My experience with Jesus began as a child when I confessed my sin and invited Jesus into my life. I didn't know all that I know now, nor did I remain as close to Him as my initial commitment promised I would remain. I did love Jesus, though, and I knew that I needed Him as much as I needed the aforementioned oxygen so often taken for granted. One anchor for my life was hiding God's word in my heart. Psalm 119:11 promises protection for those who treasure God's word. I didn't know that my mother and other parents were making eternal investments. Nevertheless, the simple Southern Baptist program known as Bible Drills built a fortress within me and around me that continually drew me back to Christ as I strolled somewhat unaware along paths that often did not honor Christ. I'm not a big fan of programs, yet the baby shouldn't be thrown out with the bathwater (I heard someone say that once). The Spirit of God continues to use the Word of God as a "lamp to my feet and a light to my path." These parents worked in cooperation with the church to make sure that a small group of kids in a small town church grew to be devoted followers of Christ.
Our first church assignment completely out of seminary was at St. Andrew Baptist Church in Panama City, Florida. My first meeting with the search committee came after a conversation with the pastor, who later became a friend. He told me that the search committee had a variety of personalities representing different congregational desires. Some wanted a Christian social group for their children to be involved in. Others wanted someone who would keep their kids away from drugs, sex, and alcohol. Others wanted strong theological teaching and a firm grasp on the rapture and tribulation. Each committee member was a great choice for the church because ultimately they all wanted what they believed to be best for their kids. Each committee member became a friend over the course of time. One committee member, however, stood out above the rest. I remember asking what they wanted for the youth ministry. Her answer landed deep within me as she said, "I want my girls to love Jesus more than anything else in their lives. I want them to have a relationship with Him that will change their lives forever." That statement pretty much did it for me, and I prayed from that point on that if God allowed me to serve this congregation as student pastor, He would also fill the hearts and lives of students who loved Him more than anything else.
After the church graciously called me to minister to some of the most amazing students that have ever lived, I realized that this young mother was not the only one who felt the way she did. She had a sister and an extended family that wanted the same things. Grandparents came alongside parents and grandchildren to build a faith that would overcome illness, death, disease, and other evidences that in this world we will have trouble. Friends and acquaintances began to surface pointing to the truth of Christ when he proclaimed, "And if I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me." For about four years, the Lord allowed us to minister in Panama City. During that time, I had the privilege of leading a small group of young men as they navigated their faith journey. I was young and impatient, and didn't do as good a job as I could have, yet even today God reminds me that some plant, others water, but God brings the growth. Through small groups like this one, we did see tremendous growth in the lives of students. Many of them are still connected with their small group leaders today, looking to that significant adult as a primary spiritual catalyst in their lives. We engaged adults from all walks of life to pray for students, to teach students, to lead students, to listen to students, and to cry with students. These adults poured their lives into seeing God's glory shine in the lives of students. Our goal was for everyone to have someone to help each one love Jesus more than anything else in their lives and to have a relationship with Christ that would change their lives forever. We have tremendous memories from our time there. We have relationships that will last forever, and children who bear the names of those we loved there. We learned from experience watching parents connect with and partner with the church that it takes a family and a church working together for kids to embrace Christ fully and to grow into adults who make wise choices as they transfer their dependence from parents onto Jesus. Karen and I, along with our three children, continue to develop as relationships from this early ministry position live on in the fabric of our lives today.
We moved from Panama City in 1997. We had children we have tried to raise according to biblical principles and following the examples we saw in the families we served in Panama City. One other family from a church in North Carolina was also inspiring. As we raised our children in central Florida we met other parents who also wanted to raise their children to love the Lord with all of the hearts and to embrace Him fully. The difficulty was that finding a church in that town was no easy task, and many of our friends attended different congregations.
In 2009, an opportunity presented itself for me to return to full time ministry as the Minister to Families in a Baptist church in a small Florida town. This time in ministry was a highlight for our family, and I pray for many others, as we saw firsthand what happens when faith and family collide for life-changing results. The ministry started small but seemed to gain some momentum when Karen and I attended a family ministry conference with another couple from the church. We shared together, dreamed together, laughed together, and committed together to do all we could do in God's power to see families flourish for Christ in our small town. The ministry expanded as other couples came on board. One particular inspiration was a grandfather who completely immersed himself in the ministry because he desperately desired - and still desires - to pass on a legacy of faith throughout his family. A father took some steps of obedience in his life, and the Lord blessed him and his family through significant struggles, ultimately allowing he and his wife to adopt a beautiful baby girl into their family. Another couple took the Lord at face value when He promised that He would cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I learned how to live in Jesus through the storm from them, and they also were blessed through the gift of adoption as God expanded their influence in the lives of children. One couple, with children in high school and beyond, sought out ways to support and encourage others, with their own children serving as a model that Christlikeness was possible. Another couple came on board and eventually one of them joined us on staff to be part of a team focused on growing a healthy church. God brought our church a youth minister and his precious bride with a heart for Kingdom expansion in the lives of students and families. Still another family engaged from grandparents to grandchildren and worked tirelessly in the church and in the community to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to serve the Lord and make a difference on the baseball field, in athletic associations, and even in government positions. They continue to strive to be light and go against the grain of business as usual and the confusion between politics and the church.
Today the family ministry continues in new and exciting ways as one young lady, her husband, and others she has recruited live out what it means to fight the good fight. She really believes that God loves families and that He wants all families to experience the fullness of life in Christ. This young lady joined us early on, volunteering to help in any way possible. She was new to the ministry scene, and in a small town, newness can be tough to overcome - except for those who press on for the higher calling that is theirs in Christ Jesus. Family ministry in this body of believers continues to expand as a remnant of people continue moving forward in spite of obstacles that would stand in their way.
We have moved from Chariots of Fire to Trials by Fire (another name for church work - just kidding). Where is the common thread? The thread begins with the quote. He said, "when I run I feel God's pleasure." Many of us wonder why we don't have the joy we once had in Christ or the enthusiasm that makes serving Jesus so captivating. Psalm 16 reminds me that "in His presence there is fullness of joy." Only in His presence. Not around His presence or in efforts to fabricate His presence. Only in His presence can we find the pleasure of God.
My merciful Jesus has reminded me that there is a time when I most feel the pleasure of God. When I am part of equipping families (mine and others) to love Jesus more than anything and to have a relationship with Him that changes their lives forever, I feel God's pleasure. Maybe this equipping is in teaching or developing materials. Maybe it is in struggling together with other parents. Maybe even it is in engaging the enemy on spiritual battlegrounds that he has no hold over. Maybe it is in seeing families come together, in parents embracing adoption, in grandparents playing a role in a Family Experience, in moms and dads taking small, obedient steps, in young men and women marrying and trying to live out the principles of faith they have learned from faithful mentors and parents, in a young man and his wife willing to move a new place to help others dream the dream, in a young lady who gives her very existence to seeing kids and families know Jesus more, in walking alongside families as they grieve or as they celebrate. Whatever shape the equipping takes and in whatever role the equipping comes, I feel God's pleasure when I am about the work He has set before me to do.
I started kind of a series with my last post about the 17 churches I have been connected with in 47 years. Remember, the negative experiences were heavy, but they are not all consuming. Being able to be part of the church and family colliding for supernatural growth certainly makes me smile as I consider the mercy, the grace, and the glory of God.
Where do you feel God's pleasure? The enemy loves to distract us into seeking pleasure around God's presence, outside of God's presence, and even in made up play scenes of God's presence. Only in His presence will we find the pleasure He wants us to have. Seek Him, embrace Him, serve Him, enjoy Him. He loves you and wants to be glorified in you!!