Chris Watkins: Just do whatever He puts in front of you
January 31, 2011 3 Comments
“I want to go to church”
I had not heard that line for a few months. Cindy and I had been living together in an apartment and not going to church. For obvious reasons. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out that when you are not living life God’s way, being around God’s people is more of a nuisance than a blessing.
“I want to go to church”, she said again.
“Alright”, I said, “but we are going to a big church where we can blend in and nobody will bother us.”
I chose First Baptist of Las Cruces for two reasons. First, because it is big. Three services and lots of people. Easy to blend in and go unnoticed. Secondly, I had heard the pastor preach and I really liked his style. So we rose on Sunday morning, dug out our Bibles (they were not really being used at that time in our lives) and headed off to church. I remember thinking about a southern phrase that mentioned being as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. That was me.
We both sat toward the back and soon the nervousness wore off. The music was really good and I was actually looking forward to hearing a good sermon. The pastor began his sermon. One of the gutsiest sermons I’ve ever heard. His text was the story of new wine and old wine skins. His point was that First Baptist had broken the tradition of new and old never being able to coexist. And he was right. First Baptist of Las Cruces had a dynamic contemporary service and a meaningful traditional service. And the congregation was not split. There was a tangible sense within the church that mode of worship was a preference, not a conviction.
About half way through the sermon I detected a tone in his voice and a leading in his thoughts. I looked at Cindy and said, “He is resigning”. I could not believe it. Our first Sunday there was his last Sunday there. Come to find out, he was resigning because he was going through a divorce. Wow. I will never forget watching him as he sat on the front pew at the end of the service during the offertory. I wanted to go sit with him. I was pretty sure that I knew as well as anyone in the church how he felt. I really can’t say that I knew how he felt, but I could relate to his situation. I wanted to go sit with him, but I remained where I was. After all, I was blending in, not drawing any attention to myself. I was in stealth mode.
We got back in our car, I put it in drive and said to Cindy, “Well that’s that”. We didn’t go back for weeks.
“I want to go to church”, she said, again.
I agreed to go back and give it another shot. This time there was an interim pastor. The music was good. We became relaxed during worship and I began to once again anticipate a good sermon. What I wanted was a good sermon. What I got was a word from the Lord.
“I would like to preach to you this morning about a parable of Jesus commonly known as The Prodigal Son”, the preacher said.
I leaned over to Cindy and said, “Let’s go.”
She gave me the look that mother’s give their kids when the kids are being unruly in church. The look that means, “Be quiet and listen, or else.”
I slouched back into the pew and felt as though I was preparing myself for surgery. Little did I know that I really was being operated on. God was the surgeon and Dr. Levi Price was the scalpel. It was heart surgery. And might I add, there was little or no anesthesia. I felt like standing up several times through the course of the procedure and telling everyone else in the church that they could leave whenever they wanted. I knew that he was speaking directly to me. How could he know? Somebody must have told him. I am in stealth mode. I’m flying under the radar. I’ve been spotted and now I’m getting shot down. Wonderful.
After the service was over I told Cindy to wait for me. I had to speak to the preacher and I would be right back. She had a funny look on her face and I said, “Don’t worry. I’m not surrendering to foreign missions, I just need to tell him something.” She relaxed and sat down to wait for me.
I walked up to Dr. Price and said, “You could have saved these other people some time by just sending them home and letting me have all that in private.”
Dr. Price is one of the kindest people I have ever met. He has wonderful eyes full of God’s grace. I remember that right then he had a bit of a startled look on his face.
I continued. “I am the guy you were talking about this morning and I want you to know that I appreciate your honesty in handling God’s Word. I am still a long way off, but getting closer every day. I’m not rededicating my life or anything like that. I just want you to know that God has clearly spoken to me through you and I thank you.”
I shook his hand, he said a few encouraging words and I left. I walked back to where Cindy was and she said, “What was all that about?” I told her that preachers tend to wonder if anybody ever really hears God’s voice through them. Dr. Price does not have to wonder about that today.
We began attending services regularly and began to perceive that God had not written us off yet, but still had a place for us in His church. We were married about a month later and we both began to want more from our lives than going to work and watching movies together at night.
A few months went by and one day after church the piano player in the contemporary service, a guy named David Delgado, announced that he would be gone for a couple of weeks to record some new material. I knew the guitar player well. Many years ago we had played together in the secular scene several times together. I found him after the service and told him I would be willing to help them out by playing the piano for a couple of weeks, but I was definitely not interested in anything beyond that. (It would be about 5 years later that I would actually resign.) I fit into the group like a glove and when David returned he began playing guitar and leading worship. It was as though God was overseeing the entire ordeal.
I loved playing the piano again for the Lord. Life began to make sense again. And then a few people began bugging us about going to Sunday School with them. Cindy wanted to go and I said absolutely not. You get in a small group setting and people want to get to know you. Furthermore, I was well aware of my inability to keep silent in such settings.
Once again, I was worn down by the people surrounding me and I surrendered. With conditions. Number 1) we sit toward the back. Number 2) we do not raise our hands or draw attention to ourselves and number 3) we never, ever, ever . . . speak!
I lasted 2 weeks. The class was discussing the miracles of Jesus. It was alright until someone (who was obviously a fan of Chicken Soup for the Soul) began carrying on about how a sunrise is a miracle. A flower opening in the spring is a miracle. A little baby being born is a miracle. I had bit my lip until blood was flowing down my shirt. (Not really, but almost). I finally raised my hand and explained that in the gospel of John, the Greek word is “semeion” meaning a sign or indicator. The purpose of the signs, or miracles, was to indicate that Jesus was God in the flesh and that people should listen to Him. I further explained that the synoptic gospels used the word miracle because from a human perspective many of the works of Jesus were miraculous. Yet from a theological perspective, Jesus was telling the world through His actions that He truly was the Word of God, the Messiah, the Lamb of God Who would take away the sin of the world.
I finished and Cindy said to me, “Quiet, huh. Way to go. I’m sure they all think you are just a normal guy. You shouldn’t have any trouble blending in after that.” In my most spiritual tone I said, “Knock it off. Somebody had to say something.”
After class the teacher, Joe Riley, cornered me and began asking questions that would lead up to me admitting that I had attended seminary and, in fact, was a preacher. A few weeks later I was asked to fill in as the teacher of the class and later began teaching on a regular basis.
Going through a divorce taught me more than I really wanted to know. One major lesson is how to start over again. I played the piano at church when I was in the 8th grade. I began teaching the youth when I was a newlywed. The first time. I surrendered to preach and learned many lessons the hard way. To cut to the chase, I had paid my dues. But now I was beginning again. It is sometimes very difficult to start over. But then at least I did get to start over. The alternative was not very appealing. Sit and wait to die . . . or turn to God and allow Him to do whatever He wanted with me. Starting over is better than sitting and waiting to die.
One Sunday morning Dr. Price preached a message on the restoration of Peter after he had denied Christ 3 times. We all knew the story, but this was another in-your-face type of message. Or should I say, in-my-face type of message. After the service was over I decided to grab the bull by the horns. The last amen was voiced and I set out like a bulldog to catch Dr. Price. I ran into Missy on the way. (Did I fail to mention that Josh and Missy were attending First Baptist as well?) She said something to the effect of “where’s the fire?” and I said something about wanting to know why Dr. Price couldn’t preach a message that applied to me. Sarcasm is one of my spiritual gifts.
I caught him as he was entering his office. I said I was sick of sitting in the pew week after week and I was ready to run with God again. He just gazed at me with a puzzled look on his face. I said, “I’m Peter. I’m the guy you were just preaching about. My story is the worst case scenario. I want to be restored. What do I do now?” He gently laughed and asked me what I was talking about. I told him my story and believe it or not, he was not shocked. He smiled with a godly warmth and said, “I can’t tell you what is next for you in ministry. That is God’s job. Just do whatever He puts in front of you and it will all work out.”
Just like a preacher. Put it off on God. I wanted a 12 step program. Well, actually, I would have preferred a 3 or 4 step program. At any rate, I wanted specifics, not vague generalities. He assured me that God was not through with me and if I really was serious about re-entering professional ministry, God would have to be the architect of that plan.
Nice. In my arrogance I figured God and the rest of the world were simply waiting for me to come to my senses and then all of the right doors would fly open. As I learned first-hand, it is not that simple. Later that very morning, I was sitting in Sunday School pondering his words and trying to make sense of it all. “Do whatever he puts in front of you”. The words kept going through my head. Then someone poked me in the arm to give me a sign-up sheet that was being passed around the room.
“I don’t have time for a crazy sign-up sheet!”, I thought to myself. And then it hit me hard. “DO WHAT IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU”…”CHRIS!!”
It was a sign-up sheet to cook food for a family in the class. I don’t cook food for people. I’m a preacher, for goodness sakes.
So I cooked a pot of macaroni and cheese and Cindy fixed something a little more valid. Hey, don’t laugh. If it were not for macaroni and cheese I don’t think I would have made it through college. Anyway, we took the food to their house and you would have thought we had prepared a feast. They were so appreciative and thanked us over and over. I think mostly for what Cindy had made. But I felt good about our contribution and resolved to continue doing whatever God put in front of us.
Notice that I said us. Another important lesson I learned from divorce is stick together. If God puts something in front of me, it involves Cindy. We are a team. Pursuing godly tasks is wonderful, but when two married partners pursue separate goals, the results can be disastrous. Even if those goals are noble and good, a sense of competition can arise and a barrier can be created between the two that God designed to work together.
The greatest movie ever filmed (in my humble, yet accurate opinion) is Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. In a turning point in the movie, as the gladiators are being set up for a slaughter, Maximus instructs his fellow warriors to work together. “If we work together, we survive.” They not only survive, they soundly whip the would-be assassins.
I have spoken with and have read about many ministers who have gone through a circumstance similar to mine. The question most of us ask is, “OK. I know I chose the wrong path for a while. But now I am ready and willing to re-enter a world of ministry. How do I do that?”
In all honesty, returning to professional ministry is a great challenge in our world. Not only do we face the difficulty of accepting God’s forgiveness, forgiving ourselves and believing we can preach (or whatever field you may be in) again, we also face a current generation in today’s church that is reluctant, at best, to forgive a fallen church leader and to extend a second chance. “How can this be?” you might ask. After all, isn’t the church supposed to be the hands, feet and voice of Jesus to the world of today? Why is it that Jesus found Peter, filled his nets with fish, cooked him breakfast and offered him immediate restoration after Peter had committed his horrible crime against the Lord Himself, yet the supposed Christ-followers of today struggle with the concept of restoration?
What good questions. From my perspective, we have created this generation by preaching morality rather than grace. I know that I preached countless sermons in my “previous life” that placed the emphasis on the conduct and resolve of the individual. That is bad preaching. Grace focuses on the power of God alone to accomplish the task and in the end He alone receives the glory. All preaching should be Christ-centered and the emphasis should be on God’s power, not human effort. “It’s not by might nor by power but by My Spirit says the Lord.” Encouraging human effort always produces pride or defeat. When we do something well, we want to be recognized. When we fail, we perceive ourselves as failures. People who are doing seemingly well, morally speaking, will always point out the failures of others in order to show contrast to their own achievements. These observations are normally voiced as “prayer requests”.
We have all heard them. “We really need to pray for my neighbor. She’s been going out a lot and coming in at all hours of the night. I am just positive that she can’t be up any good. My Mama used to say living like that is a sure fire way to end up with the reputation of a hussy. I’ve seen at least 3 different cars in her driveway in the last week and I just know she’s up to no good! …so we really need to pray for her.”
I’d say we need to pray for somebody alright. I had a preacher friend who told me about a lady in his church who asked for prayer for a Soap Opera character one night at Wednesday night prayer meeting. Not the actor, the character! “He’s fixin’ to leave his wife for another woman and I just can’t stand the thought of it. I’ll let you know next Wednesday how it works out.”
Morality is not a means to a relationship with God. It is a result. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, he said the Spirit in a person produces a fruit. That fruit is composed of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Fruit is a result of the tree. The fruit of the tree indicates the root of the tree. Not the other way around.
In a sense, we preachers have made it more difficult to receive restoration because we have spent too much time preaching morality rather than grace. Simple grace. Grace that will pardon and cleanse within. Even in fallen church leaders.
Going through the difficulties of divorce has taught me that my previous concept of salvation was flawed. I saw it as a one-time experience that fixed everything and set me on the pathway to heaven with little else to worry about. Now I realize that I am in desperate need of God’s grace every day. I am truly “prone to wander, prone to leave the God I love.” This is not to say that I believe that I can lose or forfeit the eternal relationship that I have in Christ, it simply means that I need His strength and provision each day for the remainder of my life. People fall. Even after they meet Jesus for the first time. Who will help them get back on their feet?
It has intrigued me since my divorce in 2003 that church members, for the most part, are happy to extend grace to even the worst of sinners who are coming to Christ for the first time. It seems that we know how to receive moral despots into the church (as long as they start straightening up pretty quick), we just do not know how to respond to leaders and even members of the church who have gone astray. It is a difficult issue to address. This is because we have become a Jesus-plus society. It’s wonderful to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, but now you have got to “do right” (by our definition) for it to be real. You’ve got to prove to God (and us) that you were not just kidding about “getting right”. You have to publicly confess your faith, be baptized, speak in tongues, memorize scripture, have a quiet time, attend Sunday School, church services and all revivals within 50 miles. On top of that, you had better quit smokin’, drinkin’, dancin’, chewing tobacco, watching rated R movies and hangin’ out with your old buddies who do these things. And just know, we will be watchin’…
How can we re-institute the truth of grace into our society while returning to ministry? The answer is one life at a time. If you are a fallen leader and you want to re-engage in ministry, you must do so one life at a time. You are not proving yourself, you are simply spreading the message of God’s grace to one heart at a time. Grace will resonate within the heart of whoever you are sharing it with. They might respond in acceptance or they might respond in animosity. But that is where you start. My experience is that God will place people in your life who are in need of His grace and also can relate to your circumstance. As you are faithful to the little things in life, God will begin to entrust to you larger tasks.
I’m not talking about door to door evangelism. I am talking about being aware of the people around you and being willing to share not only your faith, but your failures as well. Believe it or not, people tend to respond much better to honesty and failure than to moral perfection and pride. I read somewhere that a good definition of evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food. One benefit of failure is that it keeps us humble.
Divorce has taught many lessons about how to be a better husband. (I will be sharing some of those in a later chapter.) It has also taught me how to depend on God for stability in life. I used to believe that God had a plan for my life. I now believe I have something much better than a plan. I have a God.