The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah,and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.
“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Jeremiah 1:1-3; 6-7 (NIV)
While in high school I was part of an incredible church youth group. I almost typed the adjective “unique,” but to this day I don’t think there was anything “unique” about me and my peers. We were typical high schoolers with all the angst, foolishness, idealism, drama and absentmindedness of any group of teens. Our youth pastor for most of my high school years was a man named Andy Bales whose journey has taken him to do amazing things for the homeless in Los Angeles. Our church’s worship leader was a gentleman named Mike Mars.
The thing about Andy and Mike was that they believed that God could accomplish far more through us than anyone else believed or expected (even ourselves). Andy didn’t just disciple us, he taught us how to disciple others including our parents. Mike didn’t just assemble a “youth choir” to sing in front of our parents once or twice a year. Mike taught us how to put together an entire program, how to work together as a team, and then sent us on the road almost every Sunday of the school year to minister to other churches all over our state. Mike didn’t travel with us. He trusted us to do everything ourselves from making a first impression to set up, rehearsal, performance, giving the message, tearing down and loading out for the trip home. A couple of parents or adults chaperones rode along to watch, but they never had to do a thing.
Many of the “kids” in my youth group have gone on to continue in vocational ministries as missionaries, pastors, ministry directors and youth workers. I observed that most others have approached their life journeys as ministry opportunities to serve God as educators, doctors, and professionals in the business community.
This personal experience has colored my own world view. When our daughters were young people I tried to instill in them that they could be used by God’s Spirit and have an impact for God’s Kingdom right now. I’m proud of what they attempted, accomplished, and learned.
I am fond of reminding my local gathering of Jesus’ followers that no where in God’s Message is there an age requirement for being a believer, being called by God, being filled by the Spirit, having spiritual gifts, or exercising those gifts for God’s Kingdom. In fact, the list of Biblical characters who were called by God as young people (without education, without training, without official institutional certification of any kind) is impressive: Timothy, Mary, David, Samuel, Joseph, Esther, and Mark.
In today’s opening chapter of Jeremiah’s anthology of prophetic messages he shares that he was called by God as a boy. As typical of young people, Jeremiah responded to God, “but I’m just a kid!” But age is not a qualification for being called by God or doing God’s work. And when young people are called by God they tend to have spiritually productive life journeys. Jeremiah himself was a prophet for 40 years during a period of time when life expectancy itself was around 30 years (if you were one of the lucky few to survive infancy).
Forgive me for sounding like an old curmudgeon, but along my life journey I’ve observed that our culture seems to expect less and less of our young people. We protect them. We shelter them from life’s natural pains. We entertain them endlessly and hover over them to ensure that they experience minimal discomfort. We build up their egos while minimizing their opportunities to experience the lessons of accomplishing things on their own and learning the invaluable lessons of failure. We keep extending childhood to the point that becoming a capable, responsible adult is a post-graduate crisis experience with its own word: adulting.
This morning I’m thanking God for teaching me as a boy that I had a role to play in the Kingdom of God and that role began immediately. I’m saying a prayer of gratitude for Andy and for Mike who believed in me and my peers more than we believed in ourselves. I’m praying for a generation of young people who will rebel against being treated like snowflakes and who will lead a spiritual storm of revival and culture change that no one expects.
The old curmudgeon rant is over. Have a great day.
Meanwhile, the boy Samuel served the Lord by assisting Eli. Now in those days messages from the Lord were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon.
One night Eli, who was almost blind by now, had gone to bed. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God. Suddenly the Lord called out, “Samuel!”
“Yes?” Samuel replied. “What is it?” 5 He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?” 1 Samuel 3:1-5a (NLT)
I have rarely told the story of the beginning of my spiritual journey. Like Samuel, I was called by God as a young man and after sharing the story with my friend Kevin for the first time this past year, he challenged me to share it in a blog post. I have been waiting for the right time. This morning as I read about God’s calling of young Samuel and see the loose parallel, I think that this is the time. Be prepared. This will be a longer post than usual.
I was raised in a nice little neighborhood Methodist church. I like to joke that despite all that I was taught in the Methodist church, I still believed in God. Like a lot of kids in the junior high or middle school age, I experienced the crisis of trying to figure out who I was in the world. I had been “confirmed” in church at the age of 13 and my parents let me know that after being confirmed I was allowed to decide for myself whether I wanted to attend church or not. I believed in God at this point. I mentally accepted the basic tenets of the Christian faith. In retrospect, however, I didn’t have a relationship with the God in whom I said I believed.
After confirmation I stopped going to church for a while. I was a good kid. I enjoyed my junior high years, but over a short period of time there grew within me a nagging confusion about life and what it all meant. I felt depressed and sunk into full blown teen angst. Realizing that I had not been to church regularly for a while I decided to return, wondering if that might not be part of the answer. I got involved in my youth group and started to feel better about things.
In February 1981, a girl in my youth group invited me to make an hour long trip to Marshalltown with her and her dad on a Friday night to hear some guy speak. She was a senior, I was a freshman, and I had a bit of a crush on her – so of course I said “yes.” There was another friend from church going and it sounded better than anything else I might be doing on that Friday night. The speaker was part of a weekend conference at a church there Marshalltown. I listened to this guy talk about God in a way I had never, ever heard before. He spoke about faith being a living relationship with God which was something very different from the simple mental acquiescence to certain spiritual truths that I had always considered “my faith.” Jesus spoke of the eyes of your heart being opened to see the truth clearly, and that night I experienced it personally. The eyes of my heart were opened for the first time. I committed my life to following Jesus. I asked Him to come into my heart to start a personal relationship together. There was a subtle, but substantial shift in my soul. I knew I would never be the same, which has proven true to this day.
My sister, Jody, is two years older than me. Upon arriving back home late that night I shared with her what had happened to me and pretty much demanded that she go with us the following night. She did, and that night I could tell that the eyes of her heart were being opened too. At the end of the service an invitation was given to any who wanted to start a relationship with Jesus and follow Him. She went forward to pray and I was left sitting in the pew praying. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting about 4-5 pews back on the stage right side of the stage right section of pews.
At this point, let me explain that I don’t claim to have spiritual dreams and visions all the time. God may work that way with others, but I have only heard God speak to me clearly on a handful of occasions in 35 years (that’s another blog post, for another day). That cold Saturday night in February was the first time. As I sat in the pew praying, I suddenly felt like I was dreaming in deep REM sleep. In the dream I was sitting in the pew right where I was, but as I looked up toward the front of the church I saw myself standing on the platform speaking just like the guy whom we’d listened to the past two nights. “You are going to proclaim My Word,” a voice said to me. I knew it was God’s voice. Here I was, a young kid in Iowa, hearing God’s voice just like the boy Samuel heard in the temple in today’s chapter.
That was it. Dream over. I was back in my pew watching my sister praying to start her own relationship with Jesus. But, I knew what I saw and heard. It sounded so crazy at the time, but I knew that it was real. That night I went home and told my parents that God had called to me that night. Mom was folding clothes on the family room floor. Dad was laying on the couch. They were watching television. I think they must have wanted to check my pockets for hallucinogens.
“Okay God,” I remember praying shortly thereafter. “If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to open the doors for it to happen, because I don’t know what to do.” I began reading and studying the Bible voraciously. A few weeks later, an adult approached me at church.
“In April, we’re having a youth service,” she said. “We were wondering if you would agree to be one of the youth to share the sermon that morning.”
About eight weeks after God called to me in a dream, I preached my first message.
The following summer my parents, having seen a very distinct change in my sister and me, reaffirmed their own faith in Jesus. As a family we decided to leave our little neighborhood church and start attending another church a few blocks away. This church had a large youth group and also had a youth “Gospel Team” (think “Glee” for Christians). My sister decided to join the Gospel Team and early that fall there was a kick off concert at the church. The Gospel Team Director pulled me aside the week before the concert and asked me if I’d be willing to share my story during the concert. I agreed and during a break in the concert I shared the story about how I decided to become a follower of Jesus.
After the concert, the director sought me out. “I think you’ve got a gift,” he said. “I’m wondering if you’d be interested in joining our team. In a few weeks we’ll start going out every Sunday night to do concerts in different churches around the state. I’d like you to consider going with us and giving a message at each concert.”
And so, less than a year after hearing God’s call to proclaim His Word I was travelling around the state every week doing just that. My Gospel Team experience led to other opportunities to speak in churches, camps, and other groups. But, the story doesn’t end there.
I attended Judson College (now University) for four years where God continued to give me opportunities to speak and to teach. I was even the campus Student Chaplain for a year. As I prepared to graduate, I wondered what I was going to do and thought I might pursue full-time pastoral ministry, but I was newly married and didn’t really want to rack up more debt with grad school. Youth Ministry is a common first step breaking into pastoral ministry, so I began applying for positions as a youth pastor.
There was one youth ministry position open that I desperately wanted, but had little chance of getting. It was a large church with a large youth group and a solid reputation. I figured that without a seminary degree and with no experience there was no way I would even be considered for the job, but I sent in my resume anyway. A few weeks later I received a phone call and a subsequent phone interview, but shortly after the interview I received the polite “thanks, but no thanks,” letter from the search committee. I continued to pursue other options.
Weeks went by and I was no further in figuring out what I was going to do after school. I interviewed and was accepted into the Master’s program in acting at the University of Iowa (ironically, my 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success blog post is now a fixture on their department’s homepage). However, that didn’t seem like the right avenue for me any more than going to seminary. Either option would only add to my debt load and my young wife was less than thrilled with the idea of having to continue working full time to support us.
Then, out of the blue, the Chairman of the search committee for the youth pastor position I figured I would never get called me. “We’ve been praying a lot as a committee,” he said, “And the Holy Spirit keeps bringing you back into our conversation. It’s kind of crazy, but we believe we’re supposed to invite you for another interview.” And so I interviewed again. Quickly, I was asked to visit the church for a weekend round of interviews culminating in me giving the message in the Sunday morning worship service and being voted on by the congregation.
And so, I visited the church the following weekend. I breezed through the interviews. On Sunday morning I stood up on the platform to proclaim God’s Word. Incidentally, it was the same platform I had seen in my dream seven years earlier when God called me. I was interviewing for a position in the very church in Marshalltown where my faith journey following Jesus began and where I heard God’s call. The dream like vision I had been given of standing on the platform in that church was literally fulfilled.
Samuel’s story is one in a long string of examples of God calling and using the young, the weak, and the least to accomplish His purposes. My own story has caused this truth to resonate deep within me. Every person who enters into a relationship with Jesus and is a part of the body of Christ has been spiritually gifted to accomplish God’s divine purpose. This is true no matter the age, social status, gender, background, experience, history, pedigree, or educational level. You don’t need a degree, a certificate, or a stamp of approval from the board of your local church. Using the gifts you’ve been given to serve God and others is part of the daily journey of any Jesus follower.
I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children are following the truth. 3 John 1:4 (NLT)
Twenty-five years ago I had just graduated from Judson College and was beginning two years of service as Youth Pastor of First Baptist Church in Marshalltown, Iowa. I can still remember my time there. I was young and head strong and, hindsight being 20/20, full of myself. But, it was a wonderful two years of working with an amazing group of young people. While my path quickly led elsewhere, I often regret not spending more time in Marshalltown. I am still in contact with many of the kids from my youth group through Facebook and am privileged to still be regularly sharing life with a few of them.
This Sunday “First B” is celebrating its 150th Anniversary and having a special gathering and celebration. All of the former pastors and staff have been invited back. Wendy is joining me as I head back up there to join in the festivities.
I thought of all my “kids” this morning as I read John’s letter to Gaius and the above verse. A quarter century has gone by, but I still think of every one of them as one of my spiritual children. On occasion I have received a note or an e-mail from one of them sharing how God is working in their lives today and of the things they learned while they were in youth group with me. Talk about a deep sense of joy. There are precious few things in life that compare. I know exactly what John was feeling. How awesome to know that my kids are walking in the truth twenty five years later.
Along with thinking about my youth group kids this morning, I’m also reminded of George Bailey and the way that every life touches every other life. You don’t have to be a youth pastor or serve as a minister to do the work of a minister. We do it every day in our homes, in our places of business, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, and when we’re in the grocery store. Ministry is not a job, it’s a smile, a kind word of encouragement, and a random act of kindness. What a joy we could provide to someone to simply share with them a word of thanks for the difference they’ve made in our lives.