there’s one way to do church or one kind of person that makes a Christian. God delightfully made each of us with different interests, skills, experiences, and abilities. My deep desire is to help you figure out how to be YOU for the glory of God. And I am profoundly grateful that most days I am able to experience that in my calling as your pastor.
40s: The Limits of Self-Reliance
However… in my 40s I realized the other side of that coin. It is easy, when things are going well and when you being you (or me being me) is ‘working’, to forget to put God front and center. It is easy to think “I figured this out before; I can do it again” when instead every moment of every situation needs to be asking, “God, help us, guide us, lead us.” In some ways, and only realizing this as I’ve thought through this faith journey, it’s the same lesson I faced in the Dominican Republic at 18. There are a lot of things which it seems reasonable to say, “I got this.” Or for us as a church to say, “We got this.” But there are limits (and dangers) to self-reliance! I’ve realized that over the past 10 years, sometimes painfully so. But I also think that I am learning – and the elders and congregation with me – that even when we think “we got this” we need to always, always seek God’s help, guidance, and direction. One of the ministries of the church that I’ve most valued over the past five years has been the small Friday morning prayer group. They originally formed specifically to pray for the staff and leadership of the church, knowing that we faced challenges and needed God’s help, guidance, and direction. That group continues, reaching out week by week to different staff and elders to ask for specific prayer requests for our families and ministry areas. The vital need for this kind of prayer – not only within the church, but within myself – has been one of the growing points in my late 40s.
40s-50s: Worship, Evangelism, Justice
Early on in my adulthood and ministry, I would have told you that worship was the most important thing. It was not the only thing, but the most important thing. And the first five years I was at Good Shepherd we dug deep into worship, developing music, arts, and other worship ministries. And those ministries thrived and were a blessing. As we dug into God’s Word, we began to see (or respond to!) the directive there to get beyond our walls and the next five to ten years of ministry we saw our outward ministry and mission expand. We were meeting out in the neighborhood; we were training students and interns who would go into ministry and onto the mission field. And I think we all got a fresh conviction about carrying our faith into all of life. In the past seven years or so I’ve also come to see more and more the directive in scripture about justice. It’s as much there as worship or mission, but I had been blind to it or simply disregarded it. From the Old Testament Torah to the Psalms and Prophets to the teaching of Jesus and the Epistles, scripture is as much full of “love your neighbor” and living out the justice and mercy of God as anything else you’ll find there. In the last few years we’ve been struggling with political definitions of faith and justice, but I remain convinced that these are not Republican or Democratic ideals, but Gospel issues. How we address issues of race and injustice as people of faith is central to our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. I have been thankful for my context in our presbytery for relationships with African-American pastors and elders who have been willing to share their own experiences with me and to help me understand that it’s all God’s desire for us: worship, evangelism, and justice. It’s God’s heart.
Highs and lows, plenty and want, I affirm with the Psalms we’ve been worshiping with the last 8 weeks: God is good; God is faithful; God is involved in our lives. May we know it to be true. Amen!
Some Music Used
- Salvation’s Song
- My Prayer (Bean)
- Good To Me
- Rick Bean, piano
- We Will Remember (Walker)
- Lifting Those with Heavy Loads (Boesel/Youngblood)
- Blessed Assurance