It was sometime around the Pleistocene era that I first hit graduate school. I was a geeky, bushy-haired 23-year-old who had been married all of two whole years, studying (hopefully!) to be a family therapist. My plans, however, would morph and change with time, opportunity, and experience. I could not have predicted, back then, that I would forsake the goal of becoming a licensed clinician for a career as an educator and minister. But that’s how it is sometimes: you think you’re supposed to zig, and God gently catches you up and tells you to zag.
I’m much calmer and more confident than my younger self, the kid that finished a doctorate without much practical experience under his belt. I remember being asked for the first time to speak at a married couples’ event at a local church. I would have been about 30 by then, but still looked like a high school student in a necktie. Adults of all ages and stages filed into the room; some looked a little skeptical about their guest speaker. But I boldly and passionately soldiered on.
At the end of the event, a middle-aged woman approached me and held out her hand. With a smile, she quoted Scripture to me: “Let no man therefore despise him” (1 Cor 16:11a, KJV), a reference to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about his protégé, Timothy. Her message to me, in so many words, was, “You look so young, and I was ready to disregard you because of it. But I was wrong. Thank you.”
Decades later, I still remember that interchange.
Paul’s words to the church in Corinth about Timothy are simple and straightforward:
If Timothy comes to you, be sure that he has no reason to be afraid while he’s with you, because he does the work of the Lord just like I do. So don’t let anyone disrespect him, but send him on in peace so he can join me. (1 Cor 16:10-11a, CEB)
The situation, however, must have been a potentially tense one for Timothy. I can imagine myself in his shoes. Some of the Corinthians had little regard for Paul or his teaching. Earlier in the letter, Paul had warned them sternly:
Some have become arrogant as if I’m not coming to see you. But if the Lord is willing, I’ll come to you soon. …Which do you want? Should I come to you with a big stick to punish you, or with love and a gentle spirit? (4:18-19a, 21)
And right before that, Paul had written:
…I encourage you to follow my example. This is why I’ve sent Timothy to you; he’s my love and trusted child in the Lord; he’ll remind you about my way of life in Christ Jesus. He’ll teach the same way as I teach everywhere in every church. (4:16-17)
Umm, thanks, Paul…I think. Would you want to be Timothy in that situation? The older and more experienced Paul was already having difficulty with these people, and the younger, more mild-mannered Timothy was supposed to sub in as Paul’s stunt double? No wonder Paul saw fit to specifically tell the Corinthians not to disrespect Timothy nor give him any reason to be afraid.
Surely Timothy could not have asked for a better mentor in the faith and in ministry than Paul. But that also meant a baptism by fire, as young Timothy had to deal with situations for which he may have felt underprepared. So it goes. Sometimes, there’s no better way to learn that the work of ministry is God’s work before it is ours — and God can use anybody.