I’m back from Nicaragua after an awesome week where I was privillaged to see God work in the lives of several pastors from all over the area. I was very privileged to teach from the book of Revelation and cap off the entire series of our New Testament survey course. I’m very tired but jumping right back in to work here at Fellowship Dallas. Thank you so much for your prayers and support! God is definitely moving in Nicaragua! I was privileged to be a small part of what IBAC is up. I was also privileged to be part of the team there. My fellow teachers are amazingly gifted and able to teach with passion and clarity about God’s word. Josué and Michael, wow! Thanks everyone for your prayers and support!
It’s been a little while (6 months or so) since I’ve given an update on our new life here in Texas. Needless to say, it’s been a whirlwind!
It all began with a phone call from a church in Dallas, TX called Fellowship Bible Church. They were looking for a pastor to be in charge of their newly implemented Life Group strategy. I admit, I was skeptical at first. The last thing that I really felt called to was the administration of an existing church system. My gifting is more in creatively building and growing contexts in which people come to a deeper understanding of their calling. God has continually shown this aspect this calling through the way people I trust have spoken into my life. So, I was, like I said, skeptical.
This scepticism, coupled with some pretty bad experiences of past church hurts, caused me to approach the intro Skype conversation with K and R, (the two guys that I have already grown to appreciate and love) with a measure of tentativeness. Most of all, I wanted to be truthful. I wanted to understand exactly what they were looking for in this position while being honest about my own shortcomings and ministry mindset.
It’s interesting how, in these circumstances, God can step into the picture and provide glimpses of a vision for the future. After my skype conversation, I felt a strange peace, one that I couldn’t really define or verbally communicate. I was “in the process” with several churches and a few non-profs, having gone through phone interviews and extensive questionnaires, but this felt different.
In the meantime, we were all living with my parents in North Carolina, a state I have never even had the privilege of visiting until our abrupt departure from the UK. I had wrapped up all the loose ends associated with my PhD thesis, been awarded my doctorate from the University of Aberdeen (UK), and received close to a million rejection letters for university posts. (Sadly, I had become a product of this messed-up system, one you can read more about in a blog by Peter Enns) We were really enjoying our mini-“vacation” from the crazy stress of the past few months (check this out here) but things were starting to get financially tight.
One beautiful aspect of our time in NC was being in close proximity to family. Watching the boys reconnect with my parents, their aunt and uncle, and their cousins filled Melodie and I (who also felt this same thing happening in our lives) with immense joy. Adding to this joy, was the fact that Melodie was experiencing a really great run of health. After several months of scary hospitalizations for her undiagnosed condition, it was great to see her experiencing life without fear. So, except for our financial situation, things were going pretty great. (I am immensely grateful for the people who prayerfully supported us during this difficult time.)
As a husband and father, the financial situations weighed heavily on me. I just could not understand how God had thought fit to put us through the extensive ridiculousness of having to leave to the UK, only to end up in a strange holding pattern, totally dependent on the generosity of family and friends. I called this time Limboland and you can read more about my in-the-moment-thoughts here.
In all honesty, I wasn’t really interested in looking for a church position. I never wanted to use church work as a fallback. I also assumed that God was heading me towards academia; given all the time, energy, mental resources, and eye-ruining research I put into the PhD. I also felt a deep sense of thriving as I explored scripture (and other related historical writings), engaged in high-level academic (aka. nerdy) discussion, and presented at conferences. I really thought that, in order to be faithful to my calling, this was the environment I was probably needed to end up in. You can read about my struggle with the concept of calling here.
Things changed when God spoke to us. It wasn’t one of those sky-cracking-thunder-and-lighting moments, but it had the same effect on Melodie, me, and (even) our kids. It progressed like this. On a Thursday, I received an email from a very close friend. This email held a mixture of loving encouragement and gentle admonishment. In this more than two page epistle, my friend strongly suggested that I was limiting the potential for God to use me in a pastoral capacity by not looking at church ministry.
I read it through once and then put it away. I really didn’t want to deal with it. My friend’s words cut me, in a good way, to the core. I needed time to think and it was pretty crazy around the house that weekend with nieces and nephews. I wanted some space to think, but God had other ideas. That Sunday, the pastor preached on an interesting topic. Yep, you guessed it, the main question of his sermon was: “Are you limiting your ability to be used by God?”
In this sermon, he discussed things like: being open to God’s will for your life despite your preconceived notions of vocation and calling, not turning a blind eye to circumstances, and letting people you trust speak into your life. Both Melodie and I looked at each other and were pretty much floored. It was so poignant a message that our (then 14-year-old) son turned to us after service and said: “Wow, it was like he was speaking right to us, huh guys?!” When your teenage kid discerns that the Spirit of God working through the pastor’s sermon, not only should you be shocked that he actually listened to the message, but you should also start taking things he notices a bit more seriously.
To top it all off, I hadn’t mentioned a word about the aforementioned email from my good friend to anyone. I talked about it later with Melodie and we agreed God was trying to get something significant through our thick heads. We listened and I began to engage in the search process that would eventually lead us to Fellowship Dallas.
Now, back to how we came to end up here in Dallas. After the Skype interview, we came down to this small Texas hamlet for a visit. Three weeks later I moved here and started work. A week or so later the family followed. Like I said before, this has been a whirlwind. I just passed the 6-month mark of serving here and, during this time, it has been very cool to see God working within our Life Groups. I’m also privileged to serve on several cross-strategy area committees and be a part of the sermon planning process. I’ve also had several opportunities to put the ol’ PhD into action by teaching through several areas of the Bible in a few different church contexts. Our ministry to men and a group called the Master’s Class (a more mature crowd of empty-nesters) both really love to soak in the word of God! They have also been very gracious to let me teach an initiate discussion around fun biblical and theological concepts.
Who would have thought that, a year ago, we would be serving in such a uniquely awesome setting in Dallas, TX. I’m still fighting the overwhelming urge to become a Cowboys fan, maybe if they start winning I’ll jump on the bandwagon.
If you would like a copy of our Christmas letter which includes an update on each family member, please let me know.
Merry Christmas from the Carroll Clan!
In a previous blog, we looked at the early life of the man that would eventually be known as St. Francis, highlighting his calling from a wealthy carefree existence of partying and pleasure to a firmly dedicated devotion to Jesus Christ.
In this post, we’ll pick up where we left off, with Francis having dedicated his life to Christ in a small country chapel outside of Assisi. On his horse ride home from this life altering event, something very significant happened. He came across a leper walking the opposite way on the road. Back in Francis’ time leprosy was a nasty and incurable disease that people thought to be highly contagious. Its symptoms, scaly skin and missing body parts, were obvious to the casual observer. If a person had leprosy, they were removed from society and completely ostracised by everyone they knew. A common reaction upon encountering a leper was to physically and emotionally shun this individual, quickly removing yourself in order to get away from a possible leprosy contamination zone. In this instance, as he had so many other times, Francis did just that. In his revulsion, he crossed to the other side of the road, spurred his horse, and hurried away as fast as possible.
You almost can’t blame him. In that society, at that time, Francis’ reaction would have been all but automatic and expected by everyone involved. This kind of reaction would probably have been witness by the leper hundreds of times before. To be shunned in such a manner, although deeply hurtful, had probably even become mundane for this man who wore his rotting skin as a declaration of an unworthiness to be touched or loved. This is a man who was used to rejection, especially from a well-dressed son of Assisi like Francis. Imagine his surprise when he heard the thundering footsteps of Francis’ horse heading back towards his direction carrying the same rider who had rushed away in disgust only moments ago!
This is exactly what happened. Francis came back. Moments after hurrying away in disgust, Francis was struck by a wave of godly compassion for the man who, by no choice of his own, was suffering from this horrible malady. Far from a begrudging deed necessary to keep up appearances, Francis’ selfless action of dismounting his horse, running to the man, emptying his own pockets of all the money he had, and kissing (yes, kissing!!) the man’s hands was probably one of the most significant indications of the internal change that had happened in Francis’ heart. In fact, this act held special meaning in that, at the time, the hands were thought to be the main avenue through which leprosy spread from one person to another. Touching a leper was, basically, thought to be suicidal!
This was the action of a changed man who, giving no thought to his own self-preservation, decided that providing temporary comfort to an individual who society had rejected was worth more than his own life. And, lest we think this was a moment of temporary insanity, this selfless action marked the beginning point of a life-long ministry to those unfortunate people affected by this horrible disease.
I can’t help but be struck by the sincerity of Francis’ actions, actions that indicate a devotion to Christ that went beyond himself, his own personal comforts, and even his own safety. Like Jesus, Francis was not afraid to throw social conventions and taboos aside as he ministered to people considered by many as revolting and unworthy. The transition from wealthy aristocrat to devoted follower of Christ had begun. As we shall see, this transition didn’t always entail an exemplary act worthy of imitation. In fact, almost immediately after the instance with the leper, Francis’ life became inordinately messy and was, for a time, typified by acts of immaturity and broken relationships. But, through all of this, God was working on Francis, preparing him to be used in ways he probably never considered possible.
Has there been a defining moment in your life where your faith was put to the test? What was your response? How does your walk with Christ define your perspective on things and people the world considers unworthy or disgusting?
Recently I’ve challenged myself to learn a little more about the lives of historical Christian figures, especially in regards to their calling to a relational devotion to Jesus. Being situated in a small town, I’ve enjoyed visiting our little library that has a surprisingly large biography section. It was here that I happened to run across an annotated biography on the life of St. Francis. The Franciscan order and its views on spiritual disciplines and poverty have always intrigued me, especially as the latest Pope has chosen the name Francis for his own. So, I decided to (quite literally) check this book out.
The Road to Assisi by Paul Sabatier, takes a middle ground approach to the life of St. Francis, trying to sort through the sensational tales surrounding the life of a man devoted to Christ without negating aspects of the miraculous. In addition, I’ve also picked up G. K. Chesterton’s biography simply called St. Francis. These two sources have served as delightfully colourful guides during my exploration and I’d highly recommend them to anyone interested on a balanced look at the life of St. Francis.
The Calling of St. Francis
Francis started out as an irresponsible rich kid of a wealthy merchant in the town of Assisi. It seems that Francis enjoyed several of the frivolous aspects of a well-to-do existence. His days were filled with goofing about, citing French poetry, and his nights with partying. It seems that he had quite the following among the other young and wealthy inhabitants of the town and love soaking in their admiration.
All this changed, or at least began to change, when Francis became seriously ill and was knocking on death’s door. He recovered his health, to some extent, but never quite regained his taste for the pleasurable pursuits that had previously been the focal point of his existence. Coming close to death seems to have sobered Francis, causing him a bit of internal re-evaluation. However, this re-evaluation didn’t seem to initiate a major change in his life-style. Rather, it slowed him down enough to start considering that there was more to life than his own pleasure, he began to have an inkling that there was a greater purpose to be found, one that extended past himself and into the service of those less fortunate.
Eager to discover what this greater purpose was all about, Francis answered a summons from the Pope for soldiers to rally to his cause and fight in one of the many ongoing struggles between neighbouring city-states. So, Francis decked himself out in the finest clothing, armour, and weapons a rich young aristocrat of the day could afford. He mounted his noble steed, yelled a few inspiring phrases at his assistant, and tromped through the gates of Assisi with the other young knights who were ready to gain glory and honour in the ensuing battle. As they left, the entire town, proud of the battling sons of Assisi, turned out to cheer them on. It was probably a brilliant send-off, worthy of all sorts of colourful phrases and rapturous eloquence. However, as we shall see, Frances’ abysmal failure in this endeavour and quick return resulted only in bitter disappointment and an unshakable disillusionment for our young man from Assisi.
Nobody really knows the reason why, but Francis only made it a few towns over, prematurely returning from his journey the very next day. Upon re-entering Assisi he, once again, was relegated to his bed with a sickness that threatened to make this failed journey his last. It was a massive blow to his ego and self-esteem to set off as a conquering hero and return as an invalid. This low point marked a dramatic change in Francis’ perspective on life, a change that had begun while he was recovering from his previous illness.
After a while, Francis regained some of his health and took to wandering around the countryside with a close friend. During these wanderings, he came across a rocky cave that became somewhat of a personal sanctuary as he returned daily to groan over his past. Here, in this stark setting, he would spend time lamenting how he had wasted his younger years partying and frivolously indulging in whatever pleasure seemed to come his way. During these sessions of lament, Francis pleaded for God to show him mercy and sought for a way to atone for the time he had wasted.
In an attempt to reinvigorate his partying spirit and help Francis rediscover his place in society, his erstwhile friends convinced him to throw a giant shindig. A real smasher that would pull out all the stops and be memorable for years to come. Contrary to their expectations, Francis dampened the party atmosphere somewhat when he responded to the suggestion that he get married in a quite unexpected manner. He stood up in the middle of the reverie, king of the party staff in hand, and declared something along the lines of, “Oh, I’m taking a wife alright, and she is more beautiful, rich, and pure than you could imagine!”
From that moment on, Francis stopped his playboy ways completely, letting go of his old life and the so-called “friends” who kept dragging him down. Something had changed within Francis, instead of wallowing in a self-induced pity and wondering if he was worthy of God’s mercy, he redoubled his contemplative efforts in order to discover what a life dedicated to Christ (the new bride he had declared earlier) entailed. It also seems that during this time God was continuing to soften his heart for the poor. Previously, even while playing the role of a rich playboy, Francis didn’t hesitate to lay down a few coins to help the poor he encountered while palling about with his friends. Maybe he considered it one of the privileges of being rich, an act of charity that made him look good in front of others and increased his reputation. Maybe there truly was a soft spot in his heart for those less fortunate than him. Either way, this charitable aspect of his character reached new heights during a subsequent spiritual pilgrimage to Rome.
This journey was one of self-discovery. Having declared the old Francis to be no more, this new Francis was determined to understand what his purpose in life entailed. Like so many other instances in his life, he went the extreme route after noticing a cadre of beggars outside St. Peter’s basilica. One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination very far to understand the discontinuity Francis felt with the architectural splendour and gold-plated opulence of the grand Roman church building. He had declared the end to this wealthy aspect of his life only to re-encounter it in the place he most expected to find meaning, a meaning that would practically interpret the faint whisper of a divine calling urging him towards a devotion to Christ.
Instead of entering the church, Francis approached one of the beggars, exchanged clothes with the man, and spent the entire day fasting and begging.
This was an important event in Francis’ life as he received a taste of what it would be like to break from his pampered existence and have no means of comfort other than what others would charitably provide. It also served to emotionally connect him to those in need, the poor and destitute, on a deeper and more relational level. Gone were the days that he could frivolously drop coins into the outstretched hand of a beggar and walk away, never to look back. When he returned to Assisi, he came home with a deeper understanding of what poverty truly is, an understanding that caused him to intentionally seek out and give to those in need.
Shortly after this, Francis, still avoiding the opulence and social connection of the church in Assisi, attended mass in a backwoods country chapel. After hearing the gospel in this setting, away from the pomp and finery of the religious life he had always known, he dedicated his life to Christ. And, as we shall see, this indicated a final severing of his attachment to his old life, a life of pleasure and partying, frivolity and fake friends, wealth and waywardness. Francis was now a man that had accepted his divine relational calling and was prepared to be used by God in ways he never thought were possible.
Can you relate to the life of Francis? Has your experience of the church or religion gotten the way of understanding God’s calling in your life? Have there been instances in your life where God is calling you to relationship? How have you responded to this call?
What did God call you away from? (friends, job, social situations, etc.)
What has God called you to? How has this calling impacted you personally? How has it impacted those around you?
Check out 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, where Paul explains how God has faithfully called the church at Corinth into relationship.