BY OWEN HUGHES, Associate Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church
Who Are You Owin’?
DISCLAIMER: My blog posts will be about gratitude. Gratitude, thankfulness, and appreciation do not come naturally to me, but there are so many people that I owe so much to. People who invested in me, who spent time with me, who pursued me, and who shaped me. Some were intentional, others were unintentional, and others were just being themselves. So, my blog posts will be about people who have made me who I am today. People I am “owin’” for making me, well, Owen. Disclaimer: I am not a writer and I’m not an aspiring writer. So, if my writing is “offensive,” either because of structure or grammar or both, please forgive me.
This blog post is one that I have shared in many different places: small groups, youth groups, and sermon illustrations. It is the story in my life where I experienced a humiliating failure and how a group of men, and one in particular, spoke some of the most shaping words to me.
I did not do well in my undergrad education. I went to Grove City College and flunked out after two years with a 1.7 GPA. I didn’t party or get wrapped up with the wrong crowd. I just could not manage my time and was the king of procrastination. When I went back to Grove City, I had taken a year off, worked very hard at a restaurant in South Carolina, and had a girlfriend who I wanted to marry (and I did!). With a new motivation to work hard, I finished my degree and ended up with a 2.6 GPA. I then swore I would never go back to school.
In 2008, I felt God’s hand guiding me back to school, this time to get a theological degree and to become a minister. I worked hard for five years; Amber worked hard for 5 years. We sacrificed (if I wanted to be spiritual, I would say “invested”) every Saturday and all of our savings into seminary. In 2013 I graduated and was offered a job at the church we were attending and had been the part-time youth guy.
They hired me with the understanding that I would get ordained within a year. The ordination process was brutal. It consisted of five written exams that included basically everything you have learned in seminary. You must submit two papers in Greek and Hebrew. Then you must sit for an oral exam that can last as long as the men who are examining you want it to last. My first one was three hours and my second one was four hours. These oral exams are quick-fire questions about everything from your devotional life to ancient church history.
When I walked into the room for this oral exam, I was seated at the end of the table in a chair that was considerably lower than everyone else’s. I don’t think this was intentional, but the chair was so low that when I bent my head down, it actually touched the table. I sat there, very nervous, and the first question they asked me was about my devotional life. I admitted to them that I hadn’t had much of a devotional life over the past year since I was busy with work and studying for my ordination. The guys then rifted for about 30 minutes on the importance of a devotional life for a pastor. Sweat started to build up on my hands and all of a sudden, my devotional life came back to me and I started to pray that the sweat wouldn’t start running down my face!
They moved on to Bible knowledge.
They asked me, “Who is your favorite Old Testament character?”
I said, “Joshua.”
They said, “Where do you find Joshua?”
I said, “The book of Joshua.”
They could see the level of intellect they were dealing with, so they said “Great; now outline the book of Joshua.”
With wide eyes, I said, “Every chapter?”
I got to chapter four and then stalled out. During the following questions, I managed to get the engine cranked again, but by the last few questions, the guys were pushing my broken-down brain to the side of the road.
At this point, sweat was the least of my worries. When it came time for me to explain what the atonement was and where to find it in the Bible, my head was on the table and I was crying. I was devastated. Five years of seminary. A call to the ministry at a church. My wife sacrificing so much time and energy for me. Hours taken from my children. Tens of thousands of dollars spent. Letting down my family, my father and mother, my church, and God. As I sat there, an objective failure, the guys wanted to make sure I understood why it was important for my seminary education to be more than “head deep.” They spent almost an hour talking about the importance of making the Gospel more just an intellectual exercise, but a heart movement. As they finished driving this point into the mind and heart of a failed seminarian, they started to shape a young pastor. Matt Ryman, the pastor at University Presbyterian in Orlando Florida told me to stand up. I did and he hugged me. He told me that this doesn’t matter at all. He told me education, ordination, ministry success, ministry failure, doesn’t matter at all to Jesus or eternity. He told me my identity is not in what I do or don’t do. My identity is in Christ and Christ alone. He is the one who called me, who saved me, and who holds me. Matt spoke the simple truths of the Gospel that have the most profound effect on a person’s life. My life is hid in Christ. That is my identity.
Over the following months, I had some of the sweetest times of study. I actually hid the word of God in my heart, and it changed me. My father and I would FaceTime two or more times a week and he would test me on my studies. Those are still some of my fondest memories with my Dad. God imprinted on my heart that my identity is not in my success or my failure. In fact, He has always been bigger to me in my failure, because it is when I am nothing that He is my everything.
I am definitely ownin’ Matt Ryman for seeing an opportunity in my failure to drive home the beautiful truth that my identity is in Christ and Christ alone!
When it comes to those who have encouraged you in your identity in Christ, who are you owin’?