As a young child of two godly parents, I was blessed with a deep and early faith in God. My mother was raised in the church as a PK (Preacher’s Kid) and then served in the church I grew up in as a children’s teacher, choir member, and missions director. My mother’s faith was like whitewater – impressive, always moving, visible, and loud. My father’s faith was more aptly described by the Latin proverb, “Still waters run deep.” He rarely spoke to me about his relationship with God, but I watched him physically construct the church building, give sacrificially, honor God with high standards, and exemplify a walk of humble obedience while serving as the church groundskeeper, handyman, soundman, and board member. My parents complimented each other well, and impressed their shared faith upon me from the first moment that God gave me to them, onwards.
Two things swirl forth in my earliest childhood memories: my home church and the outdoors. Thinking back, I catch glimpses of mission projects, Sunday school, VBS weeks, and church plays. I remember countless hours of Wednesday night lessons and their Bible verse songs taught to me by my mother and my mom’s best friend Miss Helen. I also remember exploring the foothills and hollows at the base of Lookout Mountain, catching frogs and crayfish in ponds with my friend Carter, climbing the poplar trees that towered around my home, and designing booby traps with my brother to spring on imaginary foes chasing us through the dry creek bed behind our house. I never doubted I was safe and loved by my family, and in that fertile ground a seed of faith was planted, and out of that seed blossomed a deep, faith filled love for a good God and His wonderful creation.
As full as my days were of joyful curiosity and freely given affection, my nights were filled with vivid dreams of wonder and terror. These dreams stemmed from a powerful and well cultivated imagination that was fueled by a rich tapestry of Biblical stories, my favorite of which were of Joseph’s interpretations of dreams, Daniel’s visions, and Revelation. One night stands out in my mind. I was falling asleep in my bed when I heard my name called. I dutifully arose and went to my parents’ room and ask them why they’d called. My mom explained to me that they had not called for me. But she quickly added that perhaps it was God who had called, so she admonished me as Eli had Samuel, “If you hear the voice calling again, say, ‘Speak Lord, I’m listening.’” I went back to bed unafraid and eagerly waiting for God to say, “Nathan,” one more time. When he remained silent I decided to go ahead and give him permission to speak, “Speak Lord, I’m listening,” I said quietly in my little boy voice, but I waited and waited until finally I fell asleep in the silence.
Not long after that during a dream I saw my church’s congregation gathered in the sanctuary on a typical Sunday morning. Now, I grew up in Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene, and my family, the Gilleys, had been a part of that Church for four generations and our extended family made up about half of the congregation. In my dream, I saw the instant when the Lord of heaven called His saints to himself in the sky, but my perspective remained in the church building. Many in the congregation went to join their Lord, but to my dismay many people in the church who I knew and loved remained. God impressed that moment and those feelings into my mind, I felt a soul wrenching agony and empathetic torment for those bewildered and lost family and friends. From there the dream continued and I was shown locked books and keys. I no longer remember the details of the later, but I remember awakening with the utter conviction that I was called to ministry. When I enthusiastically explained this to my mother (a kindergarten teacher who knew how often the passionate career hopes of children vacillate) she gave me a non-comital reassurance. I immediately sensed her lack of faith and said with adorable but probably tearful eyes (I cried whenever I disagreed with an adult), “Whether you believe it or not, I am going do what God said, I’m going to be a pastor.” I was five years old.
Shortly after that, my dreams took a darker turn. I had a period in which every night was haunted with nightmares of hell and demons breaking into my ordinary dreams and creating fear, even developing towards periods of sleeplessness. With patience and care my parents, but especially my mother, taught me to pray for peace and protection. I remember us praying together for long periods of time, sometimes multiple times a night, and in those prayers, I learned to lean into the kingdom reality, and immerse myself by prayer in the peace, love, and power of an almighty God who has no rival. The trial passed, but the lessons I learned did not. (Writing this, I am contemplating anew the formative import of the sleepy prayers I pray over my 2-year-old who continues to struggle with sleep).
During that same time period I specifically remember a Kindergarten lesson on jobs (fireman, policeman, teacher, trash collector, doctor, etc.) and knowing with a sort of melancholy certainty that although being a trash collector (who was able to ride on the side of the garbage truck- jumping on and off) was doubtless the best job ever, it could not be my job, because I was called to be a pastor. My mother’s dad, whom we called Paw Paw was a Southern Baptist Preacher, and he was particularly excited to learn of my calling. He had been praying for years, since his own children were coming into the world, that God would call one of his children into the ministry. He told us God had given him the assurance that he would have a ‘preacher boy,’ but after all five of his children were girls, he waited in faith to see how God would answer his prayer.
In the scriptures, before Elijah passed his mantle to Elisha, they crossed through the waters together. In like manner, I remember wading through the baptismal waters to my Paw Paw, giving my confession of faith before the church, and then being put under the water and brought up again- dying to sin and resurrecting in Christ. Pawpaw loved to teach and encourage me, he never let me forget that I had testified to a call on my life, and he prayed regularly for my future (he made it his practice to pray daily for all his children and grandchildren). His advice, prayers, and legacy were carefully, gradually, and thoughtfully put over me like Elijah’s mantle was given to Elisha.
As my parents discerned that God truly had a call on my life, they began to pray and discuss what steps they needed to take to be in obedience to God’s plan for our lives. So, after I completed Kindergarten at the local public school, my parents made the hard decision to move me from Chattanooga Valley Elementary School to a small Christian school called Chattanooga Christian School (CCS). My new school emphasized Christian formation and biblical education. This was a hard decision because my mother was a devoted servant of the public-school system, and had taught at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School for many years before having my brother and I. But they listened carefully to what God was leading them to do even though it had a cost – both financial and social.
In the years to come their decision proved to be truly providential, at CCS God further refined my call to include foreign missions and grounded my faith with a thorough working knowledge of the scriptures. Another formative time in my elementary school years were my family’s visits to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to be with my younger cousin Samantha. Sam was diagnosed with retinoblastoma cancer when she was six weeks old, she went on to have cancer nine times before she was eight years old. My stays at St. Jude brought me face-to-face with the hellish nature of disease and the hope filling power of doctors who treat their patients with love and compassion. It was then that I began to see that the future I had felt God calling me towards might not be a simple pastorate or even typical missionary work I had envisioned. I began to dream of being a type of missionary that could help all kinds of broken people feel better; like the doctors and nurses who joked and played games with my cousin and I when she was feeling well, but also comforted and gave us hope when she seemed to be slipping away.
This desire to tangibly minister to the brokenness of the world resonated with the call that God had placed on my life. And one day, on the long drive back from Memphis, Tennessee (St. Jude’s Children Hospital) to Flintstone, Georgia (Home), I asked my father about the feasibility of such a calling, “Dad, do you think I could be a missionary to help people know about God and a doctor to help the sick people there too?” And with unwavering support and affirmation that would characterize my parents’ attitude towards my calling my Dad answered, “Sure.” My brother, not to be left out, decided to combine his dream job with an altruistic twist to help the sick children, “Dad, I think that I’ll still be a dump truck driver, but between loads, I can also pick up all the sick children (in the spacious dump bed) and take them to the hospital.”
With the medical missions goal in mind and with an insatiable curiosity about the world, I worked hard to be the best student I could. Unfortunately, despite enjoying school, having great support at home, excellent teachers, and doing my best, I struggled to read and write, even into the second grade. My first academic obstacle was unveiled when my mother insisted I be tested for learning disabilities and found out I was in the first percentile for dyslexia. My parents did not allow this to become an excuse (in fact- I did not even learn I was dyslexic until much later) they only assured me that although I needed some extra help, if I worked hard and faithfully, I could be what I dreamed. After my testing, I was placed in special education classes and my mother worked with me one-on-one every day for 2-4 additional hours after school. This went on for several years. In time I could work around my reading and writing mix-ups and slowly I caught up with my peers. This trial taught me the power of persistence, determination, and hope.
Nathan Gilley, October 14th 2018, Murfreesboro TN.