July 7, 2013
Two weeks ago the Board reviewed June’s worship experiences to decide on the rest of the summer. The testimonies were such a big hit, they decided to have one each Sunday, not bunch them on Old Time Religion Sunday. They also suggested that I share the testimony of my spiritual journey and calling to pastoral ministry. That works well with today’s Gospel story from Luke 10 that affirms that Jesus has sent each one of us, not just pastors, as laborers in a special part of his plentiful harvest where he himself intends to go.
At my ordination in 1975 my Dad seemed unusually emotional. I didn’t understand why until after he died in 2007 and my Mom passed on to me his discharge papers from the Navy after World War II. He had indicated plans for seminary and ministry, which I never knew and he never fulfilled, except as a layman and undertaker.
After college and an MA in Christian Education from Wheaton Grad School, I worked in Christian education curriculum development, research, writing and editing with no thought of pastoral ministry. In the non-denominational church Candy and I belonged to, a fight over the summer Sunday school program prompted the Christian education committee chairperson to leave the church. I was asked to fill-in and then replace him. Then I was invited to join the pastoral staff part time and was ordained when it was clear this was God’s fit for me.
Almost three years later a variety of forces precluded having two part-time ministries. Though in the same church, I left the staff. For nearly a year and a half I went through a dark night of the soul, seriously questioning my calling. Encountering Proverbs 17:22 in a small group opened the first window with, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” The response to my leading a discussion group at a Wheaton College seminar for engaged couples flung open a door that irrevocably affirmed my pastoral calling.
Luke 10:1-9 indicates that Jesus sends every one of us to a special place in his harvest where he himself intended to go. At the end of chapter 9, three people had offered to follow Jesus but were unwilling to make the necessary commitment.
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
Jesus’ call balances stability and flexibility. They were to travel light: no money, no luggage, not even extra shoes as they went from town to town. But once there, they were to stay in the same home. In his Rule, St. Benedict warns of “gyratory monks” who wander from monastery to monastery “restless servants to the seduction of their own will and appetites.” (ch. 1, p. 47) We might call them church hoppers looking for the most dynamic preacher in town. Early in my career, before pastoral ministry, I identified Hebrews 11:9-10 as a guiding metaphor for my life. Abraham lived by faith in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Though we have had long relationships with the congregations we’ve served, we really have no home base, which interim ministry emphasizes further.
Jesus sent the 70 out as “lambs into the midst of wolves.” Our sons’ friends have helped me appreciate the secular but spiritually hungry people who are today’s plentiful harvest into which Jesus is sending us. Only a minority of people in their forties and under participate in church or “organized religion.” While we may feel uncomfortable with this cultural sea-change, I believe it is an opportunity for churches who will find ways to welcome them.
Though God’s call caught me unexpectedly, pastoral ministry has been a great joy, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. The 70 Jesus sent out did not have uniformly positive experiences, but Luke 10:17-21 reports not only their spiritual satisfaction, but also Jesus’ response.
The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
21At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
I trace the start of my adult spiritual journey to studying the book of Job in world literature as a senior in public high school. With my devout parents, I had been in church from infancy and accepted Jesus as my savior as a young child. Through adolescence I was increasingly drawn to literature and the human dilemmas and suffering I encountered there. While I did not reject faith, literature seemed to address these issues, which the way I perceived faith in my church did not. But studying Job in a totally secular environment was like hearing God say, “I really do understand and care about the predicaments and suffering of human life.” Job not only gave me insight into God’s role in human suffering but also an invitation to an intimacy accessible through contemplative living.
An important milestone on this journey was a four month sabbatical Candy and I took 21 years ago in the L’Arche Daybreak community in Ontario. It is a community of about 50 mentally handicapped adult “core members” and about 100 “assistants.” From this experience I learned a contemplative practice of intentionally looking for the presence of Christ in the pain of suffering people.
In the Gospels we see Jesus’ followers as a diverse often contentious group. Their joyful unity in this story comes from pursuing the mission on which Jesus sent them. In 2000 we came to Texas and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) after a fractious experience with the congregation I served in Wisconsin. With the wide diversity of paths of my journey, the Disciples’ emphasis on the essential unity of the Church has been a good fit. With Jesus and the mission on which he sends us into his harvest at the center, our other differences fade.
Like the 70 who marveled that the demons submitted to them, I am amazed at how God has shown up in the course of my ministry. I am convinced that preaching is a key ingredient in God’s call to me. I love doing it, but it terrifies me. How dare I stand before God’s people every week and presume to speak on God’s behalf? Yet, God seems to show up.
One man’s story is more about Jesus’ plentiful harvest than about my preaching. His wife was an active member in a church I served, but he was a seemingly convinced skeptic who had no church background. He was a high school industrial arts teacher. One year he asked if he could go with the youth on their mission trip with Habitat for Humanity. He told me, “I have skills and tools that can help. Though I don’t believe, I won’t upset the kids’ faith. I’ll go in another room when you have Bible study and worship.” Which he did not one year but three or four years in a row. A while after I had left that church, I saw that he had been baptized and joined the church. He told his wife that what brought him to faith in Jesus was listening to youth Bible study and worship from the other room. He said, “Jesus was so real and so important to them, I just had to follow him too.” A few years later he was ordained as a deacon and continues to follow Jesus.He is one part of Jesus’ plentiful harvest in which Jesus had sent me. Jesus also wants to send you to your special place in his harvest where he himself intends to go.