The enlarging work of the Holy Spirit: My personal story

“Thou hast enlarged me” (Psalm 4:1).

The way I heard it, the mother of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the 19th century’s greatest preacher, said to him, “I prayed that God would make you a preacher. But I had no idea He would make you a Baptist.”  (I think she was a Methodist.)

“Mother,” said Charles, “it’s just as the Word says. He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that you ask or think.”

Spurgeon was quoting Ephesians 3:20, a truth that should be engraved on the flesh of our hearts if not tattooed on our brains. Our Heavenly Father loves to do big things with unlikely prospects. If God’s plans for you and me are to come to fruition, He has to enlarge us. The process is never-ending, and brings with it a certain amount of pain and discomfort, at least for the short term. The end result will be vastly beyond anything for which you had hoped or dreamed.

Looking back over many years of following Jesus, I can trace His hand at work enlarging me, shaping me, expanding my vision, growing my knowledge and commitment. His has been a constant labor of hollowing me out and opening me up, destroying my limitations and clobbering my expectations, all the time knocking down walls I had erected to keep my field manageable and my fears protected. He has had bigger plans for me than I imagined or hoped or asked for.

I expect that’s typical.

For good reason untold numbers of God’s children have claimed Jeremiah 29:11 as their own.  For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord.  Plans for your shalom and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope.” Those words, first addressed to Israel in Babylon to counter their despair, are a precise fit for everyone redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb whose name is written in Heaven.

None of what follows is meant to imply anything about my being mature or having arrived. I have so much farther to go, it’s almost pitiful. But overall, I can see that growth has taken place in my mind and soul, and that’s good. Growth is not always easy; it’s always good. And it’s always purposeful.

The Lord does not do random growth.  If He adds a wing onto your house, He’s getting ready to sublet it.

Context: I was born in 1940, saved in 1951, and called into the ministry in 1961. Margaret and I were married in 1962, and our three children were all born in that decade. We pastored six churches over 42 years, then for five years I served the SBC churches of metro New Orleans as their servant/shepherd.  Now entering the 15th year of retirement, I’m as busy as ever. The Lord called my wife Margaret home January of 2015. He did not ask my permission. “Our God is in the Heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).  I met Bertha Fagan in February 2016 and we married the following January.  It was a God thing.

His way is always best. Case in point…

College is a time of growing and enlarging for all of us. A hundred things happened during my one year at Berry College that opened up larger perspectives for me.  Campus worship services were of more liturgical, something new to me.  The chaplain was educated and articulate; his sermons were well thought-out and prepared, rather than off the cuff and loud.  The professors were gifted and personable, and the classes were wonderful and challenging. For some reason, the wife of the college President selected me to run personal errands for the family and to chauffeur the children to and from school or other events from time to time.  I would sometimes take meals with the family. That was a heady experience for this farm boy. (A humorous but telling thing is that even though I was valedictorian in high school, not one time during four years of college did I make the dean’s list.  And I’m fine with that. I loved college.)

After one year, the Lord moved me to a different city and a new school. During my three years at Birmingham-Southern College, I joined a nearby Southern Baptist church and went from one widening experience to another and then another.  I joined the adult choir, a first for me. We sang works by Sibelius and Handel, as well as the usual church music. On Saturdays and during the Christmas season, I worked for a men’s clothing store downtown. That was a time of growth, meeting the public, acting like I knew what I was doing, learning new things.  I became the program director for the Birmingham Baptist Youth Rally, meaning I personally planned what 500 or 600 teenagers would be experiencing twice monthly.  I worked with churches and pastors in planning these programs of worship and drama and fun fellowships, and made lasting friends. At church, I participated in the speakers tournament two years running and the second time, won at several levels.  I was baptized there, met Margaret there, was called into the ministry there, married and ordained there.

After college and our wedding–marriage being the ultimate enlargement!–I worked as the secretary to the production manager of a cast iron pipe plant.  I learned about accountability and the importance of details, and associated with important people at every level from the foundry to the executive office. At the same time I also pastored a small church, my first attempt to bring sermons and influence the Lord’s people toward righteous living. Few things drive a young pastor to the edge of his limits and throw him on the mercies of the Lord like the relentless return of the Sabbath with its constant demand for sermons, sermons, sermons. I was doing this with zero training. I needed seminary as badly as anyone ever called of God has needed it.  When I was 24, Margaret and I moved to New Orleans with our one-year-old son.

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary was a major widening, enlarging time for me. The amazing professors and friendly classmates, preaching on the street in the French Quarter, guest preaching in churches in the New Orleans area, and then becoming pastor of a nearby church on Alligator Bayou–all were expanding me in new ways. I discovered that the message I had heard as a child and believed as a teen and preached as a young adult “worked” on the streets of this major city, as worldly and needy as any place on the planet.

After seminary came a succession of churches–in the Mississippi cities of Greenville, Jackson, and Columbus, and in Charlotte, North Carolina. Then, the Lord sent me to New Orleans. I was finally large enough to pastor here.  (Smiley-face goes here.)

Now, in spite of all this above, I’ve never been one for introspection.  I do not sit around analyzing what just happened here and its meaning, unlike some of my friends.  I experience something and when it’s over, I go on. But I have learned to look for the hand of the Lord in matters, particularly in retrospect. For instance….

The last two churches I pastored were the most difficult of my life.  Both were fairly large and the expectations and needs of the congregation were beyond my poor ability to meet.  The leaders of one church thought I was too conservative; in the next church, they concluded I was too liberal.  In both cases, they were mistaken.

The ministry to which God calls His servants does not lend itself to type-casting. And in that, we have good company. Both the Herodians (the liberals) and the Pharisees (the conservatives) ganged up against Jesus.

In 2004, after nearly 14 years as pastor of my sixth church, the Baptists of New Orleans made me their leader.  I was reluctant at first, until the Lord showed me clearly this was His doing.  The administrative committee and I agreed on a five-year commitment.  I promptly spent the first year dealing with cancer and the surgery and radiation that followed. About the time I recovered from that, Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf South, its floodwaters delivering to New Orleans the greatest blow in its nearly 300 years.

For the next four years, my life was about helping pastors and churches cope with their new reality.  Many pastors had lost everything–their churches, their congregations, their neighborhoods, their jobs.  Every surviving church lost members.  The rebuilding of churches and homes was massive.  During those early years, thousands of churches sent teams of their people our way to help with the rebuilding and re-establishing of ministries.

None of that was about me.  Nothing about the recovery of our churches or the new directions of our ministries was about me.  But the Lord allowed me to serve as a conduit of His blessings and a connector for the needy and their helpers.

Dr. Tony Merida, who succeeded me as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Kenner,  told our congregation as they gathered for the first time after the Katrina evacuation, “If you do not like change, you’ve come at a bad time.”

The process of change, of growth and enlargement, is never-ending. I expect it goes right on into Heaven itself.  Surely no one thinks of themselves as ready to move into those celestial realms seamlessly, without major transformations to complete what God started long ago and continued through our lives. “We shall be changed” (I Corinthians 15:52). That’s the plan. The process goes forward.

So, as the saying goes: Be patient with me; God isn’t finished with me yet. 

As the wonderful Ruth Bell Graham put it,  “I’m under construction.”

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