“Heavennnly Faaatherrrrrr….”

molasses-jpgI’ve been in fulltime ministry since cutting and pasting was actually cutting and pasting. And through the years, I’ve met people who have shaped the way I think.  When I first began my first fulltime ministry position in 1995, I was a typical fresh-out-of-college type of punk; knew it all and couldn’t wait to school anybody watching on how ministry is really supposed to be done. Boy have I learned that I still have a whole lot to learn. Let me pause here and encourage you to ask God where pride is getting the best of you.  Because He detests pride so much, He’ll be more than happy to show you exactly where its at. And quick.

My first ministry post lasted 2 years.  In 1997 I moved on from Northern VA to Nyack, NY.  I loved Nyack (still do) and the new ministry context.  While I had learned so much in VA, I by no means had “arrived” anywhere.  Still with lots of gusto, I plunged myself into my new position head-first.  I had been there for 4 years or so when my senior pastor came to our apartment to tell me that he was about to go into a board meeting where he’d be resigning his position.  I was stunned, saddened, and inwardly devastated.  My mind and heart immediately asked God, “What about me? This is the man who led my hiring. Should I consider packing up, too?” I’m not sure how to explain it, but almost as immediately as I asked, I sensed an answer: “No.”  So, over the next 14 months I served as the only fulltime pastor on staff.  Can you imagine it?  The youth guy at the helm? Crazy, right?

During that time, I stepped even more into a leadership role; almost an interim of sorts.  I led board meetings, I preached a whole lot more, and I generally did more of the things a senior pastor would do. I was even approached with an inquiry if I would be interested in being considered for the role of senior pastor.  Those who know me already know the answer; even to this day student ministry is where I feel God wants me and I can’t get over how clear that has been over the years.

One of the things I honesty got more involved in was regularly planned prayer meetings.  And there was a guy there named Joe that always caught my attention. Remember, I’m still a young, spry, let’s-take-the-next-hill, why-are-we-standing-around, hurry-up-and-do-it kind of leader. But when it was Joe’s turn to pray…

“Heavennnly Faaatherrrrr…..” This slow, drawn out snail’s pace of his prayers would simultaneously irritate me and teach me.  Every syllable just seemed soooooooo ssssllllooooooooooowwwwwww.  While I was in such a hurry to get to the next thing on the to-do list, Joe was completely content to sit and simply talk to Jesus.  And honestly, at first I just didn’t get it.  I thought “How in the world can someone take so long doing something like this.”  Kind of reminds me of a couple sisters named Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42).  Martha was hurried, worried, and busy with the work at hand.  Mary wasn’t lazy, she just knew what should come first.  Joe taught me so much without even trying.  He taught me that I was (and perhaps most of us are) in a far greater hurry than God is.  He taught me that I’m far more likely to run ahead of Jesus than lag behind.  He taught me that I’m the kind of guy who’ll call back over my shoulder saying, “Hey Jesus, follow me!” while Jesus responds with, “Hey, that’s my line.”

So if you know me now in the place I’m at in ministry, you’ve likely noticed that I don’t tend to rush things….anything really.  And that’s in large part thanks to a wonderful friend of God named Joe.

The Start of My Story

Goldsboro NCMy story may or may not be entirely unique, but it is uniquely my own. I was born in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1973 and lived there until the age of 5 when my family (two older sisters, Mom and Dad) Varner Familymoved to Cape May, NJ as my dad had gotten a call to be the pastor of a small independent Baptist church there.

I grew up literally in the shadow of the church and as I grew, made my way through the ranks of Sunday School, children’s choir, Royal Ambassadors, and Boys Brigade. Along the way, I tried to have as much fun as I could while tolerating learning things like the books of the Bible, key stories in the Word, the hymns of our faith, and how to sit through an entire church service.

Townbank HomeAt the age of eight, I remember one Sunday evening service and my dad–weary from the days activities–wrapping up another meagerly attended service. (I observed and decided from a young age that only the real Christians came back on Sunday night.)  Closing the service as was typical for him, my dad had called for anyone who’d like to receive forgiveness of their sins to come forward. My eight-year-old mind knew just enough to know that I had sinned and needed forgiveness. As the closing hymn played, I made my way toward the aisle. I would find out later that this irked my dad because he saw me move toward the aisle and thought I was going to the bathroom. (In his defense, it was one of my better-known escape tactics.) But as I reached the end of the pew, I took a hard right and headed up the aisle toward my dad who was standing up front. It was that night that I decided that Jesus sounded awesome and if any God willing to forgive me of my wrong choices was willing to take a chance on me, then I was certainly willing to take Him up on his offer. That night: Forgiveness, full and free.

With a new lease on life and my buddy Jesus tagging along with me wherever I went, you’d think I’d have instantly turned into a young Billy Graham in the lunchroom at school. Maybe standing atop the case of half pints of milk, inviting sinners to not let another recess go by without laying it all down at the altar. But oddly enough, not much changed. Not much at all as I recall. I remained more interested in Kool-Aid than Kingdom work and more into my bike than the Bible.

The years went by and I continued to go to church, even getting more and more involved with the nuts and bolts of how a church service happens. Show up early, unlock the doors, turn on the lights, straighten the hymnals, change the hymn numbers on the front wall, turn on the sound system, and pick up any leftover bulletins that may have found their way under the pews. Maybe I wasn’t Billy Graham, but I was feeling like Billy the janitor and that was a start. It was in those young years that I learned a very powerful truth: Most people wait for the service to start before they worship; but in reality, worship starts with service. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked my dad for teaching me that invaluable truth. Thanks, Dad.

A monthly outing that my dad always took me along on was his Sunday afternoon ministry to the residents at South Cape Nursing Home. It was a dreadful smelling place where old people gathered in the rec room (a few under compulsion by the staff) for a time of singing and a short devotional by the Reverend Ronald Varner.  Even now, if I stop and be quiet, I can still hear the tinny sound of that upright piano echoing down the halls, bellowing out “In the Garden”, one of the old folks’ favorite tunes…

“And He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am His own. And the joy we share as we tarry there… None other has ever known.”

wheelchair 2There is one man I somehow always looked forward to seeing; a man I know I won’t ever forget. I only knew him by “Frank”. Frank had an amputated leg and was wheelchair bound. Balding and severely hunched over, he’d lift his head as far as he could, cocked to one side, to give you a less-than-toothy grin. I don’t recall Frank ever saying one word. All I remember about Frank is that Frank loved to play the tambourine. No matter what song was playing from that piano, if Frank had the tambourine, you could always count on him playing along while smiling ear to ear. Frank had tremors, which made him a natural at the tambourine. Grasped in his arthritic hand, he’d gently shake that old wooden tambourine in time with the music. Most people wait until they have what they consider something special to give to The Lord. But Frank taught me that no matter what you’ve got in your hand, its exactly what God wants you to use to praise Him. I don’t think I’ve ever actually thanked my dad for dragging me to that smelly nursing home to learn that incredible truth.  Thanks, Dad.

I wish I could tell you that during my teen years my sense of selflessness just grew and grew. Sadly, I began to live as if one person alone mattered, and it wasn’t Jesus Christ. I became deceptive, disrespectful, disobedient, and destructive in nearly every relationship I had.  At one point, my parents literally confronted me with suspicion of drug use. That’s how erratic and nonsensical my behavior had become. I take full responsibility for my actions and the devastation they caused. I had driven my parents to the end of their rope and they had nowhere else to turn. If I close my eyes even now I’m transported right back to our small den, and I’m looking down at the carpet while enduring yet another lecture from my dad. I’d look over at my mom who’d be weeping quietly at the condition of her home, all thanks to her selfish teenage son. My parents had two very distinct approaches to communicating their displeasure with my choices: my dad was the talker, my mom was the…well…I don’t know what to call it. But I can tell you that the look of sadness in her eyes would convey volumes more than the endless stream of words coming from my dad. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked my mom for caring and showing her love (albeit heartbroken love) the way she did during that time in my life. Thanks, Mom.

I remember the last time we’d have a talk like that in our den. I remember the change in my perspective that came in the blink of an eye. I don’t remember much of anything else but the feeling of being struck in the face by my out-of-options dad. I remember the feeling of the carpet on myshag carpet face, the shout of terror from my older sister at what she had just seen, and the recoil of my dad standing over me. I don’t know if that blow was open-handed or closed, and quite honestly I really don’t care. All I know is from that moment forward I saw things quite differently. I saw them through different lenses than the blurry, distorted ones I had been wearing. I began to see things from others’ point of view. Most people think it’s their own perspective (or rights, or happiness, or desires) that matters most, when in reality mine matters least. What matters most is where God is at, what He’s doing, and how I belong to Him.  I don’t think I’ve ever thanked my dad for knocking me to the floor of our den. From what I can tell, he more than likely saved my life. Thanks, Dad.

Soon after the one-punch knock-down episode, I remember laying in my bed one night. I wish I had the foresight at the time to write down the date, but I know that it’ll be seared in my memory forever. I was lying there thinking back over the recent events in my life, how I had messed things up so badly with my parents, how thankful I was for their willingness to forgive and how I felt completely devoid of any spiritual worth; that God was fed up and that I was useless to Him. I had simply gone too far. Now, you need to understand that I grew up in a very conservative church setting. We didn’t have any snakes, hot coals, or tongues of fire. Heck, if you were clapping at church it was only after that special duet of the old husband on his violin and his old wife on the piano. Needless to say, “weird” stuff didn’t happen because God wasn’t weird. He was God.

And there’s really no other way to put it than to just say that my God came into my room that night. In a weird way that was beyond unmistakable, I knew that God was with me, not far off and sitting somewhere, disgusted by me, saying “Tsk, tsk, tsk…I had such high hopes for him, too.” It was a moment that still today is one of my most dearly held moments of awe. I couldn’t do anything but slide out from under my covers, drop to my knees next to my bed, bury my face in my mattress and sob. The room was almost lit with the presence of God. And I knew exactly what He wanted me to know. It’s the same thing He wants you to know, no matter who you are, where you are, or what you’ve done:

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

I forgive you.

I want you.

I restore you.

I heal you.

I’m with you.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

Months later at a music festival in Altoona, PA I listened to a message by a man named Tony Creation Festival with Tony CampoloCampolo. Have you ever been in a church service and even with people all around you, it was as if you were the only one there? Like the message was just for you? Well, I was surrounded by 12,000 people and as far as God and I were concerned, it was just God and I. At the end of that message titled “Radical Conversion” (which I still have on cassette and listen to), Tony gave an invitation to respond. My prayer in that moment, (and still is today) was:

“God, wherever you want me to go, I’ll go. Whatever you want me to say, I’ll say. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do.”

That day stands as a “stake in the ground” declaration for me. I’ve never once forgotten that decision, and I’ve never once regretted it. Not once. Ever.

Most people think that they need to “get their act together” before coming to God. But I’ve learned that not only does God still use screw-ups, it seems to me that He ONLY uses screw-ups.

This was the start of my story.  A story that every day God continues to write.