When what feels like punishment is actually preparation

March 13th, 2018

I wish that my foresight was as accurate as my hindsight. I bet you’re the same way.

We have seasons in life that, as we head in to them, feel like seasons of punishment. They involve duty, training, re-education and orders from on high. Then once that particular season is complete, we recognize the “punishment” for what it was: indispensable preparation for the next season.

Here are my top five:

1. When I was 13 and mired in a string of bad losses and deepening slump wanted to quite tennis … and my dad wouldn’t let me. I remember heavy tears after losing a match in San Antonio and thinking, “this is it.” Dad very quietly and confidently said, “No. When you get to be 16 and 17 and 18,  you’ll beat these guys. You’ve gone too far to quit now.” So I went back to practice. Ironically, it was on those same San Antonio courts that I won my biggest matches ever … at 17 and 18.

2. When I was in college and had to write a senior thesis to graduate. Actually, it was a rite of passage for all of us at Princeton. Mine was about how the fiction of Flannery O’Connor was a biting rebuke of the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it went on for 122 pages (in the days before word processors). I spent a good chunk of time in the summer before my senior year working on it. At times it felt both punishing and like punishment. Now, there is nothing I would trade that early experience in how to read closely and write with precision.

3. When I worked at the U.S. Tennis Association after college and my boss didn’t like my vocal pitch and so sent me to a vocal coach. There I was, 24 or so, and I spoke from my throat and not from my diaphragm. My boss didn’t like the pitch of my voice. I was a bit insulted. Ironically, that boss was a preacher’s kid and apparently knew a thing or two about what a voice should sound like. So he sent me to a vocal coach in our town who through a series of exercises moved the source of my speech from my Adam’s apple to my gut. A year later I was in seminary. I thought my boss was just picky; actually God used him to propel me into just the kind of preparation I needed for ministry. The voice isn’t Chuck Swindoll-esque or anything, but I can project.

4. When in 2000 I hurt my back, had to stop playing tennis altogether, and reluctantly went to the Y for fitness training. By the time I was nearing 40, I didn’t play tennis often, but I enjoyed playing every so often. And I’d run a couple of miles most days. Then my back and my knee went out simultaneously. While both are healed now, one reason I don’t re-injure them is that I don’t play tennis either. So in 2000, Julie got me a membership to the Gold Hill Y for my birthday and, having never done any strength training, I reluctantly began light workouts. Now those four to five days a week there protect my sanity while also putting me in better shape than I ever was when I played tennis.

5. When as a young preacher my District Superintendent had me sign up for an 18 month preaching workshop with a former homiletics professor. I believe it was 1991 or 1992, and the late Lloyd Hunsucker was my D.S. in the Methodist Church. He either saw that I had some a) promise or b) problems or c) both as a preacher, and recommended me for a prolonged workshop with John Mason Stapleton. Stapleton had taught at Candler School of Theology and was by that time preaching at a church in Myrtle Beach, SC. My inner (sometimes outer) insecurities came out, and I decided it was because Hunscucker saw more problems than promise.

Anyway, the 18 month project — during which we’d gather for a couple of days at Lake Junaluska every six months — went quite well. I made some new friends and learned some new approaches, and I now know 25 years later what I was being prepared for: to lead my current cohort of 16 UMC preacher friends in Simplify The Message & Multiply The Impact.

All these times that felt like punishment were in fact preparation.

Can you look back and see the same pattern in your life?

Talbot Davis is pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina and the author of Crash Test DummiesSolveHead Scratchers: When the Words of Jesus Don't Make SenseThe Storm Before the Calm and The Shadow of a Doubt, all from Abingdon Press.

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