God is able to use anything and everything to change the very course of your life and accomplish his eternal purpose… even a 22-minute re-run of “How I Met Your Mother.” That’s what happened to us a little over a year ago. My wife, Riley, and I can be a pretty lame couple; we love to unwind at the end of a long day by lying on the couch together and watching a little television right before we go to bed. We’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to turn our minds off and end the day by relaxing with each other. One night at the end of last summer (2013), we were doing just that to an episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” and what we saw has drastically impacted what we believe will be the rest of our lives.
Understanding the Past
Let me rewind for a moment. I was born an only child to parents who were in their 40s when I was conceived. When they first married, they began trying to have children but discovered that they were infertile. This devastated my parents. Both of them love and follow Jesus, however, so they quickly turned to the Bible and to prayer for comfort and direction.
My mother, in particular, gravitated toward the story of Hannah in the book of 1 Samuel. Hannah, like my mom, was also unable to have children. Yet, Hannah cried out to God saying, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life” (1 Samuel 1:11). Identifying with Hannah’s desperation and longing, my mom began to pray the same prayer as Hannah. Fighting doubt and circumstance, my mom prayed Hannah’s prayer every day of her life for 17 years, and then I was born. Quickly, my mother quit her job in order to raise me and “give me to the LORD all the days of my life.” Some might call it brainwashing, I suppose, but my parents saw my childhood as equipping me, though not forcing me, for whatever area of service that God had in store for me.
Over the years, I slowly began to have an understanding of God’s purpose for my life. By 14, I believed God had called me into some sort of pastoral ministry. This was indeed a very general understanding of calling, and it was only honed further once I got to college. My first Sunday in New Orleans also happened to be the launch Sunday for a new church in the city called Vintage. I got to know the lead pastor who started the church, Rob Wilton, and he and others on the staff mentored me over the next several years, before I eventually became one of the pastors in 2012.
During this time, as I lived in community and served my local church, it became increasingly clear that my drive, passion, and giftedness was geared towards starting and leading a new church one day in a city. The only problem, however, was that my wife and I had no clue what city God was calling us to. I was essentially from New Orleans, Riley didn’t have any past strong connections to another city, and neither of us had a peace that God was going to keep us long term where we were. Though it was definitely confusing, we both had to come to a place were we were prepared to treat New Orleans as a permanent home from which to serve until God did something extraordinary to call us away from the city. This is where “How I Met Your Mother” enters our story.
Trusting for the Future
At some point in every episode of the series, the camera pans across the skyline of New York City. Though I had seen almost every episode at least one other time, for some reason what I saw that night was different. I immediately felt a knot in the pit of my stomach, similar to the nerves and adrenaline I had the first time I asked Riley out on a date. “What if God dramatically impacted New York City? What if the grace of Jesus spread throughout every facet of life and culture in the most important and influential city in the world?” These questions flooded my mind that night, and I wasn’t able to fall asleep. Lying awake in bed, I began to look up churches and church planting networks that already existed in the city, learning everything I could about what God was doing there. That first night, I didn’t even consider the possibility that God was calling my wife and I to start a new church in Manhattan. He simply broke my heart for a place and a people, and I spent the whole night praying for the work God was doing.
As I shared more with Riley the following morning, we began to wonder if God was calling us to something more in New York City than just prayer. In the months ahead, through much prayer, fasting, and counsel, God confirmed his calling upon our family to invest the rest of our lives in the flourishing of New York City and the advancement of the gospel.
Though I’ll be following up this post with more blogs drawing out some principles of what it looks like to discern calling and transition well, I hope that my family’s story might encourage you in one particular way for now: God is both sovereign and unique. Though my wife and I had no clue if, when, and how God would call us out of New Orleans, God was completely in control. Our subjective experience is always in the shadow of God’s objective reality. Not only was God faithful to show my family his will for our life in his timing, he also did it in a uniquely creative way. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you need to go watch a hit sitcom to figure out God’s plan for your life. But, as my wife and I went about our lives, trusting that God had us right he wanted us, he interceded at a time and place to relationally show us the next step.
This blog was originally posted on Rob and Riley Russell’s personal website. You can go to www.robandriley.com to follow the Russell’s as they set out on this journey to plant a church in New York City.