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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Why I am Still in the Ministry

I remember my first youth event at church as a 12 year old. I remember the room we were in at the church my parents still attend. I remember some of the leaders and some of the older students. I remember a devotional magazine they gave us called, “Encounter.” There was also a magazine for teens called, “Event.” Both of these were developed by our denomination and I liked them. When my older children were teens I looked up current versions of these magazines and tried to get my kids to read them;  they didn’t seem too interested.

But these publications helped me. I kept them right by my bed. I would stack them neatly along with my Living Bible, which I used at the time. I still remember a story in “Event.” It was written like a conversation between God and a teenage boy and it encouraged me to think God would talk with me like that. I read that story over and over. The devotional magazine helped me get started in a life long habit. I began attempting what many call a “quiet time.” I don’t like the phrase. It sounds so peaceful, so serene, so out of touch with the real world. I found my struggles to consistently pray anything but peaceful, except for the times when literally kneeling and lying over my bed, I would go to sleep.

At some point, my pastor encouraged me to ditch the devotional book and get straight to my bible to read. I am grateful for that advice because it provoked me to read the bible in larger chunks. Before I graduated from high school, I had made my way through the whole thing, in the King James version! For graduation my pastor gave me my first copy of My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. Such devotional books can help guide such times of prayer as long as they do move you into prayer and actual bible reading.

I have often thought about how to encourage people in this practice. It seems so churchy and predicable to challenge, “You need to be having a quiet time.” But I’m not sure what else to call it. Maybe this story will help.

I took my first ministry position in August of 1982 as the music and youth director at Manchester Baptist Church in Manchester, Kentucky. I had no idea what I was doing. I believed God had called me to ministry. I had seen my pastor in high school preach publicly and teach in small groups. People regularly committed their lives to Jesus for the first time and many of us were challenged and recommitted ourselves to God at such occasions. I remember so many times, my heart burning within me as he would speak or pray. However, when I would speak or pray, people went to sleep. Teenagers thought I was the weirdest person they had ever seen. Most weeks there were no more than 2 or 3 present, and it did not grow. I felt powerless.

Kat and I met and married and then graduated from college. A few weeks later we moved off to Texas to go to seminary. While in seminary, I served in two more churches doing mostly music but some youth work. I still felt powerless. Ministry was hard. Nothing ever seemed to happen in people’s lives. I might have thought this was normal, if I hadn’t already experienced something very different.

In my next to last semester in the fall of 1988, I enrolled in a class that challenged me to pray and engage God through his word in a new way. I learned to use scripture to prompt my praying. I was prompted for instance to pick up Psalms 111 and make the words my own so that I would pray, “I praise you Lord! I will give thanks to you with my whole heart . . . ” Every day I used a different scripture to help me actually worship, not just say that I was praying. It helped me to know how to pray by following the prayers in scripture. The other big thing that happened through this class was that I began to daily experience the delight, I mean that with everything in me, the delight of not just reading the bible, but studying it, reflecting on it long enough so that I would be provoked to write something down.

That semester changed my life. If I had not learned to more practically pray and study in this way, I would not have lasted in the ministry. A few weeks into the semester I sensed that preaching was going to be a different experience. (I didn’t have a ministry position at the time and so there were no formal opportunities to preach or teach.) I had learned to connect with God’s word in such a way that ignited passion inside of me that I knew would affect others.

Why do I tell you all this? Because there is no substitute to helping you successfully follow Jesus than time to pray and to study scripture. You need it more than you need to eat. Perhaps you have given up hope that your life could be different than it is now. But we don’t change because we don’t allow the medicine of God’s word to get into us to the degree that it would be effective in making us well. The challenge to get alone with God is not something to feel guilty about. It cannot be an “ought to do” sort of thing that leaves you feeling worse about yourself. Much of the time it will be anything but quiet as God provokes your soul, challenges you, corrects you, and makes it real to you that he loves you. This kind of time can become for you not a drudgery that you know you should do, but don’t want to, and have no intention to do. Rather, it can become the thing you long to do, the thing that delights your soul. But be warned, just because it becomes the delight of your heart, doesn’t mean it becomes easy to do. Satan will use every tool in his arsenal to distract you from listening to God. Shouldn’t we be pursuing the very thing that Satan is working hard to keep us from doing?

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