Have you ever had the feeling you were living on some kind of Christian autopilot? Have you had a time in your life when nothing moves you and you have no idea how you are going to get free? It's as if your mind is moving, but your heart is frozen. Have you ever been stuck in that place not just for a day, not just for a week, but for a whole season of your life? You want to feel again, but your heart becomes a stubborn wall that just won't cave in.
I had never felt that way in my life until year eighteen in ministry. "Why do I feel this way, God?" I prayed. "I'm only a thirty-eight-year-old pastor and life has been wonderful." Right up to that point, that is.
I started to feel the agonizing process of getting mad at myself because I wasn't content. I knew I had so much going for me that I became irritated at myself for not seeing it. It's a cycle of sadness and condemnation, and the carousel continues. For me the stage lasted several months. Can anyone else identify with this?
But then everything changed. Never will I forget that night. It was a Thursday night church service. Before every offering I have someone from our recovery program give a testimony on how their life has changed since living at the Dream Center. It's the highlight of the service. Usually it's someone who has had a lifetime of drug problems and has now been clean for months. They share their story, and the crowd goes wild.
This particular night a man gave a testimony on how he and his son were living on the cold streets of Skid Row, homeless. One night a Dream Center bus picked them up and brought them to church. The father was days away from losing his kids to foster care, but because the Dream Center gave him a place to live his life was restored. At the end of his testimony he fell to his knees, looked up at me, and said, "Pastor, thank you for saving my life."
I immediately felt the Holy Spirit prompt me to fall to my knees and get lower than the man and tell him how much of an honor it was to serve him. I fell to my knees at a position lower than his already humble posture and said, "Thank you for allowing me to serve you." Then the phrase "You get to serve" flooded my heart. It was the Spirit talking.
The revelation was beautiful, but God wasn't done. The next day, I got a phone call from the elementary school down the street that we as the church had adopted. We put thousands of dollars into that elementary school because it had so much need. Funding had been cut in the Los Angeles school districts, so we as a church decided we would fill the gap.
We decided to give weekly grocery bags from our mobile food truck to every parent at the school who needed it. We also provide toys for every student at Christmas and have raised thousands of dollars for new technology for the classrooms. It has become a beautiful partnership between the church and the public school.
I picked up the phone to answer a call from the school. "Pastor, the kids have written a song to say thank you for helping the school," said the principal of Rosemont Elementary. "They love the Dream Center and want to dedicate this song. They wrote the lyrics and the melody. You've got to come hear it."
Honestly, I didn't want to go. I really didn't want to do anything. Discouragement affects us that way. It paralyzes us from even embracing good things. But I realized I couldn't let the children down, so I made my way down the street to this underfunded urban school.
On the way, a homeless man with a shopping cart said, "Hey, Pastor, I just got a meal at the Dream Center. Thank you!" His toothless smile was so big it verged on adorable. I gave him a high five, and then those words once again invaded my spirit. You get to serve that homeless man. Twice this phrase had blasted in my spirit as if through a megaphone.
I continued down the road, entered the school, and walked into the assembly where these precious children were preparing to sing their thank-you song. I didn't realize how big a deal this was. It appeared as though the children had been preparing for weeks to present this song, and the teachers had brought every type of food for my staff and me. Mexican food, Asian food, Filipino food--they spread out an international buffet. And let's face it, when free food is involved the day always gets brighter.
The children at Rosemont Elementary took the stage and began to put on quite a production. The wide variety of ethnicity on that stage was like a beautiful rainbow. I was expecting to hear one song, but I got a concert. They were showing off their hip-hop moves, patriotic songs, and a beautiful diversity of songs from every ethnicity. I looked at those kids on stage and I noticed the clothes many of them were wearing. I'd seen them at the Dream Center clothing store. The church was the resource center for every part of many of these kids' lives.
Then a teacher announced the song they would sing honoring the Dream Center. Here are a few lines of the song so beautifully crafted by the children of Rosemont:
Who would of believed that this song was in me, the song was in me?
Who would of seen that it would set me free, set me free?
All I needed was a chance, one opportunity, a person just like you who saw the very best in me.
For the first time in a long while I was starting to feel again. I walked out of that assembly cherishing the words of that song, especially these: "All I needed was a chance, one opportunity, a person just like you who saw the very best in me." But the words that thundered in my spirit? You get to serve those kids.
This was it! This was the revelation I needed to get me off autopilot. I was living my life with a "have-to-serve" mind-set rather than a "get-to-serve." Just like that, the fire flickered and burned again. No longer would I see the calling of my life as obligation, but opportunity. From that day on, that revelation has been driven into my heart and into the heart of our church.
When we live our lives under the weight of "have-to-serve," at some point we won't want to. But when we live our lives with a "get-to-serve" mind-set, we will want more. The get-to-serve life looks for ways to be a blessing, doesn't mind inconvenience, and serves out of pure joy. The Bible says this about Jesus: "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2).
Underline "For the joy set before him." Jesus gave His life for the joy of saving mankind, the joy of redemption, the joy of suffering for our freedom. He did all of the above for the joy of giving us a future.
Never let anyone try to condemn you into serving or belittle you for not loving more. Serving is joy! Any other motivation other than that will fade away. When I was living under the have-to-serve frame of mind, it almost crushed my future. I almost quit the ministry. Guilt is not a proper motivation to unleash a servant's heart.
The get-to-serve attitude and revelation from God saved my life. Unleash your gifts upon this world; look for opportunities to find the misfit, the marginalized, the forgotten; and bless people’s socks off. Or in some cases, get them some socks to put on.
Matthew Barnett is the Co-Founder of the Los Angeles Dream Center and Senior Pastor of Angelus Temple. A dedicated husband and father of two, Matthew has spent the past 25 years addressing the local needs of communities in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Dream Center is a faith-based non-profit dedicated to transforming the lives of individuals and families in the City of Los Angeles through residential and outreach programs. What started out as a desire to serve those in need, has now grown with their leadership into a global movement of love and service with nearly 100 Dream Centers helping communities worldwide. To learn more about the work of the Dream Center, click here.