Recently I have been reading The Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp. It is a book I would recommend to every pastor, seminary students, men and women thinking of going to seminary and every pulpit search committee. The basic idea of the book is that those called to be pastors or people called to “vocational ministry (a term I would love to see defined) are in so many ways ordinary Christians. They succeed and fail at not only ministry but also the Christian life. They are in need of community to help them continue in their Christian growth and their ongoing sanctification. Tripp says that pastors need to be able to be honest with their congregation and especially their leadership boards about their struggles, sins and failures. All of this I agree with but there is one problem..
Many churches do not want pastors with “feet of clay”. They don’t want to hear of struggles, temptations, sins and failures. They want pastors who have it all together, who have no doubt and absolute no questions about what the Bible teaches on any subject. In talking with fellow pastors I have found that many have discovered the same thing that I have discovered after 30 years of ministry and countless interviews with pulpit search committees: humility and weakness look good on paper but nothing sells a man as a pastor like strong self-confidence.
I write this as a preface to this blog entry because this is one about my own struggles and fears. About my doubts, questions and anger with God and about an amazing providence in my life that helped me greatly in my struggle. I, like all pastors, have times of struggle, questioning and doubt. It is important for church members to understnad this, we like you are in the process of sanctification and we will not arrive until Jesus does. So this is one of my many stories of doubt and struggle.The wonderful thing about God’s dealing in my life in this particular struggle is that it he decided to deal with my doubts and struggles at one of my favorite places to be in all the world – a baseball game.
This took place in the summer of 2011. I was in Boston doing photography and internet work for the company I was working for at the time. It was a difficult time spiritually in my life. I was really struggling. It had been a year since I had been asked to resign at Trinity. At that point the best opportunity to be called to a new church appeared to have been sabotaged by someone Debbie and I had thought was a friend and there were no churches contacting me. I had started to have real struggles with faith. No really struggles with the heart of the gospel, the whole story of Jesus rings so true that I don’t think I can ever get beyond that but I had doubts about God’s providence over my life, wondering if he really was a loving Father who was directing mine and Debbie’s life at this time when everything seemed to be a struggle. I was weighing the possibilities of becoming a Christian Deist. It was a time when there was a great deal of shouting and yelling in my prayers and it seemed that very few were being answered. So I headed to Boston to work with all of these struggles bouncing around in my heart and in my head.
On this trip to Boston I had decided ahead of time I would try to make the Red Sox game while there. I had never been to Fenway and the Yankees (not my team Bill R and Gary C!) and I considered my baseball experience incomplete without seeing a Sox-Yankee’s game.
I spent the morning with an old friend, a pastor from Boston Ric Downs. I was able to share some of my struggles with him as we toured Harvard together and he encouraged me in the gospel but still my struggles persisted.
I had got to Fenway early with my camera and lenses to take some pictures (I was, after all, at the time a professional photographer) and because I did not have a ticket yet. I had gone online looking for tickets but they were sold out. I went to the “standing room only” ticket window but they wanted $55 just to stand, so I decided to take my chance with the scalpers. I had put a limit of $100 on a ticket. That may sound like a lot of money but after all it was Fenway and they were playing the cursed Yankees. The first guy I talked to asked me how many tickets I needed and I told him only one and he said he had a great single in a great location at a great price. Said he had a low seat on the first base side for $75 dollars. Even though I had a limit of $100 I did not want to spend more money than I needed to so I looked at the ticket and looked at the layout of Fenway on the map I had picked up at the standing room only window and confirmed that it was a great seat so I offered $70 and he took the deal and gave me the ticket.
So I headed into the ballpark (please note, a ballpark not a stadium). I wanted to get in and take some shots, get a glimpse of the Green Monster and buy one bit of baseball food.
I wandered around for a while, taking shots from various places, caught a promotional T-shirt from some radio station I had no interest in and finally made it to my seat. I wait a while as the seats around be began to fill up but the ones right next to me on the left did not fill up until almost at the time the game started. I said hello to an older man and two younger men I took to be his sons. They took the seats on my left, the father sat next to me. After the first two innings the older man left and didn’t come back for several innings and his son leaned over to me to tell me his dad had to go to a place he could smoke. The young man and I exchanged names and assured each other that we were not pulling for the dreaded Yankees and returned to watching the game. At some point he turned to ask me what I did and I told him I was a photographer producing high definition internet tours for commercial real estate clients and that I was in town on a job for one of our clients.
He told me that he was a lawyer and that his dad lived in Boston and the three times a year during baseball he and his brothers came to town to watch the several games together. They had been there the previous two nights and this was the last game of this particular trip. He told me he was a lawyer and lived out of town. We returned to the game.
The Red Sox were doing pretty well in the early innings but ended up losing this game. This game would turn out to be the game when the Yankees began to pour it on for the season and the Sox just began to fade. But it was a game at Fenway and I was enjoying every minute.
Eventually I overheard the son I was now sitting next to mention to someone who sat behind him that he and graduated from USC (that is the University of South Carolina not that place in California). I turned to him and asked him if I heard correctly and he assured me that I had. He had attended the USC. He had grown up in South Carolina during high school because his dad was in the service and
had been stationed in South Carolina. I then said: “Hey I used to work at Carolina”. “Really what did you do?” I replied by saying “I was a minister to students for our denomination, a chaplain”. He did not ask why a minister was in Boston taking photographs for a commercial real estate service company. I could not figure out if he just was not paying attention when I mentioned what I did or if the beer from Fenway had driven it from his memory but then he said something to me. It is one of those things that sounded odd to me immediately. The kind of thing that you immediately think “Where will this go if I pursue this”. First of all he asked me “What church”. I responded “Presbyterian”. Then he said the words that got my attention” “Huh, I think my brother is now a Presbyterian minister”. Think? Presbyterian minister? What? In most families you sort of keep up with what your siblings are doing even if you are estranged but it seemed to me that when you get together several times during baseball season to attend games together that would mean you saw each other regularly during the year and that you would know exactly what your brother and sisters are doing. So I said, “Presbyterian minister? Where?” He told me where and we went back to unfortunately watching the Sox continue to sink lower and lower.
Pretty soon his father returned and took the seat that the son had been sitting in next to me and the son moved over to sit next to the other brother. My new friend leaned over and whispered into his father’s ear and then the father turned to me and said “I hear you found out my son has become a good for nothing Protestant minister” (not exactly his word but I am trying to keep this blog G rated – see my last blog). I sort of chucked and grinned and told him “Well there are worse jobs in this world”. He immediately said “Not for us we are Catholic”. Then I understood the “I think he is a Presbyterian minister” and the “good for nothing”. I have had friends who have converted from Roman Catholicism to the Reformed faith and become PCA ministers and I know that it has been difficult on their families, especially on committed Catholic grandparents.
Well I tried to keep the conversation going and asked the dad: “Do you know where your son went to seminary”. “No” was the simple answer. Do you know what denomination he is part of? Again a simple “No”. Well we talked more about the game and their family and how he enjoyed having his boys back three times each baseball season to see three or four games each trip but our discussion of Presbyterian, seminaries and his youngest son (I found this out during our conversations) was essentially at an end.
Then about the seventh inning the son who attended USC pulled over my way and said he thought he brother had attended the Presbyterian Church in America seminary in Charlotte. Well at this point I was pretty certain that the brother and son of these men who were sitting around me was in my own denomination, the PCA. So I asked him, “Could it be that he attended Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC and is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America?” “Yea, thats it, you got it”. I was pretty flabbergasted, it felt like God was closing in on me. Our denomination is pretty small and the chances of sitting next to a family member in Fenway was pretty remote. If I had been a Catholic priest and was being told that his guys brothers was a priest I could have written this off. Most people would consider this a coincidence but I don’t believe in them. Still at this point it was interesting to me.
Then in the eighth inning the USC grad asked me “Where did you get that ticket? From a scalper?” I told him yes. He asked me how much I paid for the ticket. I told him $70 and then he said something that brought the entire event home to me and made me sit there in awe of a God who controls his universe: “That is a pretty good price, I sold it to him for fifty. See that is my brother’s ticket. He was suppose to be here. He was with us at the game last night but he had to go home early because one of his kids was sick. You are sitting in my brother’s seat”.
Of all the scalpers outside of Fenway why did I go and talk to this one? How was it that this family sold their one ticket to this particular scalper? If I had attended the game the night before the younger son would have been there and I could not have bought a ticket next to them. If it was the following night they would not have been there, no “chance” to meet them or sit next to them. I know that many would say it was just coincidence but I would say impossible, just too many things to go wrong. So I was sitting in the seat of another PCA minister I never knew (I followed up to find out that this man was not yet ordained but was doing extension study at RTS Charlotte while serving as youth pastor in a PCA church. He recently graduated from seminary – congratulations Jeff). It was the closest thing I think I would ever get to a hand written letter from my Father saying “You worry that I control big things like your work and calling? See I am even involved in the buying and selling of baseball tickets – even by scalpers! I really do love and care for you. You can trust me. Sorry the Yankees won but that is part of another plan”.
To some it will sound odd but I was astonished, overwhelmed, amazed. I don’t remember if I teared up on the subway back to my hotel or at the hotel that night but I have teared up several times replaying that night. God does not often show his had as clearly as he did that night but there are time when people like me of so little faith need this sort of thing. Thanks Dad.