Category Archives: ministry life

the sermon that was never heard…

I had a dream last night. So strong in its witness, I needed to “get it down” on paper this morning. Perhaps in doing so, it will get down to a deeper place inside of me so that I might more fully live it outside of me.

The sermon that was never heard.

Allow me to explain. In May of 2016 my father was scheduled to preach at the Garner UMC. There was nothing particularly unusual about this event. Dad was often called upon to “fill the pulpit” on occasions when the pastor wasn’t available. As a professor of preaching at Asbury Seminary for over thirty years, and as a pastor of several congregations in the last fifty years, my dad has always been a natural choice for such occasions. His spiritual journey, as well as his giftedness in and eloquence for telling a story, have allowed him notable stages from which to deliver God’s message. But no stage was more glorious and important to my father than one holding a wooden pulpit overlooking an audience of Sunday morning seekers. Accordingly, dad rarely refused an opportunity to fill a pulpit.

I had planned to make the two hour trip to Garner to hear my father speak that Sunday. My mother texted me early in the morning to tell me not to come, that dad wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to preach. Later that day, when pressed for more details, dad revealed that he was having trouble reading his sermon notes, that his thoughts were jumbled up inside of him. And while he didn’t have any manifestations of a physical illness, he knew something was wrong. So did we. Thus began the unraveling of the diagnosable mystery known as a stroke.

For the last nineteen months, we’ve walked with dad through this period of redirection. The adjustments have been numerous. And while dad’s aphasia has altered his daily routine, it hasn’t changed his heart or his passion for telling the story. Certainly, the “stage” has changed; they’re smaller now, more intimate. His words are fewer and, sometimes, aren’t delivered as eloquently as he would like. But the warmth is there, the smile, the laughter, the love … always the love from dad. And through it all, we’re all learning to make peace with…

The sermon that was never heard.

The words that were never spoken that Sunday morning. The “text” that (some would say) would be my father’s final declaration from the pulpit. And this morning, after tossing and tumbling all night long, after mulling over what my father’s final benediction might have been from the pulpit that morning in Garner, I have decided that God is still writing that sermon. That after nineteen months of altered steps and interrupted dialogue, the sermon that was never heard is still preaching its witness.

And therein, folks, lives and breathes the greatest story ever told. When the curtains are drawn, the script is lost, when the words won’t come, and the audience has departed, what remains is the sacred echo – the deafening whispers of the sermon that was never heard.  

Like my father, perhaps even like you, I have a few more stories I’d like to share, a few more moments of dialogue I’d like to give to the world. But I am no longer convinced that these are the “sermons” that God will most thoroughly use to live and give his witness. What I am growing convinced of, however, is that…

Not every sermon needs a stage.

Not every manuscript needs eloquence.

Not every word needs to be spoken.

Instead, our “sermons” just need to be lived in the shadow of Almighty God. With warmth. With smiles. With laughter. With love … always the love.

If we can get to that place of settled peace, friends, then the sermon that was never heard surely will be boldly proclaimed with a depth and with a clarity that may not come otherwise. So…

Thank you, Daddy, for teaching me how to live with an unwritten, unspoken, and unfinished script.

And thank you, God, for making it count eternally. As always, 

Peace for the journey,

the song of the brook …

My students and I have just finished reading Song of the Brook by Matlida Nordtvedt. As literary prose goes, it doesn’t measure up to the classics, but it does serve a purpose in our classroom. It’s one book in a continuing series of books presented annually to students who use the Abeka curriculum; they seem to enjoy keeping up with the Johnson family from year to year.

The main character of the story is Hilda, a young girl from Bellingham, Washington, who is learning to live with change: a move to a new community, the disappointment with that community, discord amongst extended family members, bullying on the playground, overcoming insecurities, and the like. Despite the chaos in Hilda’s new life, she finds solace in an unexpected place – the babbling brook running beside her dilapidated house. At night, she sits next to the open, bedroom window and listens as the brook “sings” her a song. Repeatedly throughout the story, the brook impresses upon Hilda’s heart various phrases to soothe (and sometimes to meddle with) the aches within her heart. Her brookside meditations are Hilda’s way of spending time with God and hearing his voice therein.

Even though Hilda’s story is set in time nearly 100 years ago, the problems she faces back then are not unlike the problems we face today. Who of us haven’t known the ache of relocation, the tears of disappointment, the fracture of beloved relationships, the taunts of a bully, and the crippling of insecurity? Today’s troubles aren’t much different from yesterday’s harms; the scenery simply has changed.

Unlike Hilda, I don’t have the beauty of a singing brook running by and next to the parsonage in Laurinburg, NC. I don’t raise my windows in the evening for fear of unwanted critters (or humans) disrupting my night’s slumber. The sounds of my city at night are no match for the idyllic evening lullabies of the countryside, those wide-open spaces that seem to more easily host the voice of the Creator.

Still and yet, I hear the Father’s voice. His words speak to me as I take the time to listen in, to open up the window of my soul and to meditate upon the scriptures he has written to me in his holy Word. Sometimes God’s melody soothes the aches within; sometimes his refrain meddles with my will. At all times, his song is truthful. God cannot lie; neither will he sing a song over me that will lead me down a wayward path. Instead, his song … his words are for me, for my good and, most importantly, for his kingdom good.

Lately, his holy refrain has been crystal clear:

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

Over and over again, for the past several weeks, these words have cycled repeatedly throughout my mind, like the lyrics of a song you just can’t shake.

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

In living out this obedience from John 13, there are always ample challenges. Stinky feet aren’t my preference. It’s easier to touch cleanliness than dirtiness. It’s less problematic to embrace the feet of a friend than it is to embrace the feet of a betrayer. Even so, the Father sings…

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

I don’t know what this will look like for me in the days to come, how this yielding will play itself out. But of this I am certain … it will play itself out. Whether at school, at church, at home, and maybe even at Wal-Mart, stinky feet are everywhere – walking in front of me, behind me, next to me, over me, and, yes, sometimes within me. We all get our feet dirty from time to time. The Father’s basin and towel are equal to the cleansing task, yet another undeserved grace from his heart to ours that allows us to get clean and then to offer that same cleansing to others.

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

The window of my soul is open. The song of the brook is singing. Even so, Father, I am listening.

As you have done for me, Lord, help me to do so for others. Amen.

 

on being a “doorkeeper” …

“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” –Psalm 84:10

There was a defining moment in my ministry life several years ago. It happened unexpectedly but not by accident. I often find this to be the case with the Father’s holy whispers regarding my life. They arrive when I don’t expect them but are so specific in their delivery that they are easily defined as authentic, as divine rather than random.

Our spring, ladies’ Bible study was coming to a close. During the final Tuesday night session we explored the concept of “calling”—the ministry that God has assigned to all believers to serve as his conduits of kingdom grace. We discussed the above scripture from Psalm 84 and what it meant to be a doorkeeper in the house of God. In the course of our conversation, a cell phone rang. The embarrassed participant fumbled around in her belongings in an effort to silence the distraction. The curious look she had on her face led my curious heart to make an inquiry: “Everything OK?”

“Elaine, you’re not going to believe the picture my sister-in-law just sent to me on my phone. Take a look.”

I did and went slack-jawed at the revelation. It was a picture of a beautiful wreath hanging . . . on a door. No sooner had the words passed from my lips about being a “doorkeeper” in the house of God than God sent his holy confirmation via a picture of a door on a cell phone. Unexpected? Yes. Accidental? I don’t think so. You might think so, but I’ve lived long enough with God to know when he’s trying to solidify a point. It doesn’t always happen this way; sometimes his directives are less obvious. But when his knock is blatant, I’ve learned to open up the door to entreat his instructions.

And so, that night I bowed my head and heart to this anointing, believing that God was calling me to the simple, yet profound task of being a doorkeeper to his extraordinary kingdom. To be a servant who stands at the threshold of God’s temple, guarding the sacred trust within and graciously opening up the door so that others might enter into their Father’s house, so that they might finally know what it is to come home and to be welcomed and warmed by the truth of his love. At that time, I didn’t fully understand what this sacred affirmation would look like for me in the coming months. Years later, I still don’t fully grasp the breadth and depth of what this means for me. But this I do know: the memory of that defining moment is still defining me. It stalks me, calls me, reminds me, and strengthens me. It minimizes my fear about my calling by keeping it fairly simple, despite my attempts at making it so very complex.

Calling. I think we’ve done a disservice within the Christian community in our conversations along these lines. We’ve made it too hard, wrapped too many formulas around the notion of “calling”, trying to fine-tune our areas of ministry to the exclusion of ministering in the moment-at-hand. Certainly, God has instilled in each one of his children different giftings that lend themselves to a particular area of ministry. We should walk in those giftings, develop them and offer them to others in service to our King. But our calling should not be limited by our giftings; instead, our calling should extend through them. Our calling stands before and behind, above and below any outpouring of excellence. Our calling is greater than our giftedness. Our calling is simple: to know God and then, out of that knowing, to lead others to know the same.

“‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’” –John 17:3

 “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” –Matthew 28:18-20

In establishing the vision for our ministries, these two criteria serve as the foundation for God’s vision therein. Know him and then, from that knowing, lead others to know him more fully. For me, that looks a whole lot like being a doorkeeper. Accordingly, I tend to the sacred trust I’ve been given, carefully guard the good deposit within me, and then, as the Lord prompts, I open up the doors to that kingdom storehouse and invite others in to feast on his treasures.

Every now and again, there comes a defining moment for all of us as it pertains to our ministries going forward. God’s word to you might be very specific. He may firmly grip your heart with an affirmation about what job you should take, where you should live, how you should serve. If that’s your case, then walk on in confidence. Do not hesitate to take hold of God’s holy confirmation.

But if that’s not you, if there is no grand moment of clarification, don’t get too hung up on the particulars. Instead, lend your heart to the moment-at-hand. Serve the kingdom right where you are. Stand at the gate of your temple; guard closely the doors of your heart, and tend fervently to the wealth within. Live there, in God’s house, and you’ll better understand this notion of calling. In tending to our temples, we tend to the Father’s business. Out of that overflow comes a life defined, a life on purpose, and a life on fire for the King and his renown.

Be a doorkeeper, friend. Be a protector of all things sacred. Be a greeter for the kingdom of God. I don’t imagine there’s a finer calling on this side of eternity. Thus, I pray . . .

Keep us to our calling, Lord, to stand watch over the temple and to open its door to others when they come knocking. We want to know you more and then, out of that knowing, help others to know you as well. You are the Way. You are the Truth. You are the Life. In knowing you, we hold all the knowledge we will ever need for this pilgrimage of faith. In knowing you, we know enough to get us safely home. Amen.

through the glass dimly …

It’s been a tough ten days for United Methodists across the globe. What … you haven’t heard? You mean you haven’t been glued to the live-streaming drama taking place out in Portland, Oregon, known as General Conference? Who needs Jerry Springer when you can watch a bunch of Methodists vocally duking it out over the issue of human sexuality … again.

In case you’re not familiar with Methodism and its way of governing our global church body, here’s the short version:  Every four years representatives gather to hash out perspectives and proposals pertaining to our Book of Discipline (aka “rules” for living/doing life as a Methodist). There is merit to the gathering, if for nothing more than to communally gather as one to worship God, the ultimate tie that binds us.

But we are not “one” as Methodists. We are split, especially on the issue of human sexuality. Current language in the Discipline states, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” (You can read the full statement here).

And while many other issues are dealt with at the General Conference level, it is this one issue that takes center stage every time (at least during my lifetime). So here we are, a church divided on the issue; there are passionate, well-spoken and well-meaning folks on both sides of this debate. Many of them I call my friends. But this issue is dividing us as a church, not uniting us. And as it stands now, my heart tells me a split of some sort is on the horizon. All proposals/discussions on this particular issue were tabled this go around. The 864 delegates who arrived in Portland from around the globe to have passionate discourse on this important issue weren’t allowed much of a forum in which to do so. Instead (through a series of very convoluted events that I can’t wrap my head around), the delegates voted to allow the bishops to form a committee to do further research on how this might all look for us going forward. It was a narrow victory – 23 votes.

Who wins? Hard to say. All I can say is that I feel terribly sad and defeated today. I thought this would be the year (and the time) when Methodists would finally have some closure on this issue, one way or the other. At least then, I could more easily make my decision about whether or not I wanted to remain denominationally connected to the United Methodist Church. I have a lot of skin-in-the-game. It’s not easy for me to walk away. I’ve been a Methodist all of my life; my husband is a Methodist pastor, my daddy as well. I grew up running the hallways of Asbury Theological Seminary, soul-shaped by the sacred echoes of John Wesley and Francis Asbury. My theological roots are tightly tethered therein.

So today I’m wondering how we got to where we are and, really, how much longer I can hold on. I’m tired of the fighting and the harsh words between the two camps. Even more so, I’m tired of the feelings I’m feeling – the anger, the disappointment, the trying-to-make-sense-of-it-all. My attempts at loving my brothers and sisters on the other side of the fence often fail and that, alone, feels terrible. I want to love well. I want to honor God with all my heart, soul, and might, but I’m not sure I know how to do that in the Methodist church anymore.

I stand in agreement with the current language in our Discipline, and I am disliked because of it … by those in the world and even, by some who call themselves my brothers and sisters in Christ. But hatred and harsh words aren’t enough to make me jump the fence to the other side for the sake of peace; instead, it leads me toward isolation – to the safety net of home where I am loved and where nobody is pressuring me to re-think and re-shape my convictions.

But I will not retreat to silence, because that’s not what God is after in me. He has called me to be a living witness to the transformational work of the Holy Spirit in my life. I am not the woman I used to be; God’s love and his holy correction have changed me. I’ve been born again, not in the flesh but, higher still, in the Spirit. He has given me a sound mind, a loving heart, and every now and again, a little strength to get some kingdom work accomplished. Whether I will continue to do so as a Methodist remains unseen. I am tethered, only, temporarily to my denomination. Thanks be to God, however, I am tethered, always, eternally to him.

He is where I will run. He is where I will stay. Thanks be to God, He is where I will end. In the meantime, (and in the words of John Wesley)

“Lord, let me not live to be useless.”

Even so, loosen me from my Methodism, Lord, to use me for your kingdom. Amen. So be it.

Peace for the journey,

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when harvest comes …

Rough edges. I have some. They were readily exposed for me to clearly see this past year. The catalyst for that exposure?

Fifteen students hand-picked by God to move me on toward my perfection!

For the past several years, I’ve been incubated from such exposure; life and its many detours have allowed me some shade and protection along these lines. Certainly, there have been occasions when I’ve felt the soul-shaped sanding from others but not as intensely as I have experienced it in these past ten months.

Most days, I wanted to run away and hide, crawl back into the shell I had so carefully crafted for myself during my earlier season of isolation. Exposure was painful and bloody, with precious few moments of joy to temper the ache. But I hung in with Jesus … every single day. I called upon the name of the Lord more times than can be counted. Together, he and I walked the school year through, and as we rounded the corner toward the finish line, I was finally able to see the amazing work of grace.

Growth.

I grew. They grew. And as we spoke our final good-byes, I held a little fruit in my hands – the same hands that (to date) had only held seeds, only sown seeds in hopes of one day having them grow into something more substantial.

This has been a fruit-bearing year for me. I couldn’t see the fruit in the beginning, and I certainly couldn’t feel it along the way and as we went. But I always believed in it, always trusted God for the greater work of grace that surfaces as a direct result of willing obedience to the call of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we choose the mission field, friends; sometimes it chooses us. Either way, the responsibility is the same – to sow extravagantly the seeds of our faith. To break up the unplowed ground beneath our feet with the spade of God’s Word. To water it with the sweat of our brow and the tears of our surrender. To nurture the seed and soil with fervent prayers and gentle hands. To trust in the unseen work of the soil and to believe that every hour of intentional investment will yield a harvest of eternal proportion.

Sometimes we have the privilege of holding that resulting fruit; sometimes we can only believe in it. Either way, our responsibility remains.

Keep sowing God’s seed in this season of your life. Whether uncomfortably exposed or intentionally hidden, you have a choice to make regarding the faith seeds that are stored in your heart. In releasing them for the greater work of the kingdom, you are making a choice for growth – for yourself and for others. Don’t be surprised when the spade digs deeply and (sometimes) harshly. Expect it, believing all the while in the unseen work of the soil and in the eventual harvest to come.

What cannot be seen or held is seen and held by God. He is superintending the process, and the outcome is not in question. But don’t take my word on it, take his …

“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. … You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” –John 15:8,16

In season and out, sow generously and sow believing that He who began a good work in you is faithful to see it through to completion. As always …

Peace for the journey,

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