Pastor Mark Tatum has served in the Southeastern California Conference since 2005, first as an academy Bible/Spanish teacher, and then as a pastor since 2011. He has been ministering in Orange County since 2016. He and his wife, Jimena (a social worker from Argentina) have been married 14 years, and have two wonderful children: Josiah (7) and Jocelyn (5). They attend Orangewood Academy, where Mark also serves as board chair. Mark currently serves as the Senior Pastor at the Anaheim Church.
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” 2 Cor. 4:17
As you undoubtedly already know, Pastors spend much of their time on the ‘emotional edge’ as we deal with the various demands of ministry. I find myself thankful that the Bible records times past spiritual leaders became frustrated, stressed, etc., because it means we’re not the first. From Jethro realizing Moses was overwhelmed in Exodus 18, to the Apostle Paul adding, after the laundry-list of his struggles in 2 Cor. 11 “additionally, I have the daily pressure of the concern for all the churches” (v. 28), and mentions “tears” shed in Acts 20, 2 Cor. 2, and Philippians 3. Even Jesus got exasperated at his disciples, and the lack of faith and priorities of his followers. I’m so glad the Bible briefly records these feelings, it endears me to those leaders, and helps me feel that I can get through it too.
As if our regular duties and stresses weren’t enough, this past year COVID threw everything in ministry sideways, and left us reaching (and praying) for abilities in our toolbox we’d never thought we’d need. For me personally, it got me over the ‘hurdle’ of learning video editing and having a video ministry on YouTube (yes, I was likely ‘behind the curve’). We’ve had more funerals to do, more stressful budget meetings, more angst in the absence of meeting together, all at once.
But, in my 10 years of ministry (and over 15 years counting academy service), I’ve found that the Lord has not abandoned us so far, and that he will get us through even this. A key verse for me is “He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). And I hope we can all take stock in what He’s already brought us through, to give us confidence that ‘this too shall pass’.
I’d like to relate to you some of the details of what was the worst year of my life (yes, I had an even worse year in the early 2000s than this past one). I was so near my emotional breaking point so often, and often woke up wondering how I could get through another day. Now, whenever something goes bad, I use that year as an emotional resource, saying “well, at least it’s not as bad as when I went through that.”
My single toughest year, that of 2002-2003, seemed irredeemable, irreparable. Let me explain.
After my sophomore year at La Sierra University, I felt burned-out with classes. But, I was hearing wonderful testimonies of returned student-missionaries, and thus decided to enroll as an SM to the Adventist college in Costa Rica (called “UNADECA”, for UNiversidad Adventista DE Centro America).
So many things went wrong there. I can hardly explain.
· Firstly: When I arrived, the SM coordinator there had changed, and no-one was expecting me. Instead of being picked-up at the airport, after waiting there an hour, for someone, anyone, to pick me up. I got in a line for the taxi, and used a Spanish-English dictionary to try to piece together a sentence for “Please take me to the Adventist college” (which I had no idea if the cabbies would know of. Didn’t know if it was close or far, how much it would cost, etc.)
When I arrived, bags in hand, I told them “I’m the new student missionary, I’m here to teach English”, everyone looked surprised “Oh, we didn’t know anyone was coming!” they said. That should’ve been a hint on how things would go that year.
· I got put in a small dorm room (about the size of my church secretary’s office) with 3 other guys. That wasn’t so bad, but it swelled to 8 other guys when the theology students who were interning in the field came back to campus for classes. The dorm rooms were basically filled with triple-high bunk beds. Whenever the theology students weren’t there, we would double-up the mattresses, so our hips & shoulders wouldn’t press against the wood bottoms when we laid down.
· Cold showers, received from a little horizontal pipe sticking out of the wall, greeted me every morning. And if you’ve ever taken a cold shower, you know: It makes you hyperventilate! I thought I’d get used to it over time, but found myself demoralized every morning. This really beat-down on me over the months.
· It was my first time doing my own laundry. Now, just that fact, I can’t complain of. We had access to washing machines, but no dryers. Good luck trying to dry clothes on a line in a tropical country during the rainy season. Everything seemed damp & musty always.
· The cafeteria didn’t provide us enough food at mealtime. All the SM’s were losing weight, and getting charlie-horses in our calves due to lack of protein. Pretty much our entire monthly stipend went to supplementing food.
· In addition to the smothering humidity, I faced mosquitos, that seemed more like vampires! I constantly had dozens of bites on my body. I would lose count after 50. I learned a few months into my time to stop eating bananas & take B12 vitamins instead, to make my blood ‘taste bad’ to them. It worked! But I missed the delicious (& dirt cheap) bananas.
· Then there was the language: Outside of the little group of fellow student-missonaries, I could talk with hardly anyone. Additionally, I couldn’t understand the 8-ish hours of church services I was required to go to on Friday nights & Sabbaths
· Then, there were the stifling school rules: They had strict rules about what you could wear, what music you could listen to, when the students could leave campus and stuff, and of course, those rules applied to the student missionaries as well. Having been at ‘notoriously liberal’ La Sierra, I found these rules stifling & crippling!
· It was my first time teaching. I had actually gone, in part, to find out if I felt I was cut-out for teaching. I was put in charge of a slate of classes with another SM who hardly did anything to pull his own weight. I don’t want to ‘dog’ on him too much, because it turned out he was going through his own health and psychological issues going on as well. But it didn’t change the nearly double-workload I had to do. We taught college students in the mornings/afternoons, and adult community people in the evenings. Between the planning, the teaching, and the grading, I was stressed-out constantly.
· Also demoralizing: I had to teach on the 4th of July & Thanksgiving. Those are uniquely U.S. holidays! I had to do my stressful tasks knowing everyone I knew & missed at home was celebrating.
· I had crippling homesickness, to the point of tears many days. I remember I bawled when I got a care package from my friends back at LSU.
o Once I actually had a dream I was back on the main mall of the campus back at LSU. I thought “I’m here! Finally here, it’s so wonderful to be home!” I awoke and bawled into my pillow: “No, I’m still here!”
· Half a dozen times I got told on the spot that I needed to give a devotional talk. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is a frequent occurrence for student missionaries everywhere! I even had my dorm room knocked on one Sunday afternoon, because they needed me to get dressed-up to go stand in a line of groomsmen at a wedding. (so the two sides would be even). So, I stood in a wedding of people I had no idea who they were, and couldn’t understand the speaking.
· I had two health emergencies during my time there, one necessitating a surgery, and the other involving being on crutches for 6 weeks. My physical therapy afterward consisted of borrowing a bike to ride around campus.
· I took a trip to Panama City during Easter weekend with some friends & got pick-pocketed: lost my wallet. That was a mess to clear-up.
· And just to rub it in: San Jose’s international airport was right across the valley from UNADECA. I could see planes flying north several times per day. I had a credit card that was burning a hole in my pocket as I fantasized about fleeing. (at least that temptation lessened after Easter weekend that I didn’t have it anymore :-p )
So: After all that I probably seem like a complainer/a whiner. But I’ll tell you, going through it all was no joke for me. It really pressed. On. my soul. daily.
But what that year did for me?: it stretched me, changed me, challenged my faith, almost to the breaking point
But do you know what else it did?
It drove me to my knees.
There was an urgency, a fervency to my prayers I’d never had before! “God, get me through this! Or even better, get me out of this! I can’t take another day!” And, you know, Jesus teaches us to pray for ‘daily bread’, metaphorical for ‘strength for each day’
Well, God came through! I don’t know how, but God got me through every day. I did not actually die from my stress or grief even once over the course of that year. I thought I might!
But I didn’t. :-)
Now: all that’s not to say I did have good moments in there. There were some wonderful people, who I still keep in touch with online: The lush countryside was beautiful: flowers and fruits abounded. Natural wonders, too: beaches, and volcanoes…
And while I can’t say I would choose to relive it, I can say I’m very glad I lived it once.
Nowadays, no matter how bad something gets, I can say “Well, it’s not as bad as my year in Costa Rica was”
Romans 5:3-5 talks about rejoicing in sufferings, because of a character change that takes place in us. And I’ll tell you: it’s more than just a saying, more than just a Bible verse: the character development that was wrought in me that year got me through everything else: every challenge I’ve faced since:
· Academy Teaching, which I did for 8 years, while stressful, was never as bad as that year. (I remember calculating grades with a 4-function calculator there, writing the %s by hand)
· The Spanish language: while it was torture to be practically non-communicative with the people there, and being confused constantly, in social situations, at the cafeteria, and at worship services:After about 6 months in I began to have some break-throughs, and that hard investment of those terrible 6-months continue to pay off today! I feel so blessed to be able to communicate with a language group that constitutes a big chunk of our society here in Southern California. And I really credit God for getting me through that
· And dealing with last-minute changes: “Pastor, the speaker fell through, can you say something right now?” Whew! You know the feeling: It’s not fun to hear that, but I know God and I are in it together: I say: “Lord, What can we say just now that will be a blessing?”
So, in my case: I don’t only see it in the Bible, I see it in my own life: God’s work, His plan, is hard to see in the moment, but many times it becomes crystal clear in the “rear-view mirror”. If we will but keep the dialogue open and ask, “Lord, what purpose do you have for me in this?” And afterward: “Lord, what purpose did you have for me in that?”
Furthermore, I read the Bible in a different, and more vibrant way now: I see that The Bible’s worst stories, and Israel’s worst times serve to provide our best scriptural warnings. The flood, Sodom & Gammorah, the Babylonian captivity, all serve as urgings for us to ‘stay on the right path!’ And be it the cases of King Solomon with women, Ananias & Sapphira with money, or Lot’s wife with worldliness, I learn: “Keep it all at arms’ length! Don’t let their subtle deceptions ensnare you!”
Bible characters’ sufferings: we have to consider those as real: They were just as real to them as ours are to us. Moses’, John The Baptist’s, the Apostle Paul’s worst times put our sufferings into perspective.
Here is the good news: they persevered, and we will similarly persevere. One of my dreams in heaven is to get to talk to some of these heroes from the past (indeed, from all periods of earth’s history) and ask how they persevered through trials of all kinds. Through governmental rises and falls, crusades, inquisitions, communism, etc., genuine Christianity has persevered. It will persevere through post-modern relativism and whatever comes next.
I’m so thankful of prophecies that, though a minority, a remnant will endure. It means we can serve without fear of extinction of our movement. I know that any hardship can be overcome, in large part because I see, both in the Bible, our SDA church history, and in my own life, that so many hardships have been overcome.
I pray a blessing for you all in your ministry, as well as personal lives. I pray that, though the struggles we face are daunting and sometimes impossible, we will have confidence in His abilities rather than ours.
I leave you with a quote from the Spirit of Prophecy: one of my favorites, from PP 473:
“The mighty God of Israel is our God. In Him we may trust, and if we obey His requirements He will work for us in as signal a manner as He did for His ancient people. Everyone who seeks to follow the path of duty will at times be assailed by doubt and unbelief. The way will sometimes be so barred by obstacles, apparently insurmountable, as to dishearten those who will yield to discouragement; but God is saying to such, Go forward. Do your duty at any cost. The difficulties that seem so formidable, that fill your soul with dread, will vanish as you move forward in the path of obedience, humbly trusting in God.”
Author - Jon Ciccarelli
January 28, 2021