December 21, 2007
It was one of those times in the life of a pastor when the lesson you prepare manages to edify yourself as much or more than those to whom it was aimed. In this case it involved the youth group at a church where I had just been called to take on the responsibility as senior pastor. Since there was no one to minister to the youth at the time I found myself back in the familiar role of youth pastor along with all my other duties. No problem, I thought as the time approached for the youth group meeting, we’ll just play some games and then I’ll pull a devotional out of the files and reuse it.
After many years of experience in ministering to young people I was far more comfortable around them than being in the presence of adults. Since this was my first taste of being a senior pastor I was filled with apprehension and self doubts. To make matters worse, after accepting the position with the church I learned there were some deeply rooted problems involving the lay leadership and past conflicts. I was beginning to realize I was in for a rough road in trying to bring about any change in this congregation. Suddenly the future looked threatening, filled with severe trials and uncertainties. I worried if I had made a grave mistake in uprooting my family and moving them to this community.
Following an hour of physical activity I led the youth into the church fellowship hall for some refreshments and a lesson from the Bible. While they were gobbling up some cookies and quenching their thirst on soda I began stacking piles of Styrofoam cups, upside down, in various arrangements on the floor. The piles of cups were of varying heights and spread out enough to allow a person to carefully squeeze between them without knocking them over. After dividing the group into two teams I described the exercise we were about to do.
“One by one,” I explained, “altering from one team to another, we will blindfold one person and they will have to walk through the obstacle course listening to the directions from their teammates. The team with the fewest cups knocked over, after each person has had a chance to go through the course, will win the game.”
It wasn’t long before the youth had entered into the fun of the exercise. The ones who were blindfolded had to discern which voices were those of their teammates and which ones were coming from the other side. Listening to the wrong voice would be disastrous. The teams eventually caught on to the strategy of having one spokesperson to avoid any confusion. The competition was intense and the cheering and groaning were deafening. Soon we were down to the last participant. Since the outcome of the game had already been determined and we knew the identity of the winning team, I decided to have some fun with the final contestant.
In a stroke of Spirit-inspired genius, after blindfolding the unsuspecting youth, I announced that I was going to reposition the piles of cups. Because the last young person to walk through the obstacle course would be my own son, Travis, I felt secure enough to have some fun at his expense. Instead of just repositioning the cups I totally removed them from the course.
“The piles of cups are much higher and closer together than before,” I announced while silently indicating to the rest of the group not to give away the secret. “Let’s see how well you can do with this new obstacle course.”
Howls of laughter arose while his team leader led Travis through the imaginary obstacles. At times he had the poor guy tied in knots trying to avoid knocking down any invisible cups.
“Wow, that was a close one!” shouted his team leader. “Now don’t move for a minute while I figure out how to get you out of this predicament.”
A loud gasp rose from the onlookers with each step Travis took. Everyone entered into the fun of watching Travis negotiate his way through the nonexistent hindrances. Finally, after miraculously finishing the course without knocking over a single cup, Travis removed his blindfold and realized he had been duped.
“What have we learned here?” I asked after the group quieted down.
“I think the lesson is about needing a team to help us get through life,” replied one teenage girl. “We need someone we can trust who can see things we can’t and help us avoid the dangers.”
“Very good,” I responded. “You have just discovered one of the main reasons for being a part of this youth group or, for that matter, a part of the body of Christ. Christianity is a team sport; it’s far too risky to attempt by ourselves. We definitely need some faithful companions to help us through the tough times. The Bible says, ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ – Hebrews 10:24-25. Now, what else have we learned from this game?”
“We learned that it’s important to listen to the right voices,” offered one of the boys who had served as a spokesperson for his team. “If we listen to the wrong voice we can be led to make some bad choices and stray from the best path.”
“Excellent,” I proclaimed. “There will be many voices vying for your attention. The voices you listen to will determine how well you make it through the obstacles of life, and where you will spend eternity. Jesus says, ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.’ – John 10:27. But what did we learn when the obstacles were removed?”
After a long pause Travis spoke up. “I think there are times when we worry about something that shouldn’t bother us at all because it doesn’t exist,” he said thoughtfully. “We convince ourselves there is a problem when in reality there isn’t any; so we get all bent out of shape for no reason.”
“Well said, Travis,” I replied with a hint of pride over my son having come up with the right answer. “The greatest obstacles you will face in this life are those which exist only in your minds. An unreasonable fear based upon imaginary obstacles will keep most of us from achieving the greatness God has ordained for us.”
Suddenly I became speechless. In the midst of sharing a lesson that was supposed to be on team-building, God had just nailed me about my own lack of faith. Like Travis, I was imagining the worst obstacles that could possibly be waiting for me to stumble over in my ministry. In reality, the largest obstacle of all was my own fear. Was I not convinced that God had called me to this particular church? If so, then whatever hindrances lay in my pathway the Lord would either remove or guide me safely past. If I concentrated on listening for the voice of my Shepherd rather than the voice of the sheep, if I strove to follow the Spirit’s leading rather than my own blind instincts, if I put my trust in the true Leader of my team rather than seeking to please the directions being hurled at me from other sources, I would end up reaching the destination God had intended for me.
I was reading the first chapter of Luke the other day when the subject of faith was brought to my attention. When God spoke to Mary through the angel Gabriel and told her she would soon give birth to Messiah her first reaction was predictable. Imagining all the supposed obstacles which she perceived were standing in the way of fulfilling her calling she responded by saying, “How will this be…?” – Luke 1:34.
I can imagine some of the obstacles which must have flashed through her mind. She was terribly young for such a critically important assignment, probably in her early teens. How would someone so inexperienced, so immature, be able to raise the Son of God? Then there was the problem of her lack of wealth and her family’s low social standing. How could she provide a suitable home for the Christ child? Where would they live? How could she explain the boy’s existence to her friends and family? How could she bear the shame and reproach which would surely come upon her for being an unwed mother? Out of the myriad of obstacles which she could have pictured in her mind, she chose to ask only about one. How could she, a virgin, give birth to anyone?
The angel’s response ends with this declaration, “For nothing is impossible with God.” – Luke 1:37. It is at this point where I most marvel at Mary’s faith. She likely had many more questions rolling around in her mind and certainly more obstacles about which to be anxious. Yet she chose to ignore the deafening voices of her own doubts and fears opting instead to listen only to the voice of God. Somehow she was able to remove the blindfold of her earthly perspective and focus on the future through the eyes of her Lord. Her simple response of ultimate trust and submission has intrigued admirers for centuries and still serves today as a shining example of what it means to have faith in God.
“I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said.” – Luke 1:38.
I have been thinking about the coming New Year and all the trials and opportunities which lay ahead for us. Through our earthly perspective we will likely see before us a pathway littered with dangerous pitfalls and huge obstacles. But is that the reality of the course marked out for us or do those obstacles exist only in our minds? Are we attempting to negotiate the future while wearing an earthly blindfold or are we seeing through the eyes of faith? Are we listening to the voices of doubt and fear or striving to hear the voice of our Shepherd? Are we going to tiptoe through the obstacle course of the coming year allowing the world to twist and contort us to fit the image of supposed hindrances or will we, like Mary, respond with a simple message of ultimate trust in our true Guide?
The truth is there are many ministries which God desires to bring forth from our spiritual wombs. There are souls to win, children to mentor, disciples to train, churches to plant, books to write, songs to compose, prayers to utter, and even miracles to facilitate. Will we respond to God’s calling by asking “How can this be”? Or will we answer in humble faith like Mary and say, “May it be to me as you have said”? In addition to Gabriel’s declaration that “nothing is impossible with God,” Scripture abounds with admonitions to ignore perceived obstacles and move forward in faith.
“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” — 1John 4:4. “…If God is for us, who can be against us?” – Romans 8:31. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” – Philippians 4:13.
The coming year will undoubtedly hold many surprising twists and turns which may shake our faith to its core. But I can absolutely guarantee that nothing which is about to occur will be a surprise to God. Therefore, allow me to encourage you to remove your earthly blindfolds, listen to the voice of our Shepherd, and move forward in faith.
Bill, a child of God, blindfold removed