I wasn’t expecting to receive a phone call from him. Only a few weeks had passed since my friend had introduced us. All I knew is that he was a pastor who had been commissioned to plant a church in Rocky Point, Sonora. My friend and I had traveled to his hometown to vacation as our wives attended a conference that the pastor’s church was hosting. As we planned our travel, we shamelessly planned a beach takeover that included surf, sun, fresh piña coladas, mariscos (Mexican seafood), and the possibility of overdosing on street tacos. However, the plans were quickly thwarted as rainstorms destroyed and washed away my hopes and dreams (at least that’s what it felt like). Confined to the condo we had rented, we settled to make some coffee and feast on some pan dulce that we had bought earlier. Making the best of the situation, my friend called the pastor and asked him to join us, and he did.
I knew of many who held him in high esteem, but I kept a guarded front as he approached me with conversation. The last thing that I wanted was for him or anyone else to question me about my life. Although I’m known for the permanent smile that was plastered on my face at birth, the truth is that I have used this smile to mask the shame and pain that I carried throughout most of my life. However, there was no hiding from this man; with a single glance, my exodus from ministry and my life as a “modern-day Jonah” was exposed. So I did as most would do in my position—I was friendly, I allowed him to speak, but I didn’t delve into any details that I didn’t feel comfortable to speak about.
The next day, the pastor invited my friend and me to attend his Sunday service. My friend, who himself is a pastor, was asked to lead in worship that morning. Although it had been over 10 years since we had shared the same stage, he asked me to accompany him on piano. Despite my nervousness, the experience was amazing. I felt like I reconnected with something that I had buried along with my pastoral calling years before. Basking in the beautiful presence that filled that room, I took a breath and savored the moment. However, once we dismissed from church, I said a quick goodbye, jumped in my car, and drove back to Arizona.
Hearing the pastor’s voice on the other end of the line had me on pins and needles. It wasn’t that he made me feel the least bit uncomfortable. On the contrary, he had a great sense of humor and was a joy to be around. Nevertheless, there was a huge barrier between us: language. Even though I frequently boast about being bilingual, the truth is I’d much rather communicate in English.
For some reason, I can speak in Spanish, but I never stop thinking in English. Because of this, many times I have fallen flat on my face when trying to communicate simple concepts. For example, I once meant to tell a former girlfriend’s mom that I liked her hairdo but instead told her that I liked the “very few hairs” that she had on her head. Or there’s the time that I attempted to teach an ESL class and told the students to “use the bathroom” on the verb, when I intended to ask them to “underline” the verb. Needless to say, the last thing I wanted was to sound like a fool.
The pastor’s greeting was very direct, “John Garay. Good day. I have an invitation for you…”
It’s not uncommon for me to get calls from pastors that need musicians for events, so I initially thought that the call was purposed to solicit my talent. However, I was wrong and completely blindsided by his actual intent. “I need for you to come to Rocky Point and teach our youth group, and I need you to come soon,” he said.
I wasn’t sure how to react. To say that I was unprepared for his invitation is an understatement. Had he not read my body language when we sat at the table? Had he not caught on to the decision that I made to close that chapter of my life years ago? To make matters worse, I didn’t even have a clue how I was to communicate what I felt in Spanish. In that moment, I felt so helpless. In a matter of seconds, I went from a from having a peaceful afternoon to fighting hand-to-hand combat with my worst enemy; shame.
I have a history of giving into shame. She’s a beast, and my natural tendency is to let her have her way without putting up much of a fight. However, at that moment, I felt something that I had not felt in a very long time. I felt the desire to teach. I felt the desire to share the gospel—and, oddly enough, I felt empowered to do so. Yet my track record was not smooth. When I went AWOL from ministry, I also fell nose-deep into a depression. Instead of running to God to help me, I developed unhealthy habits in an attempt to ease the pain. Unfortunately, those habits caused me—and the ones that I love—a multitude of pain. At that point in time, the habits no longer controlled me. Nevertheless, shame still did.
I quick review of my senses let me know that I had no other choice but to come clean to the Pastor. “I appreciate your invitation, but unfortunately, I come with baggage. I walked away from ministry 7 years ago and ran far from God. I’m back on track, but I’m not anywhere near where I’d like to be. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to say no.”
My refusal was followed by a pause of silence that seemed to last an eternity. Then he gently spoke again, “John, I don’t think you understand. I’ve been talking to God about this. At first, I wasn’t sure whether I should invite you to speak to my youth group either. But God told me to invite you… and He told me that He is going to use the youth group to build you up and restore your ministry.”
Still unsure of how to respond, I told him that I needed time to think and pray about it. However, I eventually accepted his invitation. Although I was shaking in my boots, God used the pastor’s heart, my willingness, and a group of young people who spoke a foreign language to restore what I had thought to be irreparable.
This week marks a year that I met the pastor from Mexico. Since then, I have made a trip across the border once a month to share the gospel with this beautiful group of people. I’m still in shock of how God chose to call me, despite my rebellion, to once again partner with Him in his mission. Furthermore, I’m in shock of how God called me to move out of my comfort zone, into a different country, and communicate in a language that I wasn’t used to speaking in.
Here are three things that God has shown me through this process.
Just because I “give up” on myself doesn’t mean that God does.
I thought that ministry for me was over. I thought that I was marred and unusable. I forgot that clay does not have the right to tell the potter how to form it. I had yet to learn that, despite my rebellion, God was still shaping me into the vessel that He desired me to be. The simple truth is that God will always complete the work that He begins. It’s not over until He says it’s over.
Critics will always judge. Friends will always love.
For years, I told myself, that I couldn’t share my story with many because they wouldn’t be able to handle it. In fact, I created a false narrative that I was trying to protect them from pain. The truth is I created a faulty excuse to selfishly protect myself. Much to my surprise, people did not respond the way that I had expected them too. As I came clean with many people, God chose to love me through many of them. I ended up having a support team that I never dreamed of having. Yes, some judged me, but those that love me loved me as I had never known love before.
Life lived outside of your calling is miserable.
I’m going to let this speak for itself. I walked away from ministry in 2010 and didn’t return until 2017. I lived 7 years knowing that I was not living out the reason and purpose for my existence. This created a void in my life. Nothing I tried could fill this void. It was miserable. I never want to feel that way again.
John Eli Garay
Here’s a pic of the youth group at a conference that we held over the Memorial Day weekend.
This is a picture of Pastor Cesar Rascon with two of my friends who are youth pastors from my hometown. (Left to right: Jose, Ruben, Cesar, & Me)
Here is the youth group leading worship on a Sunday morning.
Here is a picture of the friends that I traveled with the weekend that I met Pastor Cesar.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on john-eli.com
Featured Image by Pixabay