I have a difficult time finding the right adjectives to describe my life. Happy, blessed, amazing, fun, adventurous, good,…all of these would work. However, none of them could stand-alone and completely describe it. Even all together, it still seems as though something is missing. I’m happily married (23 yrs. to the same beautiful woman). I have four sons (2 biological and 2 adopted…and they all like me). I’m not drowning in debt. I’ve traveled to many places in the world. I have friends from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I’m relatively successful at what I do. My peers respect me. I even like myself (well…most of the time). Don’t get me wrong. I encounter problems and have to deal with difficult people. I have my fair share of challenges and a lengthy list of failures (and it is still growing). But I can tell you, my life is not a sad country song and it would make a lousy script for a Lifetime movie. How did I get this incredible life? I know my blessings come from my Heavenly Father, but I’ve been thinking, “God has used both good and bad to make me who I am. He has used pleasant as well as painful events to shape me.” Allow me to share with you 5 individuals/events that became molding moments in my life. Now, 4 of the 5 things I’m going to share happened before I got married. I’m going way back to the first half of my life.
1) My Parents Relationship with Each Other (a.k.a. their marriage)
My parents adore each other (they just recently celebrated 51 years together). They do not have a perfect marriage, but there has never been any doubt about the love they have for one another. They’ve had arguments (like the time dad cut up mom’s credit card), but rarely in front of my brother and me. I knew they were together…that “they” were before “me” and I was not going to come between them. Parents today are pressured to provide opportunities, adventures and high tech toys for their kids to be happy. Moms and dads are made to feel guilty if they don’t let their kids be the center of the universe. Let me tell you…the best thing parents can give their kids is a happy marriage and for that to happen the kids (and their activities) can’t be the center of attention. I know how to act in my marriage because I have a good example to follow. I didn’t know this as a kid or as a teen, but I see it now. Their marriage helped shape me.
2) My Home Church while Growing Up
A very unique thing happened to me when I was growing up. My family stayed in the same church for over 2 decades. That’s right…from birth until I left for college I attended the same church. It was not a church free from problems or scandals (I saw 3 pastors have very public, moral failures). My parents stayed when things got uncomfortable. As a result, I also got to see the power and grace of God work among imperfect people. I went to kids camp and attended youth retreats. My parents always budgeted for those things and encouraged me to attend. I don’t ever remember being forced to go to church. I wanted to go. I made solid friendships there, heard God’s voice there, received His grace there and began to serve Him there. I didn’t notice it when it was happening, but I see it today. God was shaping me through those experiences and relationships. Just a word of advice to the popular reaction of church hopping when things get messy: its hard to spiritually grow up if we keep uprooting ourselves and re-planting in a new place.
3) High School Football
Football was my favorite sport. One week at practice (I was a junior), I had a string of exceptional days. As a result, I became the starting running back. A dream come true. During the game I wasn’t so exceptional. After getting tackled for a loss the coach called me to the sideline, grabbed my face-mask and yelled, “You are only good for practice!” He then shoved me aside like we do with the garbage once we have closed the bag. I was crushed. I was embarrassed. I was shamed. For the rest of the season I never entered a game again. I thought often about quitting, but a thought entered my head one day after a particularly difficult practice. Was I playing football for my coach or was I playing football to represent Christ and have a good time? Once I answered that question, I never thought about leaving the team again. So it is with adversity in life. Ever since then when I have encountered difficult situations that seem unfair or cruel, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Am I representing Christ or am I trying to win someone else’s approval?” My senior year I got to lead one of my teammates to Christ. If I had quit…well…there would be a different ending. God used adversity to shape me.
4) My Mentor
When I was 17, I felt called to the ministry. By 19, I was the pastor of a small country church in northwest Alabama. Wow…a lot happened in those two years, but one of the best friendships I’ve ever had began at that time. His name was Bobby and he became my mentor in the ministry. He was in his late fifties enduring the hardship of Muscular Dystrophy and I was a sophomore in college. On weekend nights my college buddies were out having fun or returning from road trips. Me…well I was hanging out with Bobby preparing sermons, visiting people or planning a church activity. It was a bittersweet time. Many days I would experience frustration because I felt I wasn’t having the typical college experience; and on other days, I was soaking up the wisdom of someone who was teaching me how to do what God had created me to do. It was during this season of my life I learned to be teachable. I gave Bobby permission to ask me difficult questions, to challenge me spiritually and emotionally. The pay off…he taught me how to be a spiritual leader and laid the foundation for many of the professional habits I still practice today. Bobby is with the Lord now, but ever since my time with him I have always had a man in my life who I give permission to challenge me. I learned with Bobby that God shapes me through that kind of friendship.
5) My First Real Failure
I was the pastor at a rural church in south central Kentucky. The church (filled with many good people) was primarily led by one family. For the sake of this article, let’s call them the Smith family. I was in my late twenties, cocky and arrogant. I had just earned my masters degree and I truly felt I could take on hell with a water pistol and win. The Smith’s were well established in the community and held all the major leadership roles in the church. They also had nothing to do with my coming to pastor the church. I later learned that not one Smith voted for me to be their pastor. Needless to say, we did not play well with each other. They were mean to me (not my wife…just me). They thwarted every effort I made to lead the church and because I was such a Godly person I responded with love, forgiveness, grace and kindness…WRONG! Unfortunately, instead of being Christ-like I was Cary-like…and I almost got fired. They encouraged people to stop giving to the church, stop participating in activities, and spread many hurtful rumors about me. The best attended service and largest offering taken in over 20 years happened the day I resigned. It was a huge failure in my life, but God used it to shape me. Honestly, I needed that failure. Through that self-inflicted mess I learned stuff about God and about me that set me up for future success. Without those lessons, I would be a different person today and probably not a better person.
As I stated, God has used both good and bad to shape me. The hope in this is that He is also using the good and bad in your life to shape you. The shaping never stops. I’m still a work in progress, but God used these events/people/experiences to make me who am I to this point in my life. Every good thing comes from above and sometimes we don’t realize it was a good thing until we look back.