I was twenty-six. Amid the boxes and the moving truck of my first call as a pastor, Richard Baxter’s words were on my mind. “I preached as a dying man to dying men,” he said.[i] I took Baxter’s words seriously. I vowed that I would not compromise with the shortness of this life, but every chance I got would expose it and its attempt to burgle God’s true treasures from us.
Getting my feet on the ground and making my first attempts at preaching week after week, I longed for that “sense of God’s presence,” that Martyn Lloyd Jones had spoken of and had recovered from the forgotten history of Spiritual Revivals in the West. I hoped that my ministry too would consist of “theology coming through a man who is on fire.” I hoped that God’s Spirit would set the truth of His Word aflame in our souls.[ii]
I prayed therefore for a visitation from God. As I began to make my first pastoral visits in a new community, I remembered Daniel Rowland praying for the godless place he was called to as a pastor. In his lifetime, he saw those prayers answered more bountifully than he could have imagined.[iii] I also recalled what Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography. Though he himself did not believe in Jesus, this father of America observed the arrival and preaching of George Whitefield and marveled at how “the whole town had gone religious.” Franklin recounted how he “could not walk through the town at night without hearing psalms being sung by each household.” That made me think, “What if God were to come with such power at my church in Hudson, Ohio?”
My first sermon series outlined the primary aspects of our core vision as a church. In each sermon, I said what I meant with all my heart. “May God so work in us in these days” I beckoned, “that years from now long after we here are gone, those who come after us will look back and say, ‘surely God was in this place.’”
Greatness and Acne Cream
I do not disparage these longings and prayers for God to work powerfully and truly in my life and for my generation. Many of us excuse our lack of seeking God in this way out of hearts of unbelief and cynicism or cowardliness.
What I’m trying to say is not that I should not have had such longings, but that there was something obvious within these noble longings that I was tragically overlooking about myself. What did I overlook; That as I preached with all my heart for God, I ate Fruit Loops and Raisin Bran for breakfast. That I prayed with all my soul as a man who used cream for the acne on my face, and who tried to figure out the two cowlicks in my hair each morning. As I visited and dispensed pastoral counsel, I did so as a young father who was frustrated at 3:00am that morning with my inability to stop my infant from crying.
My point is that God does great works! But if God were to do a great work it may have nothing to do with becoming larger or doing more numerically or saving me from having to experience what every other human being has to go through in this life. Actually a great work from God would profoundly anchor me into a more authentic love for Him and my neighbors where I lived. Furthermore, no matter what God did, large or small, I would still need to use cue tips or a wash-cloth for my ears every now and then . . . .
When one raging man in Christ becomes gentle there is more power here than thirty raging men who came to our event and went home unchanged. The problem for my heart and for many of those with whom I have served, is that thirty in attendance sounds greater than one. And even if, our Lord willing, thirty came and thirty were changed, for all of our rejoicing we’d still have to use the bathroom at some point.