Our lives are often marked with defining moments and extraordinary people that God uses to shape who we are. For me, there is one man who stands out above all the rest: Bro. Joe Blackwell. Bro. Joe passed away last summer at the young age of 94. He was a man who loved the Lord Jesus deeply and was a hero of mine. Allow me to tell you the story of his faithfulness that captured my admiration for him…
In 2018/19, I was going through a dark and difficult season of life. I often felt confused and alone. Life was not going as I had hoped and I was tired…tired of the pain and tired of being tired. On Thursday, March 7, 2019, Smoky Gibson (a friend and the Pastor of FBC Biloxi) preached in Leavell Chapel at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary. Though I did not attend that service, I did listen to the sermon as I drove back home that afternoon. I was northbound on the Causeway when I heard him say: “People are praying for you every day. Are you living like it or are you wasting their prayers?” I was angry that Smoky would say that, and I began to weep.
In my weeping and frustration, I cried out to the Lord: “Lord, there is not one person who is praying for me every day!” What I did not know is that God had a message for me the next day. Bro. Joe had asked earlier in the week to meet with me on Friday, to which I agreed (A general rule of thumb: If a retired Pastor asks a young Pastor for a meeting, the young Pastor would be wise to make the meeting.)
The meeting was at 10 AM and when Bro. Joe walked into my office, he said these words: “I am a messenger from the Lord, who has been sent to tell you that I have been praying for you every day, for the past three months.”
I do not remember how long Bro. Joe and I talked for, but I do remember that I wept and poured my heart out to this brother. He listened and he responded with compassion and grace. He prayed for me in those moments and shared some great insight with me, insight that I hope I never forget. Of the many things we discussed, he told me this: “Never forget the Holy Spirit.”
There were other things that Bro. Joe shared with me, and I’ll share those things eventually; until then, here is one lesson that God has reminded me of these past few days and was demonstrated in Bro. Joe’s faithfulness: Be the person who is faithfully praying for someone else. Granted, it is impossible to faithfully and specifically pray for everyone you know. However, for those whom God has given you a burden, you can pray for faithfully. In my immediate context of Student and College Ministry, I recognize, as Richard Ross has noted, that the adult leaders in youth ministries may be the only adults who are faithfully praying for students by name.
So, dear friend, who can you pray for faithfully and by name? May we be a people who emulate Bro. Joe’s example of faithful intercession—albeit our prayers may never be known by anyone other that God himself.
Thank you, God, for Bro. Joe.
On the Journey,
*Article updated for typos on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.*
Of the movie soundtracks I listen to, my favorite is from The Greatest Showman. My favorite song on the track is “From Now On.” The song comes as P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) has a moment of clarity. Really, it was a turning point for him; he came back to his senses after having went crazy for a bit. As he sings, Barnum makes the statement that “for years and years, I chased their cheers; the crazy need for speed of always needing more.” In the song, he resolves that he will not “be blinded by the lights.” Eventually, as the song closes, he goes back home to reconnect with his family and reconcile with his wife.
Though the movie is somewhat based in reality, Barnum’s story serves as a leadership lesson for us. Barnum chased the applause of men and was met with destruction. Just as Barnum chased applause, we too are tempted to do the same in leadership. We want to be accepted, liked, and praised by those that we seek to serve. While leading for praise may prove to be beneficial in the short term, it is never effective (or beneficial) in the long run, nor is it what we have been called to do.
Why is leading for praise not the game plan?
1) God denounced it in his Word. John recorded in John 12.43: For they loved human praise more than praise from God. This verse comes after John’s declaration that many did believe in him [Jesus] even among the rulers, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, so that they would not be banned from the synagogue (v42). These rulers had come to faith and yet would not publicly pronounce their faith in the Lord Jesus. They were more concerned about what others thought than they were concerned about doing the right thing.
2) It is short-sighted. The Psalmist declared: Some take pride in chariots, and others in horses, but we take pride in the name of the LORD our God (20.7). A ruler’s perceived power and esteem was connected to the number of horses and chariots he had. However, both horses and chariots are temporary. God, on the other hand, is eternal, and has always been. Remember, John wrote that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning (John 1.1-2). Leading for praise focuses our attention on the here and now instead of on eternity. As God’s people, we work with eternity in mind. Yes, there are wins for this life, but we ought to pursue the wins that will have eternal impact.
3) It is a distraction. Nehemiah led the effort to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem; this feat was accomplished in 52 days. However, as he pursued the goal, he had critics who sought to distract him. In fact, Nehemiah noted that the efforts of his adversaries were efforts of intimidation (Neh. 6.9) and, therefore, were efforts of distraction. Those who sought to actively work against him also sought to discredit him and began to spread rumors. Nehemiah would not have any of it. His adversaries were put to shame as God completed the task.
4) It is not honoring to God. Gal 1.10c: If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. The implication of Paul’s declaration is that servants seek to please their master and not others. The Master is not honored when we stop seeking to obey.
In all of this, I understand the temptation personally…as does any honest leader. I have operated from this point before and it hurt…it hurt a great deal. I’ve listened to Pastor friends who have struggled with this temptation and I have listened to those who serve on Church Staffs and have struggled with this. No one is immune from this temptation. Nonetheless, my plea to you is this: Stop leading for the applause of men. It will drive you nuts and it is not what God has called you to do. A friend has often said that “God does not call us to the easiest, but he does call us to the best.” Embrace the best from the one who can provide the best. The work you have been called to is eternal and the applause of men, like all of us, is but for a moment.
One last thought… Since I am a Student Pastor, let me speak to fellow Student Pastors. I believe that the temptation to lead for the applause of men is especially strong in our ministry area. We serve multiple groups of people (students and their siblings, their parents, the congregation, and the rest of the Church Staff) and we want to please each group. The truth, however, is that we cannot please everybody. My grandfather has often reminded me of the adage: “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people, all of the time.” So, if you’re just starting out (or have been on this journey for some time), remember what you have been called to and remember, as one speaker said, “Who you are and whose you are.”
Rooting for you!
Note: I am aware that Barnum's story is much more complex and messy than the movie portrayed. To learn more of Barnum and his work, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.
When I was learning to ride a bicycle, I became well-acquainted with two of the many trees we had in our backyard. I would be pedaling along fine, but on at least two occasions, a tree jumped in front of me. In a moment of panic, I forgot that I could turn away and avoid the tree all together…or better yet, I could use the brakes. On the two occasions that I ran into the trees, my parents told me to get up and try again—even if I thought I was hurt (I did not bleed or break anything). I would get up and get back on the bike. Eventually, I did learn how to ride the bike and I enjoyed it.
As I have thought about this story over the last few days, I have been reminded that failure is okay. Pleasant? No. Okay? Yes. Truth is, failure is a part of life and it requires each person to respond to it. Often you cannot choose to fail (it often just happens), but you can choose how you will respond to failure.
For me, I choose to redefine the win. I ask: What’s the victory in this? Let us use a math test I took in high school (math and science were not my strong suits). In my junior and senior math classes, I had a series of exams and quizzes that were less than favorable. I was ready to give up and just let it be whatever it might have been. However, instead of focusing on the apparent failures, I began to look at the good. I may have only gotten 2 out of 20 right on an exam, but I did not get them all wrong. So I took my victory.
The encouragement was enough to get me through the two years of math (and I somehow passed). Redefining the win is vital. Failure does not mean that the game is over. In fact, the game is only over when you choose to not get back up. Unfortunately, many are told that failure is bad and should be avoided at all costs. But the truth is God works even in the midst of our failures to reveal himself to us, and to prepare us. He also reminds us that he is the God of redemption.
Friend, don’t shy away from the tree (Don’t go looking for the tree either. But when the tree is there, don’t shy away from it). Remember, failure can be a wonderful time of growth. So, get back up. Brush the dirt off. And get back on the bike. You are not done yet. Take the lesson you learned from the failure and press on. Eventually, you’ll get it right.
On the Journey & Rooting For You,
Ready for the biggest understatement of 2020? Well, here it is: 2020 has been a tumultuous year. Businesses, Schools, Churches, and other organizations have had to quickly adjust to an ever-changing situation. Often, by the time we are used to the current problem (and the adjustments we’ve made), the problem changes. While this has been frustrating, I recall the words of a not so well-known philosopher: It could always be worse.
While things have been rough, many have done a phenomenal job at adapting. Experts and seasoned veterans from various fields have shared insight and advice for how to navigate this season in their respective fields. However, there is one group, especially in the Church world, that has been overlooked: New ministers in new positions.
What do I mean by “new ministers in new positions”? I mean those who have either: 1) Began their new ministries during the pandemic, or 2) Those who began their new ministries shortly before the pandemic. Of those two categories, I am in the latter. I began my new position on the first of this year. I had almost two and half months on the ground before this pandemic altered the way we do…everything.
Granted, there have been many helps published during this season. However, all the helps (to my knowledge) are geared toward those who have time under their belts in their current context. Leading and shepherding is much easier when you know your people…or can at least interact with them face-to-face. (Afterall, it didn’t take long for many to experience “Zoom Fatigue.”)
A Necessary Disclaimer: Before I go any further, let me make clear what this post is not. This post is not about gaining sympathy. Rather, it is about sharing my experience in the hopes that it will be an encouragement to others who find themselves in a similar situation.
There have been a few things that have been true in my experience and maybe yours, too.
New Job. New Community. No Real Community.
Adjusting to a new job can be difficult. You must commit new policies and procedures to memory, adjust to a new workload, and learn both the people you serve and serve with. Adding a pandemic complicates things. Building community during this season has been difficult. We were told (and still are) that it can be dangerous to be around others. Therefore, we are to keep our distance. However, we were not designed only for long-distance relationships. We were designed to live in community with others. Afterall, God himself declared that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2.18, CSB).
I am nine and half months in with this new position and I do not know anyone any better than I knew them prior to quarantine (except for some co-workers). Building relationships is a two-way street. Therefore, both groups must be willing to build the relationship. However, a relationship cannot be built if you have not met the other person.
I have felt like a foreigner in this new land. But God has been good. I have sought to maintain and strengthen current relationships with close friends. Yes, it has been lonely. But God has been good and God has walked with me through this season (though I have not always been the best walker).
If this is you, know that you are not alone. Know that others are experiencing the same issues because of a lack of God-honoring community (Zoom and PS4 just aren’t sufficient). Stay the course and work at building those relationships now that things are easing up.
I’m doing stuff, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Like others, I planned for Summer 2020. Then I cancelled many things for Summer 2020. I managed to pull off two retreats in July/August and then plan for Summer 2021. I used various avenues to connect with students (daily devotions, PS4, Instagram, Remind 101, letters, etc.). But I feel as though I have not done anything or made any headway—though I know that I have.
To this dilemma, I recall the words of a friend:
Student Ministry is the most unrewarding ministry in the short-term. You often do not see immediate accomplishments and responses. You’ll have to wait 5-10 years down the road. So, be committed for the long haul.
He was/is right. Though this season has caused me to feel as though I’m not doing anything of value, I know that I am. I know that my “labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15.58, CSB). Friend be encouraged. Your work is not in vain either. Keep pressing forward.
But, by God’s grace, I’ve adapted.
God has been faithful to provide all that I need when I need. Granted, I have not always recognized his provision as I should have. Even so, by his grace, I’ve been able to keep on keeping on. By his grace, I’ve made adjustments. By his grace, some criticism has come with helpful insight and some action points to do.
A friend has often said that God does not call us to the easiest, but he does call us to the best. That has very much been the story of this season. Though it has not been the easiest, our Lord has seen fit to lead us through this time. So, we echo the words of David: Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me (Ps. 23.4, CSB).
God is still enthroned.
In the last two weeks, my Pastor has preached from Isaiah 6. Both times he has reminded us that God is still enthroned regardless of who is in office or the things we face. God is still glorious and is faithfully ruling over all things. Be reminded of the Word of the Lord from Isaiah 6.1-4 (CSB):
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. (2) Seraphim were standing above him; they each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. (3) And one called to another:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies;
his glory fills the whole earth.
(4) The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.
Friend, if this has been a difficult season for you as you navigate a new ministry, know that you're not alone. Make it a point to talk to a trusted friend or your Pastor about your experience during this season. Know that I'd love to hear from you, too. While I may not be able to offer much, I can offer to pray for you. Stay the course.
On the journey,
P.S. If you've read this post and are not the "New Guy," but you know someone who is, make it a point to reach out to him/her and check in and give some encouragement.