Around middle school, by the grace of God, and the diligence of many teachers, I began to make large strides academically (I would later learn that persons with dyslexia who are helped to overcome the difficulties of basic literacy and numeracy- often find more advanced conceptual learning to be relatively easy due to their unique nuero-cognitive design). So in fifth grade I stopped being pulled out of the classroom for special education sessions and by 8th grade I was in all advanced classes. For this remarkable transition I credit the almighty God, who answers prayers and works all things for the good of those who love him.
Yet God did not work this change in my life directly. Rather, as He so often does, God chose to do his good work to me through willing members of the body of Christ. And he continued to bless me throughout middle school and high school with many relationships that formed me into Christ-likeness and began my formation into a missional family doctor:
Dr. David Redd–
I had the rare privilege of being taught advanced freshmen biology, and later AP biology by Dr. Redd, a medical doctor, board certified in general surgery and a devoted Christian. He shared a beautiful portion of his testimony with us when asked why he was teaching high school biology when he was a doctor: after completing his general surgery residency he had been working full time as a surgeon while raising his family, but one night he had a terrible dream. In his dream he saw his daughter come to him crying after he had missed her kindergarten graduation due to work. He reached down to comfort her saying, “Sweety, Daddy is so sorry he couldn’t come to your kindergarten graduation…” But as she turned into his embrace she grew into a young woman and sadly said, “Dad, it wasn’t my kindergarten graduation you missed- it was my High school graduation – you’ve missed my life.” When he awoke, he began to pray and discussed with his family about what radical changes they needed to make to heed the providential warning he had received. Ultimately, he chose to cut his practice of medicine back to part time, live more modestly, and start teaching and coaching part time at his daughter’s school.
I was in the first biology class that Dr. Redd taught after his paradigm shift. My classmates and I remember well those first weeks of advanced biology. Dr. Redd was an engaging teacher, a gifted medical artist, and a wealth of first hand knowledge with stories that brought biology to life in unmatched depth and detail. But the depth and bredth we covered was like trying to drink water from a fire hydrant. I remember working with my friend Carter late into the evenings struggling to pack all the molecule names, processes and equations into our memories- after only week of classes. Despite our whole hearted efforts I think we all failed the first quiz (excluding Katherine). But the lessons we mastered were well the worth the struggle. Dr. Redd, taught me several lessons that have stuck with me. Firstly, a lesson about lessons – the most life changing lessons are those our teachers and mentors embody for us rather than teach to us. Secondly, the Christian call is to a counter-cultural value system and way of life that balances family, finances, vocation, and discipleship in a way that the watching world finds at least curious if not unsettling. Thirdly, people can often rise to the expectations applied to them- no matter how high – if given a patient and supportive teacher. Finally, Dr. Redd furthered my passion for science and was the first of many exemplary Christian physicians that God would use to light my own path to becoming a physician while maintaining the primacy of Christ in my life.
Chaplain Matthew Atkins–
Matthew Atkins came to be the associate pastor at the Church where I grew up, Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene, when I was finishing middle school and starting high school. He served our church in many ways, but most prominent in my recollection was his service as our youth pastor. He was and remains one of my foremost mentors in the faith. Prior to coming to our church he had been an Army Ranger. And while serving at our church he continued to serve in the U.S. military as an army reserve chaplain, he openly anticipated that God would call him back to full time chaplaincy, but for a few years in transition, he and his family made their home in Chattanooga Valley and shared their lives and hearts with us. Matt has taught me several lessons about Christ-likeness (and probably has a few more to teach me yet):
First, Matt taught me about the holiness of play, that we can and should glorify God in all of our activities (especially ultimate frisbee). And to look forward to times of play as an opportunity to disciple and build each other up. For children and teens especially, play creates an incredibly formative opportunity to create patterns of excellence and virtue- to work out being Christ-like under the pressure and adversity of a game. Second, Matt showed me by example the freedom and favor that an attitude of repentance and ready confession brings a leader. In the Wesleyan tradition and American culture a man who is quick to apologize and confesses his sins, shortcomings, and mistakes is a rare and refreshing witness to a God who freely gives a costly grace. Ironically, after Matt left our church to be an active duty chaplain, the faults and flaws that he readily owned up to were quickly forgotten, and the legacy of humble Christ-likeness remained entrenched in our minds. Finally, Matt built on the solid foundation of my childhood to cultivate a passion for Christian service. As a man who grew up in the Salvation Army denomination (yes, they are a Christian denomination), Matt led us to show our faith by our works- regularly finding opportunities to have the youth serve the church and the least of these: the homeless, the elderly, the HIV positive outcast, the person trapped by addiction, or trapped in cyclical poverty. He led us on mission trips locally and abroad. It was one such trip that sparked my passion and love for the Mesoamerican people, culture, and language. A passion that would grow and eventually give geographic direction to my call to missional ministry.
CVNaz Guys Small Group-
Under Matthew’s leadership, I was inspired to take up a mentoring and discipling role within our youth group. It began out of a confession to my peers, who already looked to me as a leader because of my calling and because I was a few years older than most of them. I confessed that I had grown complacent in my walk of faith, that I had taken for granted the grace of a loving savior and settled into a faith that went no deeper than regular church and bible class attendance. Particularly, I was convicted by Jesus’ difficult words: “You will know them by their fruit,” (Matt 7:16) and I felt like my life had produced very little that evidenced my faith in my teenage years. That confession, as many confessions will, domino-ed into others making similar confessions and grew into a peer accountability and Bible study group for the core guys in our youth group: Kaiser, Josh, Logan, Corey G., and whenever possible Kenny and Daryl. The depth of vulnerable confession, genuine love, and mutual challenging that we had was unique and blessed. It catalyzed my formation into a mature Christian, and helped me to understand and value the Christian community. I learned many lessons from those years together, but my biggest take away from our small group was that biblical discipleship requires elements of living life together: more than just a once weekly meeting for confession and study, discipleship needs opportunities to live and shape life together: breaking bread, sweating together, facing adversity, and sharing spaces. It is my hope that missional family medicine can be part of creating a community that is knit together in a similarly deep and intimate way.
One particular church mentoring relationship was a peculiar answer to a specific prayer. After learning so much about the Spanish language and Mexican culture during my summer stay in Mexico as a fifteen year old (part of a Jesus Film trip under Matt) I regularly prayed for another such immersion opportunity. But my next summer began without a hint of such an opportunity arising. Instead, on the Sunday before our church’s summer Vacation Bible School (VBS) was to start, a mother and her son who spoke very little English came to our church having just moved from Mexico. One of the adult members of our mission trip to Mexico, had met and ultimately married one of our Mexican co-workers from the trip. That Sunday, I invited the son, David, to our VBS and offered to translate and guide him (as well as I could) through our nightly VBS. I requested all the teacher’s lessons and instructions ahead of time each night so I could translate them with the help of a Spanish-English dictionary prior to that evening’s VBS. That was the beginning of lasting relationship. Through David and his family, God gave me the opportunity to regularly immerse myself in the Spanish language, in the context of family life and church life over the course of most of my high school years. As David mastered English, I became more and more conversational in Spanish, and we both grew in our faith together as we regularly dug into the Spanish Bible together.
Chattanooga Christian School Peers-
In addition to the already mentioned relationships, I was also blessed with an exceptional group of friends at school who were everything the book of Proverbs recommends a young man should seek to find in his companions. At the stage where my formation was the most affected by the character of my friends, Carter, Tom, Joseph and Audrey were the iron sharpening my iron. Megan, Katherine, Janel and Ellie were wise counsel and kind words. Jeremy, Beau, Chris, Matthew, and Jacob were faithful and encouraging brothers. God surrounded me with more friends than I can name here, all of us pushing one another towards excellence and Christ-likeness in everything from poll vaulting to ballroom dance, mentoring classes below us, competing for better grades even while helping each other study, and holding one another accountable for personal devotional and righteous conduct. A praying mother could not have asked for a better group of friends – my mother’s words, not mine.
I thank my God for the countless friends, teachers, family members and fellow believers who were the hands of God forming me into the young man I became as I emerged from the cocoon of Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene and Chattanooga Christian School and took flight towards college.
P.S. – If anyone of you have a good picture or two of this period in our lives please consider sending it to me so I can post it above. I seem to have lost most of mine.