This morning is the second in a 6-part sermon series called “Becoming a Contagious Christian.” In this series, Pastor Drew will be talking about what it means to be “salt” and “light.” (see Matthew 5). God desires each of us to be intentional in our Christian witness, both in deed and word. This series in intended to answer both why? and how? as it pertains to being prepared to share our “story.” The Scripture verse for the series is 1 Peter 3:15 – “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it” (CEB). The theme for today’s message is the importance of consciously knowing why I hope in Jesus, especially when life is most challenging. Pastor Drew is modeling this by telling three of his own stories of faith.
Scripture Reading: 1 Peter 3:15
I grew up going to church every week. Because my dad was the choir director, and my mom sang in the choir, we had to go. Apart from being laid out with the flu, there was never a question that I’d be in church come Sunday morning. The thing is, I didn’t mind it. In fact, I kind of liked it.
Sunday school for kids met during the worship service, and I distinctly remember sitting around the table with the other kids wanting to be with the grownups. I felt like I was missing something, like being in Sunday school was depriving me of something important. If Sunday school was so important, how come the grownups weren’t having their own? No, I wanted to be where the action was – in the sanctuary. I was finally able to do that once I became a teenager when I joined the choir – which I sang in all the way through college.
Growing up, church was really important to me. I was active in the youth group for 6 years, from grade 7-12. I had friends at school, but it was in the church youth group where I really felt like I could be my real self. At school, I wasn’t a misfit, but I certainly wasn’t popular. But in the youth group I was a real “somebody.” I know it’s not the norm, but for some reason, I really liked being a part of my church.
Now, even though I very active in my church, I was unable and unprepared to say why being a Christian was important to me. My girlfriend during my senior year in high school was active in her church, too. It was the Unitarian Church. If you don’t know anything about the Unitarian Church, suffice it to say that most of them wouldn’t claim the Christian label. There may be some self-professed Christians within local Unitarian congregations, but their distinguishing mark is that they kind of follow the line of thinking that there’s truth in every religion, and that human beings are basically good. Jesus was a real person, maybe even a prophet of sorts, but they wouldn’t necessarily consider him God. In fact, many Unitarians don’t believe in God. Which is where my girlfriend came down.
One time she asked me why I believed in God, and I didn’t have an answer. Here I’d been active in my church my whole life, and I could hardly put two words together to say why I believed.
Jump ahead a few years to college. For three years during college I worked each summer at a county youth camp in the Upper Peninsula. A number of staff were Christians, but one in particular caught my attention for what seemed to me to be a deeper conviction than the rest of us. For one thing, she could articulate the reasons she believed. And I still couldn’t.
Back at school that fall, we talked a lot about issues of faith. And it was during those conversations that I first learned that Jesus Christ was someone I could know personally as a friend. If my pastor talked about this in the previous years, I certainly hadn’t heard it. This was news to me. So I bought my first Bible and joined a small group made up of my friend, two other camp staff who were students there, and me. In addition, she gave me the daily devotion book she used in high school, which I couldn’t get enough of. Even though all the imagery in the devotions spoke of the high school experience – hallway lockers, Friday night football games, student cliques, youth group, etc. – it’s exactly where I was spiritually. I was a 20 year-old college student with a 15 year-old soul.
I can’t tell you the date, or even a general period of time, but at some point during my junior year I intentionally owned my Christian faith. I understood that apart from Jesus I was spiritually lost. And that I needed to consciously entrust myself to him and live in his grace. Again, I can’t tell you when that finally happened, but I can tell you that my junior year was a turning point in my life. I’d always considered myself a Christian, but that year I discovered that there was so much more to it than going to church. I’d discovered that a personal relationship with God was really, really exciting.
And, of course, an exciting life doesn’t imply an easy life. I’ve had my share of struggles—as a husband, father, pastor, leader, and yes, even as a regular old person. I’ve experienced doubt and my anxiety, just like everybody else.
In 2005 I hit a wall called “burnout.” I’d seen in coming, and for two years talked with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee about taking a much needed renewal leave. In principle, they agreed it was a good idea, but kept asking me to put it off until a more opportune time. Unfortunately, that favorable time never came, and I hit the wall I’d been not wanting to hit, and it resulted in me needing to take an immediate, unplanned renewal leave. During that leave God was stirring something in my soul. By the time the leave was over, we’d decided that come the following July 1, we would go on a leave of absence and give God the space to reveal to me what he was stirring.
At first I thought maybe God was drawing me back to my music roots, so I accepted a position similar to Yvette’s – music director and worship leader. For quite a while it was quite fulfilling, and I wondered if I’d found my new niche. But when I found myself starting to resent having to go in to do my job on Sunday morning, I knew I was barking up the wrong tree.
In the meantime, I told a friend I’d build his annual conference in the Democratic Republic of Congo their website. Of course, I didn’t know the slightest thing about building websites. I thought to myself, How hard could it be? I’ll just buy a book. I also registered for the course, “Building a website,” at Washtenaw Community College.
Well, I quickly learned two things from taking that course. One, there’s a lot more to building a website than one class could ever teach me, let alone a book!!! And two, I loved it!!! I absolutely fell in love with coding in HTML and CSS (the coding languages of websites). So over the next few years I became certified in basic web technology, and started in on an advanced certification in coding, which involved learning programming for the web. The problem was, programming is much more difficult to coding. HTML coding felt natural to me; my brain got it. But my brain could never wrap itself around the logic of programming. Three times I took and basically failed the same intro to web programming course.
The problem was, I was convinced that I’d been on the right path ever since I started down that path. I was absolutely convinced that God had called me to an IT (information technology) ministry in which I would build websites for local churches and parachurch organizations. But not being able to program was another wall. And I hit it hard. One Saturday afternoon I was alone in the house and having trouble with my homework. I became so frustrated that I literally screamed out at God and accused him in no uncertain terms that he’d taking me down this path only to turn his back on me. In my experience, he’d yanked the rug out from beneath me. He was Lucy and I was Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, and just as I went to kick it he pulled it away and sent me flying. To say I was angry at God would be an understatement.
So, at this point it had become clear to me that I hadn’t been called to a music ministry, and I wasn’t being called to a ministry of web design. I was in the middle of a crisis of faith. Every time I thought I clearly heard God, I was wrong. What now?
Well, I’m here to tell you that I did hear from God—clearly—and it was a quite whisper that happened during class. As I listened to my instructor talk about how he used the programming method he was teaching us in his previous employment, I asked myself, Drew, could you see yourself doing what he’s describing? And the answer was no, I couldn’t. And so I asked myself another question: Drew, what is it that makes your heart truly soar? And the answer was so clear and simple and right there in front of me. Being a pastor. Preaching. Being in relationship with people – not a computer. And that night I knew my next move. I called Mark Spaw, our district superintendent, and told him that I was ready to go back under appointment.
Looking back – and I even knew it at the time – God never pulled the rug out from under me. All that happened to me was God’s way of affirming my call to pastoral ministry. He carried me through my crisis of faith, and confirmed my true call. Again, looking back, I can see how everything that happened to me over the course of those eight years prepared me for my appointment to Adrian First United Methodist Church. If what I learned can be boiled down to one thing, it’s that God’s faithful to see us through, even if we can’t see at the time.
One of those times that God looked out for us wasn’t actually a “time”; it was something he did over time. When we started our leave of absence in 2006, the annual conference provided health insurance for our family for one year. Around that same time, it became clear that our daughter, Rachel, needed knee surgery. And by his grace, it all happened within that first year, while we were still covered. Otherwise, 100% of it would have been out-of-pocket.
I mentioned earlier that my first job during the leave was as a music director/worship leader. That job paid $15,000 for the year. That’s below the poverty level. For a while Caroline didn’t work. And we were now paying a mortgage. And starting the 2nd year we had to pay for our own health insurance. It was many years of borrowing money to make ends meet, and often borrowing in order to pay-off other higher interest debt. Eventually, slowly, it reached the point where we were no longer had to borrow just to survive. But by this time, the debt was considerable.
It’s important to remember that this was all happening during the housing crisis. People who made hundreds of thousands of dollars we going into foreclosure and losing their homes left and right. People were losing their jobs. But our story was turning out different. Even though our debt was increasing, over the course of the entire leave we never made a late payment on a single bill. Here we were living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck, just a bit above poverty, and through it all we both stayed employed, paid our bills, paid a mortgage, covered our health insurance, sent Rachel to Paris with her French Club, maintained our cottage in the U.P., and if that wasn’t enough, even increased our credit score.
The credit for all this belongs to God first, and to Caroline second, for her adept handling of our precarious finances. But mostly to God, because on paper we should have gone under! God was so good to us. I know not everybody had that same experience, but for us, God’s grace was working overtime!
One last example of God’s perfect timing. The health insurance we paid for was for catastrophic health issues. And it came with a really high deductible. On July 1, 2014 we were once again covered by group health insurance through the annual conference. A month and a half later I had a heart attack and was flown by helicopter to the Toledo airport where I was transported by ambulance to the hospital where I underwent treatment. While flying through the air, I found myself repeating a particular prayer of thanksgiving over and over and over: Thank you, God, for holding off this heart attack until now, because paying for this helicopter ride would probably wipe us out. Later on, we saw that the cost of my heart attack came out to about $42,000. There’s no way we could have covered that cost out of pocket.
Again and again God has confirmed his grace and goodness and faithfulness to me. These are just a few of the ways that my faith has been strengthened and God’s faithfulness has been confirmed.