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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Stepping Out of the Shadows

I feel like I've spent most of my life in someone else's shadow. The ironic thing is I don't know that any of those whose shadows I've been in even knew they cast one.

My father's the Bible study king. He's the lone wolf who walks into a town, finds a church with 7 or 8 members, works his tail off studying with anyone  who will give him the time of day for a few short years and builds that church to sustainability before he moves on. That was my childhood; moving into churches that seemed like they were dried up and leaving them  8x the size they were when he got there. I watched him drive 10+ hours a week to go to hospitals in the nearest urban centers (which were never near) to visit whoever was sick, sit by the bedside of the dying, from the time hospice care brought them home 'til the time the coroner took them away, then I listened to him preach a funeral so full of hope that the whole family obeyed the gospel. I watched him do tent meetings when people were dripping with sweat or trying not to blow away. Then I watched him take abuse from the same people or the ones who sat by the sidelines and didn't raise a finger to help... but he never gave up. 30 years he's preached. I was there when he did all this and worked a second job, and I was there when Southern Christian University (now Amridge) honored him with a rural evangelism/domestic missions award. I never fit those shoes.

In my first full time work, all I ever heard was how much better brother McLoud was at everything. You see, he didn't leave his post at that church, he died after preaching there for 30+ years. That's a shadow you really can't step out from under.

I came to RCM and, after one year of being apprenticed, had to step up and take my mentor's spot as evangelist. It wasn't just that I was under-prepared, this guy was some sort of super-apostle. Okay, I don't mean it in the way Paul used it, I mean he brought people to Christ in droves. He had 30 years of urban and prison ministry under his belt and was in his wheelhouse. He was the kind of evangelist you very rarely come into contact with. Trust me, when someone like that needs someone to take their place not many jump up saying "Pick me! I can do that!" It was more of a gulp with a good deal of sweating.

So, I have a closet full of oversized shoes, shadows looming over, and self confidence issues to boot. How on earth do you minister from that spot? ... No, really! Please tell me if you know, because I'm 18 months in and still don't fully understand.

You see, I don't see myself in the company of these guys. I think I belong with Thomas, Gideon, and Amos, struggling with my doubt. Maybe I'm meant to be a herdsman or farmer, Lord. Maybe you got the wrong guy. My father is the younger son, maybe you are looking for his brother's kid, you know?

When I get criticized, just like any of my betters got criticized, I have trouble not believing they have the sum of who I am. When someone tells me I'm not the evangelist any of them are, I know it's true. So I do all I know to do... I go to God.

This New Year, I made my prayer "Lord, open my eyes like Elisha's servant so I can see as you see." I prayed this thinking God needed to help me to see others more clearly... but He swiftly opened my eyes to see myself.

I was visited by people I studied with and baptized.

Tony and I were close and we went round and round. I knew he could do better than he believed he could. He didn't think he could leave drugs or women alone. And, for a time, because he believed that, he was right. He ran off after a woman and they drugged it up together. It's been nearly two years since I've seen Tony.

As I sat working at my computer the other day, who should call but Tony. "Hey Steven, you probably don't remember me..." immediately I recognized Tony's voice and called him by his full name.
"Oh, good! I... uh, well, I've changed a lot since the last time we talked. I had a son and... I wanted to be a good dad. I had to leave his mom, 'cause she's still doing drugs, but I started going to meetings and I've been clean for a year now, since the day my son was born. I'm still working out here and I just got the news that I made shift manager and I'm going to church. I just wanted you to know... I'm not a screw up... I'm a dad, and a pretty good one too. Well, that's all.. I just wanted you to know."

I'll let you imagine my elated response. My heart rejoiced for Tony. That same week, two more people I studied with in the passed contacted me to tell me how they changed and how God was blessing them. I'll share their stories another time.

Then yesterday "the bird man" (not the one from Alcatraz, sorry), who has only ever asked for a payer when he was too drunk to stand, sat in my office and said, "we need to talk. I've never agreed to talk to you 'cause I wasn't done drinking and I didn't want to hear you tell me I needed to stop. But I had my birthday last month. I'm in my 50s, and for some reason God gave me another year. I sat drinking on my birthday and I looked at my bottle. I told that bottle it didn't get another year of my life. And that's the last one I drank. I said I'd stop smoking too... but I didn't stick to that one. I figured it's time we talked. I know the Bible, I come from a family of preachers. They told me on Christmas I'm Jonah and I need to stop running. I'm a Christian, it's just time I looked like one and lived like one." So, we prayed for God to restore him and talked about how we could walk forward in this together.

When God gives, He doesn't give with one hand, but with both, not holding back. He helped me realize something. I'm not meant to stand in the shadows of my father, my predecessor, or my mentor. I stepped out of their shadow and took my place behind the only example I should be standing behind, my Savior. Now, that doubtful part of me expected a long shadow behind such a supreme teacher and leader... but you know what I found?
... Paul said it better than I can:
"But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Cor. 3:16-18).

Paul understood! As great of an evangelist as he was, it wasn't Paul on Pentecost whose preaching brought thousands to the Lord in one day. He, at times left cities, great urban centers, like Athens, with two converts. But that didn't mean Dionysius and Damaris were worth any less than any of those baptized on Pentecost. Seeing his worth in Christ, Paul said he was in no way inferior to the other apostles, even though he was "the chief of sinners."  

I realized there was no shadow hiding me, just Christ's light enhancing mine. He is the light of the world. It doesn't matter how equipped I may be, if I will humble myself, be His servant, and surrendered to Him, His light will shine in me and I become the light of the world, just as He told his disciples. The same goes for you.

Shine on my brothers and sisters! Shine On!