Do you ever look around at your life and marvel at where you are? I don’t mean with a sense of pride at your marvelous accomplishments and well-earned success, where you look at yourself in the mirror and grin saying, “Well played my friend, well played!”
I mean the other kind of marveling. The kind where you look at where you are in life and wonder at the fact that you are not anywhere near where you thought you would be, or planned to be, or dreamed you would be. I’m talking about the kind where you look at yourself in the mirror and sigh, “When are things going to change?”
Being in that awkward place was one of the driving themes (especially in the first 3 seasons) of the TV action comedy Chuck (2007-2012). Charles Bartowski (aka “Chuck”) had been a stellar student with great promise at Stanford University until his best friend and roommate Bryce Larkin accused him of cheating and selling answer keys to exams, which led to his unceremoniously being kicked out of school. To add insult to injury, his girlfriend dumped him once he was kicked out and started dating Bryce! Chuck ended up taking a job at a Buy More electronics store as customer tech support in their “Nerd Herd” and living with his sister Ellie and her fiancé “Capitan Awesome” (both of whom are successful doctors at a local hospital). Not where you would expect a brilliant and tech savvy guy like Chuck to end up.
In the middle of his self-pity haze,
Chuck gets an unexpected email from his college ex-buddy Bryce. Bryce, it turns out had been secretly recruited by the CIA as a student at Stanford and stole a computer virus called The Intersect and emailed it to Chuck. When Chuck opens it a series of coded images containing the entire US intelligence network flashes across the screen and ends up implanted into his sub-conscious. Thus, Chuck becomes at the same time both an invaluable intelligence asset and a real intelligence threat, since if he is compromised, all of the government intelligence and secrets he knows could be exposed.
Enter CIA Agent Sarah Walker and NSA Agent John Casey. They work under cover to protect Chuck, Sarah as his girlfriend, and John as a co-worker at the Buy More.
And so Chuck is stuck. He can’t have a normal life apart from being a spy. He can’t leave the Buy More which is now his cover. He can’t be a full spy either because the government doesn’t think he has the backbone for it. He is stuck in a fake relationship, with a fake job. His “real” job, being a spy, is not ever going to end up in a career because no government agency wants him. What they (they=the government) want, is a way to undo what Bryce did, and get The Intersect out of Chuck’s head and into someone deemed more…well…worthy of it.
I have a confession to make: I feel like Chuck.
After earning three degrees in Biblical and Theological studies, I set out for a career in teaching and pastoral ministry, and for the next decade-and-a-half worked as a Bible teacher and pastor.
This all changed about two and a half years ago when the church I was working at decided to make some staff transitions I was not in agreement with. At the same time my daughter Anna was going through a very difficult time with depression and suicidal ideation and was in and out of pediatric psych hospitals. The end result was that I came to the conclusion the best way to help my church and to help my daughter and my family was to leave the position I had for a more traditional 9-5 job.
And so, the last two years I have been working as a cigar specialist for the world’s largest privately owned cigar shop, and headlining a weekly educational cigar podcast they started called “The AshHoles.” I have another confession to make, I like it. I have always been a “cigar nerd” of sorts. In fact, I worked at a cigar shop part time when I was in seminary. I am good at my job, I enjoy my job, I enjoy the people I work with and the customers I serve. I am also very thankful for my job.
In spite of my happy thankfulness, this is not where I thought I would be at this stage in my life. I set out to go into a career of pastoral and teaching ministry. I am fully trained for that. I have the calling for that. But I can’t find that. Not that I haven’t tried. But to date nothing has panned out. Not even close.
At the same time, I am asked to preach, speak, and teach at local churches on a fairly regular basis. Usually once or twice a month…sometimes more.
And so there it is. While I did not get kicked out of school or pastoring for that matter, I did suddenly and unexpectedly experience an exit from pastoral ministry. My Buy More = Two Guys Smoke Shop, The AshHoles Podcast = The Nerd Herd, The Intersect = Pastoral Calling, and Chuck’s Missions = Guest Preaching, speaking, and teaching.
What do you do when you feel stuck like Chuck?
The first thing I have been learning is that there is a world of difference between feeling stuck and actually being stuck. I don’t like feeling stuck. I hate it. But I am sure that when Joseph was a slave in Potiphar’s house and then in prison for something he didn’t do, he felt stuck too. I am sure that when Moses found himself running from Pharaoh for 40 years he felt stuck. I am sure that Job felt stuck when all that crap happened to him. Yet the clear teaching of Scripture is that while they (and others) looked stuck and felt stuck, they were not stuck. God was working in them, preparing them for what He wanted them to do.
In that knowledge, I have been doing the following:
Looking and listening for Jesus’ lessons in the “everyday.” Jesus is always discipling you, bringing what I call special graces in the common places of everyday life. Scripture is His textbook, your life (all of it) is the classroom. Taking the time to pray, meditate, and reflect can reveal what God is doing in you and through you, as well as show you where you need to be working and how you need to be working with Him.
For me, right now I believe He is teaching me contentment. Right now I am very aware that I am not. He wants me to be able to say—and say sincerely—Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV),
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
I may not be where I wanted to be, or doing what I expected to be doing, or be able to provide the way I want to provide for my family; but I need to be content that I am where Jesus wants me right now. I am learning that…slowly.
Another lesson I have been learning is that I am not enough. Not only that, but I am never going to be enough. Not because I’m not doing it right, but because I was never supposed to be. One of life’s big lessons is learning that you are not enough.
Along with that, the third thing I have been learning is that Jesus is enough, and that in Him, through Him, because of Him, I will always have enough. Of course the only way to be learning that you are not enough and that Jesus is enough is to be brought to people, places, and problems that make it abundantly clear that you are not enough and if Jesus doesn’t come through you are sunk! I hate that just as much as you, but it is the only way to truly realize it.
I have also needed to remember that Jesus doesn’t waste time or experience. One of the things I have been learning in this time is that I have not been “benched.” Jesus has been leading me to people who I would never have met had I been a pastor at a local church. In fact, on more than one occasion my wife has told me that I have been doing more “spiritual fathering” (aka discipleship) with people since I have been working at the cigar shop. Sometimes titles and positions get in the way of the things God wants us doing. And, truth be told, the drive to succeed and the temptations that come with success can knock you off track too.
I have been speaking at many different churches, bible studies, and events. That is not something you can do when you are tied to a church. So, in a real sense, not having a congregation of my own has freed me to directly minister in many. In addition to that, my work in retail has helped me become more comfortable with meeting new people and striking up conversations with them. That is always something a good pastor needs to be able to do.
And last, I have been learning that I should not think what I am doing now is unimportant in Jesus’ kingdom. One of the things I have been learning is we often jump to the conclusion that what seems unimportant at first glance must therefore be unimportant. That is not true. Sometimes we fail to appreciate the place we are currently placed in the kingdom. It is easy to think that the pastors, the elders, the leaders, and the teachers are the Father’s “big guns,” or to continue with the Chuck analogy, are the Agent Walkers and Agent Caseys of the kingdom, Jesus’ “favorites” with whom He trusts His most important work. We are tempted to think to ourselves, “Their job is important, but mine is not.” But that is a big mistake. That’s one of the reasons Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 12:22-25 (NIV),
On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
In the episode, Chuck Verses the Tango, Sarah congratulates him on his first successful mission. Chuck scoffs at that and retorts, “Sure. Ok, so today I helped take town an international arms dealer. But tomorrow…tomorrow I still have to go clock in at the Buy More. I mean, what’s the good of being a hero if nobody knows about it?” Chuck says what so many of us are thinking. We so want to be seen, to be recognized for our work and worth. So much of our identity gets trapped in the fallacy of the perception of others.
For that reason, I love Sarah’s reply, “You know. And so do I.” The importance of our work in Jesus’ kingdom cannot be accurately judged and measured by the metrics of popularity, post “likes,” followers, people in the seats, or money. Those things are all false positives at best and deceptive at worst. Most of the things Jesus has us doing are things that remain unseen, unheralded, and unnoticed. But He knows. You know. And that is enough.
In fact, I am bold enough to say that when everything is said and done, and we all come before Jesus and are able to see everything finished, we will be surprised at how important the “unimportant” work we did was.
If you have stayed interested enough in this post to read thus far, you have probably noticed the oft repeated phrase, “I have been learning…” I never say “I’ve learned.” Why? Because the second I think I have learned anything, I find myself learning it all over again the next week! Saying learning here allows me to be honest with myself and with you in the following ways:
- God really is teaching me these lessons. Someone has to be teaching for you to be learning.
- Saying “I’m learning” means while I know these things are true, I still struggle with them. There is after all a huge difference between understanding something is true and actually living in such a way as to effectively incarnate that truth in this broken mess we call life.
- Saying “I’m learning” also means I am learning—progressing. While I don’t really expect to have any of this down before I die, I am nevertheless further along in these lessons day by day.
In the end, Chuck does become a spy. His cover relationship with Sarah becomes real. Things don’t work out the way he had hoped. But in the end Chuck gets unstuck and becomes a man that he (and we) are proud of. The Gospel assures me that the same will be true of me too. I do not need to be anxious about where my life is headed. I may still be anxious at times, but I don’t need to be. When I find that I am, I also find that I am forgiven for not trusting Him and am reminded that He will complete the work He started in me, and will give me everything I need to accomplish everything He gives me to do. And if you are in Christ, the same is true for you too.