Two Steps Ahead – Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries –
My wife’s parents divorced when she was two. Her father drank too much, became violent, and was prone to wander. He soon moved to another state, remarried, and had little time for Maureen, his only daughter. She, consequently, had little time for him.
My wife, on the other hand, revered her mother. Her mother was a terrific, loving, and tireless mom, who sacrificed everything within her grasp to see her daughter grow up and find easier and better roads than she had traveled. On Saturdays, Maureen and her mom would take public transportation to downtown Seattle (her mom did not own a car until Maureen was sixteen) and stroll through beautiful stores, dine in the café at Frederick and Nelson’s, and window shop for things beyond their grasp, china and linens and fashion they could not afford to buy. On Friday nights, Maureen and her mom would bake cookies or cupcakes or whip up a batch of fudge, treats after a long week’s work as an insurance adjustor, many miles from home every weekday. Maureen’s mom would read her daughter stories at bedtime and teach her to sing, harmonizing with “Silent Night” or “Jesus Loves Me,” in the small third- and fourth-story apartments they shared together alone, in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, just south of Green Lake.
Maureen grew up dreaming of getting married and having a daughter, too—a little girl into whom she could pour her life, like her mom had poured into her. She dreamed of a daughter she could take to Frederick and Nelson’s and with whom she could share cupcake tins and teach to sing.
After we had been married for three years, Maureen became pregnant and we celebrated the birth of our son, Jacob. He was a handsome and really smart guy, from day one. Three years later, we welcomed our second son, Peter—perfect in every way, just like his older brother. And then came number three son, Andrew. Never had there been a more mellow, good-natured, or good-looking child (or so it seemed to us). But wait, My Three Sons was not the name of the television comedy my wife aspired to recreate in real life.
We lost two children, unborn, along the way. A miscarriage at three months was hard to bear, but even more daunting was the loss of a child at six months, after Andrew was born; the baby died in the womb and had to be delivered dead. Yes, it was an awful moment.
Some time passed. I imagined, by design, a chapter of child-bearing in our lives coming to a close. But then, to our surprise, Maureen found herself with child, once more.
Maureen’s obstetrician, Dr. Thorpe Kelly, was a believer, experienced, and the best in town. He had learned, over time, that parents sometimes cannot agree on a name for the newborn, even days after birth; this can be a hassle for the doctor, when Washington State law mandated filing of records after the birth. And so, Dr. Kelly required his patients to provide both a boy’s name and a girl’s name at five months into the pregnancy. He would say, “You can change your mind about the name when the baby’s born, but if you don’t tell me, the name you give me in advance is what the legal name will be when I file the paperwork.”
We dutifully gave him two names at the fifth month of Maureen’s pregnancy: Philip O’Connor Lyon (if it proved to be a boy) and Anna Elizabeth Lyon (if our princess was born).
Because of our age (I was pushing forty at the time and Maureen not far behind) and the difficulties of her last pregnancy, Dr. Kelly requested an ultrasound, to maximize the options for healthy, pre-natal care. Maureen’s rarely spoken but clearly understood hope was for a little girl, at last. I tried to calculate the statistical probability of having four boys in a row, versus landing a daughter (eventually coming to terms with the reality that it’s a 50/50 chance every time). I prayed about it and stewed about it. I did not care so much for myself, but I knew it was important to Maureen.
As the day of the ultrasound arrived, I discreetly spoke with the hospital staff, explaining that we did not want to know the baby’s gender, as the ultrasound took place and was assessed. Maureen, especially, did not want to know at this stage of the pregnancy; she wanted to be surprised at birth, hoping and praying until the last for a happy, healthy, baby girl. The staff was very understanding and promised me that no gender details would be disclosed.
I sat in the room with Maureen, as the ultrasound monitor, facing away from us, was studied by the hospital team. All seemed to be well, they declared, the baby’s heartbeat strong, the baby’s outline in good form and on track for a full-term delivery. Then, a technician came in, who apparently did not get the memo, and blurted out, “Oh, Mrs. Lyon, you have a healthy baby boy!”
My heart fell. Maureen glanced away, lying on the exam table, but I could see her eyes welling up with tears immediately. “Mr. Lyon, could you step outside while we tend to your wife and help her dress, now that the ultrasound is complete?” a nurse asked. I nodded, stared at the floor and stepped into the hallway.
I leaned against the wall and then sank to the floor, until I sat with my knees bent, head bowed, and rear end sandwiched into the corner. “What now, Lord,” I whispered softly. I began to tear up, too. “What will I say? How can I be the man I need to be for my wife just now? I don’t know what to say; I know she is crushed. Yes, yes, I know we have healthy boys and another on the way. Yes, yes, I know that we have been blessed already beyond measure. But the disappointment is real; the dream has imploded; we’re not going to go down this road again; she’s not going to have a daughter. What should I say?”
I believe God speaks. He speaks, at times with startling clarity, most often in a crisis. This has been my experience, anyway. And, He spoke to me that day, crumpled against the wall in that Ballard Hospital hallway. “You will name the boy Nathanael,” He said.
The hospital room door opened. “Mr. Lyon, you may come in.” I stood up, wiped my eyes, and walked in.
Maureen was sitting fully dressed, on the edge of the bed, her blonde hair framing an expression I can best describe as sadly resigned. I walked over and gave her a hug; a tear escaped and ran down her cheek. “I’m so sorry, Maureen,” I said softly, knowing that addressing her by name in moments like these was, for us, a measure of the sacredness, singularity, and intimacy of the moment.
“Me, too,” she whispered, holding on to me. “But, I’ve been laying here praying, and I know the Lord wants us to name the baby Nathanael.”
“What did you say?” I pulled back and stared straight into her face. “I said, I have been laying here praying ever since the nurse said it was a boy and I know the Lord wants us to name him Nathanael; it’s like He spoke it to me.”
“No, that’s not possible—I, uh, I mean, that’s…” I stammered, coming to terms with what had just happened. “I was in the hallway praying, too, and that what’s God told me, ‘You will name the boy, Nathanael.’ But, we had already decided we would name a boy Philip.”
“I know,” Maureen said, “but I really think He, for some reason, wants us to name him Nathanael.”
We gathered our things and walked to the car. Once home, I ran to research the name, Nathanael. I dived into the Scriptures, picked up the “baby names” books we had collected, and checked an encyclopedia (okay, these were days before the Internet-in-every-house).
We were drawn to Bible names for the other boys. Nathanael was a Bible name—I knew the story of John’s Gospel, the one in which Jesus speaks of Nathanael from Cana as “an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” I knew that Nathanael and Bartholomew seemed to be two New Testament names for the same man, one of the Twelve. But, what does the name mean? I scrambled.
The answer soon was found. Nathan=Hebrew for gift. El=Hebrew for God. A=the connecting of. Nathan-a-El=the gift of God. We had no idea this was the root meaning of the name until that day; we know now it is more than just a name.
At the end of October, last month, I stood by my grown son, now married and a father himself, as he was ordained as a pastor by the Church of God. I had the unspeakable privilege of anointing his head with oil and wrapping my arms about his shoulders, as I prayed over him, at the front of the Meadow Park Church in Columbus, where he was one of nineteen ordained that night. Already serving on the pastoral staff at Salem Church of God in Dayton, Ohio, he has completed his Leadership Focus course in the new credentialing process and been recommended for ordination by the Church of God in Ohio.
Nathanael’s grin brings a smile into every room. His ability to project truth in song is way beyond the norm, with a soaring baritone that can be literally jaw-dropping. He can preach and teach, too, already polished and profound in a way that makes me know he will become one of the church’s most effective voices one day. His easy relational mix, which allows him to talk to just about anyone, anywhere, about anything—including Jesus—works well for him in his present assignment in student ministries, His gift set is legion. And, he loves the Seattle Seahawks. What’s not to like?
But, most significantly, his heart and mind have extraordinary depth. He sees things and senses things in ways that only the Holy Spirit can explain. He has a kind of native wisdom that only the Holy Spirit could empower.
Yes, he’s young (still in his twenties) and yes, he’s my son (so my objective capacity to assess is compromised), but I think all that know him would say, yes, the Lord’s hand is on him. The drama of that day in the ultrasound chamber has proved to be one of the signal moments of our lives, a proof of the living God at work in our world.
I am not writing to just tell you Nathanael’s story, though. My principal object here is to illustrate some truths we, in the Church of God, must never abandon and with intention embrace.
First: God knows us from before the foundation of the world (see Ephesians 1:3–5). We are not in this world by accident, we have not been born by chance, at random. He has brought us into being for His purposes, by His goodwill. That’s not just Nathanael’s story; that’s all of our stories. Our churches must breathe this truth into all whose paths we cross.
Second: God has plans and purposes for each of us (see Ephesians 2:10). He has “created us new” and positioned us for good works He has planned “long ago.” Never imagine that your life does not matter, is without rudder, and makes no difference. No one is without a sacred assignment or brief; all have worth and value for redemptive ends here, now. Calling this best out of others is the heart of ministry.
Third: God knows better than we can ask or think how to bless. Even our most reasonable and noble aspirations may be only a shadow of God’s better design for our journey. Do not despair if God’s response to your heart-cry takes a tack different than your plea.
Fourth: God knows exactly who He will raise in a new generation to lead the church. We must help prepare new generations for pastoral service, of course. Leadership Focus is one of the terrific tools the Lord is using to unify the Movement these days, preparing men and women for ministry, acknowledging their call. But, in the end, it is God who calls, destines, and appoints. Nathanael is just one of many in whose hearts God is stirring and claiming as His own. God is raising up a wave of great souls to lead His church; He always has (in days gone by), He is now (right before our eyes), and He always will (not to worry about the future).
Fifth: God has a way of turning loss into gain. When faced with a dream that seems to have been dashed, watch for something new and surprising for the good. In our case, the Lord has given us four sons we love more than life itself, and five grandchildren—including two granddaughters who have brought enough pink, cupcake tins, sparkles, and even lavender soccer balls into our house to last a lifetime :).
Sixth: God hears our prayers and always acts on them, even if in surprising and unpredictable ways. Pray, without ceasing.
And, seventh: God still speaks. Be honest with God; ask Him direct questions; humbly share your hopes, fears and feelings. Then, don’t be taken aback when He actually answers. Tune your heart to hear; open your eyes to see, expect a reply (see James 1:5–8). Measure what you understand to be His answer by the plumbline of the Word; He will not contravene the Scripture. But, with that said, His replies to our questions can be startling at first.
There are many unexpected twists and turns in life; life inevitably brings disappointments and losses. There are seasons when the questions seem to outnumber the answers. What might have been, I wonder, if the two children we lost before birth had, in fact, been born? Why did Maureen’s dad walk away so long ago and leave his daughter behind? Why didn’t I…? Well, the list of “what ifs” and “whys” is long.
But then, for all the questions, there are always glimpses of heaven’s answers. We have four healthy sons. God intervened in our lives as Nathanael was carried to term, with an unmistakable gesture of His tender loving care. Nathanael has been a gift to us—and now to many others. Maureen’s mom lived to be ninety-two, blessing and being blessed by her daughter. The Church of God is welcoming one more pastor into its ranks. New doors and opportunities for the ministry are flying open. The Kingdom is advancing. Difficult challenges are becoming exciting opportunities. The Lord never wastes anything, even the tough stuff. Jesus has been at the center of it all, two steps ahead, always, for the good.
Keep dreaming. Keep longing. Keep praying. Keep trusting. Keep thanking. Never give up. Never doubt that God is working all things together for the good, for those who are called according to His purpose. Yes, see Romans 8:28. Read it again. Believe it again. Be encouraged. Join the Movement. Jesus is Lord. Of all.