• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

What is your "Why?"

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

On Monday, May 13, Jill and I returned to Mercer University, our Alma Mater, to celebrate with our middle son, Daniel, as he graduated from college. Daniel spent four years there, just like I did from 1986 to 1990. He was a Pi Kappa Phi, just like I was. He started in Engineering School, just like I did. But Daniel is his own person. His path veered away from Engineering into a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies and Production with a Math minor. He's now looking for a career behind the scenes in film, TV, or media creation and production. I loved being on campus with him and seeing him reflect on his time and achievements.


The graduation celebration was outside in Mercer's new-ish football stadium. The graduates and faculty filled chairs on the field, while family and friends sat in the bleachers. Those poor Seniors were forced to arrive before 7:00am for rehearsal, with a planned processional at 8:00am. There was more than sufficient pomp and circumstance, an opening prayer, welcome, and first speaker.


Then, Mercer included a faculty-nominated student speaker, senior nose guard Dorian Kithcart. Dorian was lovely, speaking honestly, with humor and gratitude, and giving some advice from his own experience.


His first nugget of wisdom was ... "What is your Why?" Why are you you? Why do you care about some things so strongly? Why are you willing to work hard for certain things? Why? His advice was for each graduate to look at themselves for a moment and become self aware of the WHY behind their passions, interests, and energy. Find your why, and let it lead you.


As a pastor on Sabbatical, his words wormed their way deep into me. What is my WHY? Why did I let go of my engineering degree and sales/marketing profession to do this?


Now, I've answered this question before. After all, I was there. I remember what happened. I lived and have retold the story, have crafted and sharpened the narrative, and I remember the order of events that moved me from where I was to where I am. I remember the emotions, the options, the process that led to decisions, and the justifications I used to explain one path over the others. But those things do not answer Dorian's question... What is my WHY? Those pieces reassembled tell the story of what... what happened, in what order, and what didn't happen. Dorian is asking about the burning power and passion of WHY underneath those shifts and changes.


For the first few hours, I threw the question away from me toward the heavens. "Yeah! Why, God? Why?" For the next few days, I replayed all the WHATS, trying to find the thread of why under and behind them. Then I did what Sabbatical is training me to do, be quiet. Think less. Talk less. Stop pushing prayer, and instead let prayer pull me down a trail of observations and memories.


Dad. When I was six, Dad had grabbed a nearby gun and used it on himself, to end his own pain, to end the pain he kept causing Mom and me and others. The church talked awkwardly about his death.


Mother's Day. Mom. Mom had left the church after the death of my Dad. She died in 2000, and I led her funeral.


My wife, Jill. In college, Jill knew a different God, and had different God words, and I learned from her.


Lord's Prayer, particularly the lines "Thy kingdom, COME. Thy will, BE done, on earth as it is in heaven..."


These for explain the WHY inside me. I hope to tell the story of my WHY through blog posts on this site in the seasons ahead. They each illuminate the deepest core of my motivations to be the person, pastor, and preacher I am.


Until then, blessings, laughter, and loving be yours,

Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

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In 2002, I left my corporate career, and went to seminary. Since 2005, I've been serving churches, and trying to follow Jesus, and lead others in doing the same...

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