December 15, 2017

Right Where I Belong

Green Acres Market

I read Chaplain Mike’s post yesterday afternoon (Get Small) with delight. I had just read that very passage from Tullian Tchividjian’s Glorious Ruin that morning. And it is something the Holy Spirit has been speaking to me for several days. To paraphrase the A Team’s Hannibal Smith, don’t you just love it when God’s plan comes together?

For so very long I was caught up in the notion that the way to please God the most was to have a bigger “ministry” than I had currently. That I was to strive to get bigger, to do more, to expand, to always become  new and improved. This is a ministry model based on our current business culture. Your local hardware store refused to grow beyond its one location and is now gone, replaced by big box stores that are always looking to grow. The same applies to ministries. You want to find some way to provide clothing for single moms? Great. How, how can you cast that vision to cities beyond yours? Did you file the paperwork to ensure your 501(c)3 status? Are you gathering testimonies so you can write a book about your successes? (You’ll need that to sell when you go on your speaking tour.)

Or you plant a church. Great. Churches are wonderful things, except when they stay small and only interact with those within walking distance. No, to be a successful church you’ll need to lay plans for multiple sites, connected by video so that you, the speaker, can talk to everyone at all locations. Small churches are loser churches. We all know that.

So here I was, a successful literary agent, representing some of the biggest names in Christian publishing, when the book world went upside-down (just as I had predicted it would, right when I predicted it would). I was big, dammit, too big to fail. But fail I did. I went from a nearly six-figure income to working at Target for just above minimum wage. It was not only humbling, it was humiliating. I got behind on bills. I couldn’t buy Christmas gifts for my kids or grandkids. I went from eating out to doing without eating. I had to learn to receive from others instead of giving. Everything I thought was important went away. I was no longer big or important to anyone in any way. Except I began to be able to help customers who came to buy TVs and cameras from me. They became my friends, and they would ask me to pray for them. As I got to know my coworkers, they, too, began to ask for prayer. Or just come to me because they needed to be encouraged.

Recently I took a different job, working for a healthy food grocery store. I was sought out because of someone I had helped at Target. I am now the evening manager of a family-owned store with only three locations: Wichita, Kansas City, and Tulsa. They may add another one or two, but I don’t know. They are not really looking to become another major chain, but rather care for the communities they are in the best they can. I like that. The desire to grow bigger and do more has been almost completely stripped from me. I no longer wonder why, with a masters degree and years of experience in media, I’m now ringing up produce. I’m content where I am.

Eugene Peterson in his book The Pastor relates how he grew up working with his father, who was a butcher, and how this helped him in his role as a pastor.

That butcher shop was my introduction to the world of the congregation, which in a few years would be my workplace as a pastor. The people who came into our shop were not just customers. Something else defined them. It always seemed more like a congregation than a store. My father in his priestly robe greeted each person by name and knew many of their stories. And many of them knew me, in my priest’s robe, by name. I always knew there was more going on than a commercial transaction.

I, too, try to greet our customers by name, and I, too, try to get to know their stories. They are not just nameless, faceless commodities. They are people, just like me, with needs, just like me.

I think of Jeff and Tana. Jeff works for American Airlines, and wonders how much longer he’ll have a job. I told him my story, and how God has been faithful to provide for me and my family through it all. He then gathered his team together at American and shared what I shared with him. It encouraged all of his coworkers, and hopefully many of them will begin to look to God as their provider. And I gave Jeff and Tana some cheese curds, something they both really love, just to say God will never forget you.

I think of Rachel, who was visiting from Oregon to bury her sister who had just died. Rachel shared she was suffering from an illness that, one day, could take her life as well. I spend time talking with Rachel and her mom, and gave them some food that Rachel could eat. It was the best thing I did that whole day.

I think of a young boy, Wade, who came up to me to ask if we accept food stamps. I had to tell him that, no, we hadn’t yet received the approval from the state for that, but it was coming soon. He thanked me and walked away. I watched to see who he was with. A woman—his mom? his grandma? They came up to my lane with two of our incredibly delicious pot pies. I asked her if they were struggling, and before she could answer, I told her that I was struggling myself. The woman said yes, she was. That she used to own her own business, but had a couple of accidents, and what with all of the hospital bills, she lost it all. But, she said, she gained her nephew, who now lived with her. I told her that pot pies were two for one for her, and they went to sit and eat them in our seating area. Then I took a sack and filled it with some day-old items that would normally be donated to a Christian homeless shelter. I took it over to her and said, “Ma’am, you forgot your groceries.” She came back in this week to tell me that the items in that sack were just what Wade had been asking for. We both stood in the store and cried.

I could share many other incidents like this. Not one made the store more money. Not one helped get me promoted from evening manager to the general manager over all three stores. I have no desire to break away and start my own chain of grocery stores. I don’t plan to write a book about my experiences. I’m just thankful for where I am, with no desire to get any bigger. I’m looking forward to when I go to work tomorrow and can speak to another Jeff or Rachel or Wade’s aunt. I’m thankful that only a few of my coworkers are Christians, so that I can share the Gospel with those who have only heard bad news all of their lives.

For that Gospel is for the lost, the little, the small, the losers. And I am very glad to be all of the above.

Comments

  1. Thanks Jeff,

    It’s amazing that we are willing to sacrifice the beautiful experiences that you describe so well for bigger and better.

  2. William Webber says:

    Thank you; this is a really beautiful post.

  3. Just lovely. Thank you!

  4. Clay Knick says:

    Jeff, this was beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  5. The problem with small churches is they tend to be modeled after the corner butcher with the heavy thumb. Betrayal is a terrible thing; it is even worse when you know it on a first-name basis.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      That’s a pretty broad generalization. Of course it is true for some, but it is no true for many.

      I can’t imagine belonging to a church so big that the pastor doesn’t know my name, and I don’t know the names of at least a substantial portion of the other members. Obviously, many people like this. I find the idea extremely unattractive.

  6. Thank you, thank you, Jeff. You have affirmed every person who has never bought into the “bigger is better” philosophy in church or in business. This is a powerful story of how we can allow God to speak into our lives. Many in your circumstances would still be sitting on the sidelines feeling bitter about their turn of events. You show what it means when the gospel is alive for us. Thanks for shining a light on finding God in the small & everyday.

  7. Ric Schopke says:

    Thank you, and may God continue to bless you and minister through you.

  8. Thanks for sharing your amazing story. There’s much in there that we all need to learn.

  9. i love this- thanks for posting:)

  10. Thank you Jeff, for this heartfelt and very truthful post. Sounds like you took your ministry right into your situation which is what we are all supposed to do anyway….someone else might have been so caught up in what they felt was a negative situation, they would have missed a unique opportunity! What a blessing this post was. Lori

  11. That Other Jean says:

    Thank you! If all a person/church/pastor cares about is getting more and bigger and better so they can save the world, they so often fail to see the little, everyday ways to make the world a better place.

  12. I’m proud of you, Jeff.

  13. MelissatheRagamuffin says:

    Beautiful, Jeff!

  14. Thank you, Jeff.

    T

  15. I took it over to her and said, “Ma’am, you forgot your groceries.”

    My eyes teared up over that line Jeff. Thank you.

  16. You story Jeff reminded me of a couple of incidents from my past. Two people whose actions spoke louder than words.

    In the first incident, years ago, I was visiting Montreal, Quebec. with a youth group. A stranger going by tried to show off by doing a trick on his skateboard in front of us, and failed miserably. I laughed. I could see that he was upset by my reaction. Another one of our youth, named Alan, went over, and showed interest in him as a person, complimented him on his board, etc. I felt like such a heel. Alan was showing Christ’s love to this person and I was not. But I did learn a valuable lesson that day, and ever since I have tried to be an encourager rather than a discourager. (Oops, some recent comments on here come to mind, so maybe I have a few lessons still to learn!) I have become quite adept at close up magic using pocket change. I use it all the time now to cheer people up, especially those who are having a bad day. Now if I see a kid try a trick on a skateboard my line is “cool trick”, can I show you a cool trick. Have you ever seen a magic quarter?” It takes some guts but 95% of the time I get a great reaction.

    The other story comes from observing my friend Sue. She had a homeless guy that used to hang out on her block. When ever she would see him she would offer to buy him a sandwich. When I saw her do that I thought, “there is someone being Christ to that person.” So since then I have tried to do the same. I buy meals tfor homeless people because they are hungry. I offer rides to hitchhikers because they need a ride.

    Recently I came out of a grocery store, and gave a pre-packaged sandwich and drink to a homeless guy standing outside. (I had asked him first what he would like to eat.) Another lady came up to me at my car in the parking lot and asked “Did you just buy lunch for that guy?” I did, I said. “That is one of the most wonderful things I have ever seen”, she said. “Why did you do that?” I answered, “It seemed like that sort of thing that Jesus would do.”

    No sermon. No 4 spiritual laws. But just a quiet assertion that it is because of Jesus that I do the things I do.

    Jeff, God has placed you in a place where you can minister to people in so many ways. God bless you as you serve among his creation.

  17. P.S. One of the best posts I have ever read Jeff.

  18. As a writer, I find myself greatly humbled when I read stuff of this quality. Wonderfully written, Jeff.

  19. Pastor Don says:

    I sensed our Lord smiling as you wrote thosee words and as his other children read them and savored them.

  20. Pastor Don says:

    Jeff, I sensed our Lord smiling as you wrote those words and as his other children read them and savored them.

  21. Totally awesome Jeff! Rubber meet the road and real!

    It sounds very similar to a friend of mine who owned two lighting stores and earned a decent living and then lost the lot and carried the stigma of bankruptcy. Like you he ended up taking up a much lower paying job and his testimony is like yours, he couldn’t be happier.

    After a while he bought a second hand Harley that he enjoys riding on weekends with other guys.

    I really enjoyed reading this post!

    John

  22. This brought tears to my eyes. So beautiful and so true!

  23. Beautiful post Jeff. And Congratulations ~ now you really are a Pastor. Too many hurting people out there who have no one to care and you are right where you can be available to them.

  24. Jeff, you are the light of Christ.

    Reminds me of Mother Teresa’s comment that we cannot do great acts in this world, only small acts of kindness done with LOVE……

    Thank you……may your blessing return to you a hundred-fold.

  25. Thanks, Jeff, for sowing seeds of kindness, and for sharing.

  26. Just what I needed this morning. Thank you, Jeff.

  27. “For that Gospel is for the lost, the little, the small, the losers. And I am very glad to be all of the above.” Thank you. This is a good message for Sunday (Reformation Sunday); what wonderful insight into God’s grace in Christ!

  28. Great story Jeff, and thanks for sharing it. What struck me was that it took failure to send you down this better path. I wonder how many of us would walk away at the peak of success as the world defines it. I can’t conceive of myself praying for God to strip me of my worldly success in order to find a better, simpler life. But that’s just my spiritual immaturity perhaps (and not really surprising since I don’t think I’ve ever REALLY wanted to know God’s will for me because it might involve something I don’t want to do).

    • “…..it might involve something I don’t WANT to do.”

      Yes. That. Exactly.

      +1 1/2 gazillion

  29. Awesome stuff, Jeff.
    And though the ministry God has called you to may seem like small potatoes by some people’s definition of success, I pray that God continues to bless it and create opportunities to serve Him and others. And may you someday bask in your Lord’s pleasure as He shows you how significant and even world-changing your obedience turned out to be in the context of eternity.

  30. Beautiful post. Thank you. I’ve had some similar life experiences and very much needed this reminder that we are all called to bring the beauty of Christ to the small and forgotten places.

    We all have more of an impact than we know, for the kingdom or against it. Glad that your impact is for it, and that you are betting the rare opportunity to see some of the results of it in real time. Be encouraged.

  31. Jeff-

    I loved that post. I loved it immensely. I hear you with suffering….my family has gone through a lot – brain tumor, pancreatic cancer, schizophrenia, unemployement and then there is me. My experience at INOVA Fairfax Hospital was a shocker. I dealt with physical pain, I watched my leg change colors, the infection spread, and the leg swell so much that skin started to fall off. I didn’t know what cellulitis or a staph infection was until I was dealing with it. One day I was in bed and I’d ask the doctor’s, “what bateria is it?” and they’d say “I don’t know.” Then there was the time when being on full blown antibiotics and the next morning I looked at my theigh and say the infection was moving up the leg. That frightened me…..

    Then there was the evening on July 29, 2012 where I was in the Emergency clinic and they were trying to raise my blood pressure so I could avoid going in the ICU. I was dealing with sepsis. I had chills like you wouldn’t believe. My heart rate was at 150 beats per minute and my blood pressure was plummiting. It was at 70 over 40. I laid on a gurnee and was surrounded by 2 ER doctors, 2 ER nurses, and ambulance staff waiitng to transfer me to the ICU and just listened to the commotion and thought, “this isn’t happening…..”

    After all that I’m grateful that I walked out of the hospital and kept my leg. My co-workers were stunned, especially those who visited and I’m still amazed as to where this is at. I’m going to be on antibiotics for the next couple of months. And I have reminders regularly about what I need to be grateful for. Last week one of my bosses put an article from the Washington Post in my cube. It was an article from Sunday October 13, 2012 talking about what a teenager in Maryland endured while dealing with flesh eating bacteria. My boss attached a note saying that while he knows i didn’t have this type of leg bacteria, he’s grateful that I pulled through. I read the article and man did it hit home. 104 fever, high heartbeat, watching teh leg swell and burst… For me to read that it was just too much, I stepped away from my cube went to the cafeteria and just cried for a couple of minutes thinking of what I had gone through. This article brought back fresh memories.

    So now Jeff…i tell people that a bad day at work it better than a good day in the ICU! 😀

  32. I’m struck that hospital debt caused Wade’s aunt to lose all she had. She had a business, so perhaps she had health insurance; but she had a couple of accidents, so maybe the first caused the cancellation of her policy, forcing her, for the second, to seek the emergency room care without coverage at all. Or perhaps her policy was in effect for both accidents, but was grossly insufficient. Older women are among the most vulnerable on the American insurance market.

    I know that ‘health care’ is a political topic in America, not a moral one, and, like so much else, American Christians can’t discuss it without clawing each other’s eyes out. But what happened to Wade’s aunt – and to millions like her – is a moral scandal, nonetheless.

  33. Nathan Carpenter says:

    Exactly what I needed to hear. Great post. Right up there with the post where you linked to Johnny Cash singing about San Quentin. Thank you for being where God wants you

  34. Tigger23505 says:

    The methodical, crazy anglican priest (John Wesley) who started my church in the 1700’s said that we were to do all the good we can, in all the places we can, for as long as we can. I think it would be hard to come up with a better definition of the Christian task. When we substitute the worlds measuring stick for God’s we will always fall short.

    I’m always amazed at the otherwise sane people who think that the magic formula for everything is growth. When did they stop watching alcohol ferment, bread rise, or rain fall. Growing forever is unsustainable, you will always run out of something – food, supplies, ideas or into something – toxic levels of waste, ….

  35. This post sounds as if it could have been written by Brother Lawrence — beautiful.

  36. Jeff, all I can say, in a pathetic way, that I feel your pain. I won’t try to weave any greater meaning in your story but that I’m sure it has been hard. I’ve faced things like that before and there is nothing more painful than having a family and struggle to provide for them when once it was no problem. At least for me, it was like my self-esteem (as a father, husband, bread winner) soaking in a bath of acid, where it took so much courage just to not listen to those words that tries to link my worth directly to my professional success. One of my greatest anxieties is what I would call . . . WGS (Walmartgreeter Syndrome) . . . meaning that would be my final professional accomplishment, but you help me to see that the anxiety really bares no teeth as being a Walmart greeter could be a good place for me.

    Eagle, I’m so glad you are now this side of a tragic illness.