One of my favorite introductions of any movie is from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy in the opening of the Extended Edition of “The Fellowship of the Ring” when Bilbo Baggins begins by saying and writing “There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Tale, by Bilbo Baggins…now where to begin…ah yes…Hobbits…”
It is a very humble way to describe a tale of epic proportions, which fittingly propels his nephew Frodo into a new adventure of great magnitude in the pursuit of saving Middle Earth. How was Frodo to save Middle Earth? Glad you asked! By way of destroying the source of evil’s power via the one ring of course! At least that’s how the fictional narrative goes.
Some of my friends do not care for such allegory and tales, and that’s perfectly fine. None-the-less, like the Lord of the Rings and most every story worthy of writing or telling, I’ve observed they all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A trilogy, if you will. If I could condense the major events and most impactful people of my life into one narrative, split up into a trilogy, I suppose I am at the conclusion of the beginning of my story. Which means, Lord willing, I still have a middle and a conclusion yet to be written by the Great Author.
I posted this writing for two reasons. First, I liked the idea of associating pastoral ministry with that of the life of a Hobbit. Let’s be honest, no matter how cool some of us think we are, we aren’t really great in and of ourselves at all! But when bowed down in humility before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus does amazing things with His servants! Second, it is my hope that you may be able to find some comfort, direction, and even revelation in your own journey of faith through the simplicity of me testifying about God’s faithfulness to the Whitfords these past 4+ years.
“I’m Going on an Adventure!”
If you know the true life narrative of the Whitford’s thus far, then you know we’ve been on, well, “quite an adventure!” First, we moved all of our earthly belongings over 3,000 miles, THREE times (that’s 9,000+ miles) in the past 4 years. As if all that weren’t enough, we have had the honor of serving at 3 churches in 4 different scenarios in those 4 years!
The next paragraph may disorient your standard reading patterns, and may cause literary dizziness, but so do roller coasters and you still ride those, so hang on tight and let’s have some fun…
Had you told me I would be leaving 10+ years of full-time youth pastoring in 2010 to be moving back to Washington, DC (lived here 1999-2000, attended National Community Church, and worked in the US Senate…another story for another time) with my family of FOUR to serve at National Community Church as a campus pastor, only to move from Washington, DC 1.4 years later with my now family of FIVE, to lead the Student & College ministries at a church I had already served at in CA (Peoples Church, my first full-time pastoral ministry opportunity), only then to once again leave full-time Student & College ministry from CA to return with my family to serve at the same church I had just served at 2.5 years previous in Washington, DC…AGAIN…I would say, “What the? You…you can’t be serious…that’s just crazy talk…we can’t possibly…my wife would never…oh boy.” That’s sort of the condensed version of the dendrites firing in my brain, panned out for your reading pleasure from a microscopic level into letters on a page…in essence.
PAUSE For a Hero…
I must pause for Heroic Identification, because, here in lies the heroine of the story…my wife, and AWESOME partner in the ministry of the Gospel and LIFE, Robin Whitford. She has been so gracious and accepting of this journey, it makes me wonder if God knew all along this was our path and He brought us together knowing she/we could handle it together…for the most part ☺.
On with the EPIC Adventure!
In a recent message, Mark Batterson shared how Jesus went back to Cana in John 4:46. It was as if Jesus went back to the place where His miraculous power was first revealed. Unlike mere mortals, Jesus needs no specific place or reminder of His power in order to know His power, and therefore accomplish His mission through His power. And yet, He went back. The question is WHY? Why do any of our paths lead us back to where we’ve already been before? It seems counterintuitive. Normally we want to move “vertically” or “forward”.
This begs another question, WHY is THAT? Why is it perceptively “bad” to go back to where you’ve been? Isn’t it because we are afraid of what people will think of us if we step “backward” or “lateral”? And yet Jesus WENT BACK to the place where it all started…the place His GLORY was revealed…the place His public ministry truly began. I taught this to my students a few years back as some inquired as to why I was a History major in college: I have found that we often need to remember who we WERE so that we can better know who we ARE, which will help propel us into who God intends us to BE! Sometimes we NEED to go back to where we were to either be re-inspired by what we learned there or to learn what we may have missed the first time because apart from being WITH Him for eternity, God truly is more concerned with who we ARE in our character and obedience toward He and His word than WHERE we’ve been, and even WHERE we may be going in this short time on earth.
What people may say…
When we left Washington, DC in December of 2011 to return not just to Fresno/Clovis, CA, but to the place where I started in full time ministry: Peoples Church, many who knew us and OF us asked the predictable question, “why”? “Why would Mike and Robin come back HERE…to Fresno?” I understand the curiosity. Its normal for all of us to respond to something we would never do, or at least prefer NOT to do, with a confused look, and the common question we’ve all been asking since we were able talk, “WHY”?
Normally I would look at a person who’s been on a back and forth journey and say, “Dude! Make up your mind!” And trust me, I’ve already heard the sentiment more times than my optimistic leaning heart would like to admit! It’s as if all my dreams and hopes for revival in Central CA came crashing down in one full swoop. It seemed like people just didn’t understand our narrative. It just didn’t make sense to them. Without going into detail, we’ll just establish that it was a difficult road to walk…or drive, since actually “walking” 9,000 miles would be problematic at best.
The truth is, whether I live in Fresno, CA or Washington, DC, God is sovereign and He doesn’t need me to accomplish His will ANYWHERE! Yet in His mercy, He allows me to be a co-laborer with Him and an Ambassador to a world that needs His Truth and Love! The same is true for you and the story God is writing in YOUR life! Are there events and God-motivated decisions you’ve made that most people don’t understand? That’s good! Continue to make your requests to God and continue to submit your plans to His Word and the godly counselors around you.
Wisdom from Grandma Whitford
Since I have begun to understand the gift of autonomous decision making apart from parental oversight, I have sought the wisdom of my Grandma, Edith Whitford. She is perhaps the person who has had more spiritual, Christ-centered impact on my life than any other individual I could honor. When I first asked her in 1999 whether or not I should move to Washington, DC to intern with a Senator’s office, stay at Vanguard University and study to be a teacher, or go home and find a job, she shared these 4 life changing principles with me regarding the Will of God:
- HEART DESIRE. What do you want to do? Are you delighting yourself in the Lord so that He may grant you the desires of your heart, according to His desires?
- WORD OF GOD. Gauge your motives with the Bible. What is God speaking to you as you read His Word?
- GODLY COUNSEL. What are your godly mentors saying regarding your opportunities? Seek GODLY Wisdom!
- OPEN/SHUT DOORS. What opportunities are truly open to you? What doors are clearly shut? Be honest about the shut doors, and discern whether or not you’re supposed to wedge your foot in a “closing door”.
- PROPHETIC WORD (Grandson Mike Bonus): Sometimes The Lord will bring somebody into your life who will speak a direct word of instruction that you need to discern and test with the previous 4 standards.
Grandma said that if at least 3 out of 4 of these points match up, its probably a prudent and wise direction to follow. Again, honesty with yourself and others is key to the success of any journey that you’re asking Jesus to be the Author of. Lastly, don’t allow the discouragement of apparent defeat, or real/perceived “bad decisions”, take you out of the game. God isn’t done! Don’t forget that “…He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 1:6).
Who’s with me?!
When people may not understand, but you’re convinced the Lord HAS “spoken” to you and that He is writing your story in a particular direction, it’s nice to know you’re not alone. There are many real and fictional people who went “There and Back Again”: Bilbo & Frodo, as I mentioned; Lucy, Susan, Edmund, & Peter who left London to go THERE to Narnia and back to London, and back to Narnia again, and BACK to London; William Wallace, who left Scotland to be educated THERE in Rome, to return BACK to Scotland and catalyze their freedom from tyrannical English kings; President Abraham Lincoln, who went THERE to DC in Congress, served a 2 year term, left BACK to Illinois to practice law, only to go BACK to DC as President of the United States; Jesus to and from Cana; the Apostle Paul on his various missionary journeys to and from Asia Minor; Jacob/Israel as he wrestled with God and his destiny; The Israelites, over multiple generations from Promised Land, to Egypt, BACK to Promised Land, to Babylon & Assyria, BACK to Promised Land…AGAIN, to everywhere, and hopefully one day back to God in His fullness, etc…
That all being said, I hope you see the connection between going “there”, which is DC for our purposes in this writing. Then going back again to CA, and “there” AGAIN, which is now HERE. One thing I know for sure, is simply to not say “no” when God is saying “yes” and wants to write or re-write a story. This isn’t a story most would choose, nor one most would prefer, but its OUR story. We/I have NOT been perfect in my decisions along the way, but God is gracious and compassionate toward me. If the Lord allows us to witness a Third Great Awakening in America in our lifetimes, and I mistakenly deviate from His sovereign will toward that end, He is more than able to edit/redeem/re-write the original screenplay. If I go toddler mode and scribble all over His perfect writing, He knows how to get me back on track for His purposes better than I do.
Are you willing to work and wait for God to bring Revival?
When Robin and I were dating, she expressed concern with the fact that I had only been to Mexico 4x and Romania once on missions trips, and that I did not have a desire to travel the world much. For the record, Robin has gone on both short term and long term mission trips to over 24 different countries, including most of Europe, China, Nepal, Serbia, and the Philippines…ya, she ROCKS!! My witty response to my highly cultured fiancé, now wife, was that America has plenty enough to offer in life experience and adventure #Merica! Boy have we been tapping into that resource! I have posted on my Twitter and Instagram profile descriptions: “Believing for revival in CA, DC and America”…my hope and belief is that somehow I’ll be able to play a part…like a Hobbit…in the turning around of the hearts of an entire nation toward Jesus. I don’t need to be president, State Governor, Big-Time “Christian Celebrity” (if those 2 words can even morally coexist in the same statement), or anything else. I just want to make sure I’m in the RIGHT place at the RIGHT time for the RIGHT purposes of God.
The 90’s song “I would walk 500 miles” comes to mind, except I would like to change it to “I would drive 3,000 miles, and I would drive 3,000 more, and then 3,000 more after that, and 3,000 again if God willed it, just to be the man who drove 9-12,000 miles to see this nation humble itself and not turn away from Jesus anymore.”
When our media and the NFL tell Washington Redskins Quarterback RG3 to turn his “No Jesus, No Peace, Know Jesus Know Peace” T-Shirt inside out in his interview after being injured due to “contract rules” by NIKE, but don’t call out Tom Brady for breaking contract rules when he’s dressed in his Georgio Armani suit, we know we need to do some heart reflection re: our hypocrisy, both in the Church AND in American society! When political officials defy the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and require pastors to turn over their God-given sermons to city officials for review before they speak the word of God to their congregations, you know we need to be praying, both for the church AND our political leaders, as 1 Timothy 2:1-6 instructs us! I could go on and on, but the conclusion of the matter is we need spiritual awakening in this nation, or we will keep going on a path of self destruction and division. I don’t think any American, conservative or liberal, wants that kind of an end. I pray America will not have to be BROUGHT to its knees through judgment, but rather that we as a people would CHOOSE to BOW the knee to Jesus as King, turn from our sins, and follow Him. Until He returns, I must keep doing what I can to tell His story and be faithful and true to His calling on my life.
Back From HERE to THERE, to FOREVER…
I’m not sure what difference my family and I can make or have made in people’s lives on our adventure thus far, but if I could have my life partitioned into a trilogy, PART ONE has just concluded and PART TWO is just beginning…there’s a lot left to be written…Jesus willing :-). From our HERE’S to our THERE’S, may we all learn to live with godly contentment in the HERE that God has given us and in WHAT He wants us to accomplish THERE so that we can become WHO He wants us to BE. One day our journeys of “There’s and backs agains…and agains…”, will come to one final conclusion in this life, only to begin the Epic Adventure of eternity with King Jesus for those who are willing to follow Him from HERE to THERE, forever!