This past fall, I gathered with some other student pastors in my area. Mark Yaconelli was with us. He led us in an experiential prayer exercise when we were to pray for God to reveal to us, to remind us, of a time when He was present with us.
As I got still and quiet, my brain was still running. I was thinking about how this prayer exercise would go (instead of actually being present for the praying). I expected God to bring to my mind a worship moment from my first mission trip, or maybe my wedding, or maybe that moment at a huge youth rally in 2002 when I felt called to ministry for the first time, or maybe, or maybe…
Then God actually began pulling memories to my mind’s eye. It was like a slideshow that went quickly at first, and then the images stayed longer. There were no large, corporate worship experiences. Instead, these images were faces of a teenager or two. I saw myself sitting on a curb at Pocahontas Elementary School between Bronson and Craig, hearing heartbreaking stories of their life experiences. I saw Andrew Basic sitting in my living room as the words spilled out for the first time. I saw the first meal Sammy and I had in our first home as husband and wife…and the teenager, Marc Chewning, who was there, a part of our family. I saw myself sitting on my kitchen floor, on the phone with Mary Ashleigh who was visiting family at the holidays and needed to talk. I saw more faces—Rachel, Vania, Jarrett, Hayley, Robert, Joseph, Justin—and then the slideshow stopped.
One image came into focus, and stayed there.
I was sitting at Friendly’s ice cream across from two girls I’d just met. They were in Powhatan, staying with their grandparents; their grandfather was in the hospital. They were from Ohio, and their dad was a youth pastor. The oldest one, especially, had been waiting her whole life to be in her daddy’s youth group. And here she was, sitting with this youth pastor, a girl she’d just met, a girl who is not her daddy.
|Sarah and Shannon's first night at our student ministry.|
And I fell in love with them immediately. They talked non-stop, mostly interrupting and talking over each other. That reminded me of my sister and me. They were living with mom and making the 7-hour drive to see dad in Ohio. That reminded me of the countless 7-hour trips I’ve made between Virginia and Tennessee.
This was the moment God chose to bring to my mind to remind me of when he’d been present with me. Through a series of unlikely events, God worked to bring about good, and he decided these girls and I needed to be together. Now, I have little doubt that it was God who opened my heart to them so fully at that first meeting. It was also through my relationships with these two girls that God taught me how to be a pastor—a listening, caring, guiding, helping, (still talks too much) pastor.
These girls are no longer students in my ministry; they’re college girls now. They’re my friends. When the oldest one sings, I cry. Every time. Because when I watch her sing, I remember her story—from 8 years ago and from last week. I rejoice with her at what God can do in a life. I cry out to God with her, knowing her heartache. The younger sister, who turned out to be the middle sister, and I realized we are a bit alike. She has a beautiful red hair, and I have blonde (brown). We don’t really look anything alike. But we both have histories as flirts, and we both settled down with handsome, insanely intelligent, and very tall young men. And our parents are divorced. And we like the same clothes. And we like to talk. And we like Jesus.
God was present with me as I reached out to those girls. I was terrified introducing myself to those strangers and offering to hang out some time, but I did it, because I knew God wanted me to. And he provided the words and showed me the spiritual gifts he’d woven into my being. And I am thankful, very thankful, for how He was present with me then. Remembering God’s presence then excites me for the next time He’s going to show up somewhere as mundane, yet yummy, as Friendly’s ice cream.