Last Wednesday night, July 16th, as I was being ordained, a letter was carefully tucked into my vest pocket. It was the letter that changed my life.
It was mailed to me 20 years ago this very month, sent by my great-great aunt, Esther McCullough. Few people know, let alone have a relationship with, a great-great aunt, but this was no usual tie. Aunt Esther, who had no children of her own, lived alone in Florida. One day in the mid-1980s my mother sent her a photo of a science project I had worked on, and Aunt Esther proceeded to write a note to me about it. From that began a correspondence that continued right up to her death in 1996 at age 98.
This particular letter, dated July 26, 1994, reached me in Ohio just prior to my senior year at college, and just a couple months before my 22nd birthday. I had given a guest sermon somewhere and sent a copy to her. This is what Aunt Esther had to say:
I realize that I am living on borrowed time, otherwise I would not make a suggestion as to your plans after Harvard. I strongly support that each go into any work that they feel they are fitted for and not be influenced by their family especially.... So if I felt I had time I would make no suggestion.
I definitely approve of your plans to enter some type of government work.... But if nothing along this line opens up, I wonder if you would consider the Ministry.After expounding on this for a couple of paragraphs she finished the theme with, "As I said before, I do not want to force you but you are so eminently fitted for this that I would not want you to overlook it in case your first choice eludes you."
I remember finding her suggestion to seem almost comical, as this appeared to be the last thing for which I felt "fitted." In my response, I outlined all the flaws in my character that would preclude me from any such career. I wonder now if she chuckled at my naive rejoinder.
In reality, Aunt Esther's suggestion could not be so easily forgotten. The very thought of it gnawed at me as the months went by. It did not awaken a call to ministry, per se, but certainly awakened a call to learn. I found myself in the grip of an insatiable need to add to my meager knowledge of the Christian faith. Before I graduated from college I had already asked for a booklet from the admissions office of Harvard Divinity School. It was the first step on a road that led eventually to my Master of Divinity degree at Duke.
My wife and I had no thoughts of pastoring a church, ever. However, I could see myself in an administrative role within the church someday, and so I embarked upon the deacon track, a road to the helping ministries which support the church behind the scenes. Maybe I would someday work for a denominational office, or a church-related university. But I was not cut out for pulpit ministry, and had no illusions to the contrary.
Eventually, after procrastination, I enrolled at Duke in 2000, necessitating another move halfway across the country. My three years in divinity school were extraordinarily fulfilling as I learned so much about the Bible, the history of our faith, the thinking behind it, and its presence around the world. Made nervous by public speaking, I waited until my final year to take the required preaching class. Besides, I was certain it was not necessary for my future work. Eschewing pastoral field education placements, I worked administratively instead. Graduating in 2003 I was blessed to receive a job doing exactly the sort of thing I felt I was supposed to be doing -- managing a project sponsored by the divinity school which set up health ministries in the Carolinas. It all made sense.
Though I was still in the candidacy process officially, I had no real desire to finish it. Ordination as a deacon seemed superfluous and just meant a lot of paperwork and committee meetings I could do without. However, in 2006 when we moved to Indiana, I decided to look into what it would take to reactivate that process. Alas, it was clear that the retreats and other meetings I would be required to attend just for that purpose would interfere with my job. I asked how others working bi-vocationally could do it all, and the answer was, "It is a problem, and we're in conversation about how to solve that."
|General Superintendent Porter addresses the ordinands|
I was soon teaching Sunday school at our new church and before long realized that I could not dismiss this calling, whatever it was about, and so I applied to work toward ordination (again, as a deacon) in the Church of the Nazarene. Step one was a Local Minister's License, which I first obtained in March 2009. In July 2010 I was selected to receive a District Minister's License, which would allow me to do ministry in a local church as an official pastor.
Ironically, it was to be at the ordination service at that year's District Assembly that my direction would change. Listening to the sermon and watching the ordination, I was struck by a realization that God was saying, you can do this, and you will do this. All of my own self-doubts, I realized, were irrelevant. I finally understood that I would never be ready or able to do the work of ministry -- not on my own. But God could fill in all the gaps. No one is ever ready. No one is ever old enough, or wise enough, or experienced enough. But God can take care of our shortcomings.
I immediately changed to the elder track, toward pulpit ministry. The next spring an unexpected thing happened. No Nazarene churches had been available nearby for me to pastor, but out of nowhere I was asked to fill in at two small United Methodist churches. This was soon made permanent and since 2011 we have pastored these same two congregations.
|Moment of ordination|
At long last, this spring, having fulfilled the educational and pastoral requirements, and having been examined by the district committee on ministry, I was recommended for ordination. And last Wednesday night, I knelt before General Superintendent Jerry Porter -- the same man who gave the sermon that life-changing night in 2010 -- and was ordained an elder in God's church. It's not something I deserve, or ever could deserve. Instead, it is a gift and an honor which I had to learn to accept.
The spirits and prayers of many people, living and dead, were on my mind and in my heart that night. And in my pocket was the letter that in many ways started it all. Good call, Aunt Esther. Good call.