Messaging back and forth this morning with a melahomey got me thinking about this. And I smile.
Back in April 1993, I was sitting on the sofa, looking at a magazine and talking about the pictures in it with my, then, almost two year old son (who would grow up and be called "College Kid" in my blogs) and we came across a picture of a beautifully landscaped prison yard. The caption conveyed the information that "service-programming" for the inmates was part of the Chaplain's job. And I thought to myself, "I can do that." It wasn't a snippy thought or condescending like "anybody could do thaaaat." No, surprisingly, for me because I'm no landscaper, the thought was conclusive and firm and it sounded more like an invitation for me to do that...be a prison chaplain. Something inside me knew I was "being called."
And I was fine with being called into prison chaplaincy. Actually, my first reaction was, seriously, "At least I won't have to preach!" And this is where God started laughing. I guess the plans I started making on how to fulfill this drowned Him out. If only I could have heard Him cackling and snickering, "Gotcha!" my life would be very different now.
I had always been active in my home Methodist Church in Conway, NC, so I can't say I was too surprised God called me into active ministry other than what I did voluntarily at church. At the time this was taking place, I was a stay-at-home Mom to our son and daughter who's almost nine years older. Before getting married and having children I had tucked two years of college under my belt and the second of those two years was spent as a Religion major at a college close to my home.
I investigated what it would take to become a prison chaplain, talked it over with my husband and gained his full support, and enrolled in college to complete my BA in Religion. I started in August 1993 and graduated in May 1996...the first woman graduate from Chowan's Religion Department, I might add! I was 37 years old and Duke, the closest Seminary was over two hours away. At the time, seminary was out of reach, my plan was still to be a prison chaplain, but I needed that MDiv to do it.
Life moved on, as life does, and while I stayed busy I also became a volunteer assistant chaplain to the women at the county jail and did that for a few years.
During that time, we got a preacher at Conway who became a good friend. I had been told by a previous pastor that when I turned 40, I could take something called "Course of Study" at Duke. It was a summer thing and maybe that could count for my MDiv with the NC Dept Of Justice in my efforts to become a chaplain....see that goal never left my mind. That was ALWAYS the plan. Prison Chaplain. Not "pastor" or "preacher." Prison Chaplain. I still couldn't hear God chuckle! When this new preacher came, I was 40...I had wandered in the desert for 40 years, I was ready to head to the Promised Land...I likened myself to Moses! Seriously. Moses.
And the pieces fell into place! I would need to complete the "Candidacy Program" and need a trained mentor...this pastor/friend was a trained mentor! I could meet with him weekly instead of monthly like a lot of candidates who live a ways from their mentors. The process would be sped up! God meant business with this! At last! And I STILL wouldn't have to preach!
(Side note and an important one: I had filled the pulpit for a few Father's Days over the years. People liked my messages. But man! It took me 2-3 months for EACH sermon! I needed NOTICE. The second year I was asked to do the Father's Day sermon I actually turned it down because I was given only 3 weeks notice! There was NO WAY I could EVER be a preacher. At least not one who had to show up E-V-E-R-Y Sunday!)
At the end of the Candidacy Program, if the mentor approves, there are still other hoops to jump through before actually being "OK-ed" by the powers that be to head to Licensing School. That license has to be in hand to head to Course of Study. My Candidacy Certificate is dated "May1, 2002." My License to Preach is dated "July 1, 2003." I began COS in July 2004 (COS is only for the month of July if you do the summer program at Duke).
Late January 2003, before I even went to License to Preach School at Duke, a two-church charge around 45 minutes or so from my house lost their preacher to an emergency disability leave. I was asked, along with a retired preacher who had served that charge years ago, to fill the pulpits until a new pastor was appointed at Annual Conference in June. OK, not in my plans, but the Methodist church is a "connectional" church and I was now part of that connection and I was needed. I'd have this wonderful retired gentleman to teach me a lot (which he did and still does), and besides...and most importantly...this was temporary and would look good when I took the next step on my road to Chaplaincy!
If I remember right it was February 2003 when we began and we alternated pulpits each week. I loved writing my sermons. Having the lectionary was a big help, and I found that if I worked hard and concentrated, I could actually get a sermon written each week! Hallelujah Thine the Glory! And that worked well...for about three weeks. Oh, yes. Weeks.
I'll never forget. It was my turn to preach at Lebanon. I don't remember the passage or the topic. But I do remember (vividly), sitting down with my black pen and legal pad, ready to write, and nothing would come. It was in my head, but I couldn't put it to paper. I could write anything else I wanted, but not that sermon. So not good. And I could feel God being very clear that I was not to write it either but to trust Him with it when the time came. He had to be kidding, right? I wish!
Now, remember, I was somebody who did not want to preach, was temporarily filling in for a few months, preaching once a week, had only preached two, TWO, sermons at this new charge, and now...now, here I was being forbidden to write my sermons! This was the Mother of Nightmares.
But I did the only thing I could do. I studied, I read, I prayed, I had a sermon in my head come Sunday, and I got in that pulpit with not even a note and explained to the congregation what was going on. And I preached. And I survived. And I found I loved what I was doing even though I was totally scared to death. But I was also certain I had passed the test with so-so colors and God would let me write the sermon for the next Sunday and all the Sundays yet to come while I was temporarily preaching until June.
I have never written another sermon. I do get to write out wedding homilies and I write out eulogies, but that's it.
After that June I was sent to a church somewhat closer to home. In January of 2004, another church was added. These two were not a charge...they were two separate, independent appointments and I preached twice every Sunday. From the same text, but it was never the same sermon. But it was always what each congregation needed.
Sometimes I get in God's way and I can tell when that happens. But I can also tell when I am able to stay out of His way. Even I like me then! And I'm not a prison chaplain. I understand, now, that God had to hook me with that to get me on the path He wanted me on. If God had told me from the very beginning, back in 1993 that He wanted me to be a preacher and that I'd, one day and for almost seven years, be preaching TWICE each Sunday, I would have run so fast that even God couldn't have caught me....that's what I wrote my FB friend this morning and got me reflecting on this.
He knew me and He knows me still. God didn't lie to me. I served as a jail chaplain and thought, at the time, that that was my "training ground." I loved it and I loved the women I met there. It was an important time in my life and I don't regret it one bit. But as He opened doors and my path took twists and turns, He did it in such a way and in such perfect timing, that I was ready to go through those doors. Even the doors that led to that "temporary" appointment that got me firmly in the Methodist appointment system. By the time that temporary appointment was over, I was ready for the two churches that followed, complete with preaching twice a week.
Me and those two separate, independent appointment churches thought I'd retire there. Seriously.
In very late 2009, God began laying it on my heart that it was getting time for me to leave. I didn't want to believe it, but by January 2010 I was sure so I began talking and discerning with my, then, DS, for me to leave in June. He came and we met with both churches in January so we could all start working through this instead of waiting until later as June drew closer.
In the Methodist church, a licensed local pastor, such as myself, has to have an appointment to be "clergy" and to go to Course of Study. By the first of June 2010, I still didn't have an appointment waiting for me to step into after Annual Conference. My DS, Mack, had given me two choices, but I knew they were each given a Divine "no" so I turned them down and would tell Mack I was waiting for that "third option."
Very early June I got an email from him and we met at a local church. I can still see him. He was stern and firm. Did I know what I was doing? Was I sure about turning down these two appointment options? Did I understand I needed an appointment if I wanted to go back to Duke in July? I assured him of everything and told him, again, I was hoping for that "third option." He asked, "Are you sure?" I said, "Yes." and he settled back in his chair, smiled, and said, "Let me tell you about a third option."
And that's how I came to Warren Plains UMC off the 158 Norlina Bypass about an hour and 15 minutes from my house. The church is in Warren County which is next to Franklin County which is where my grandparents lived until they died.
The minute Mack started telling me about this congregation it felt "right." I knew and accepted it on the spot. I've grown a lot more comfortable with not writing a weekly sermon and understand more how God works with this. It's Him and not me (when I get out of His way). He kicked my ego to the curb early on and now, looking back, I'm glad. The fact is, I can write. If I wrote moving, astounding sermons each week that "wowed," I would be a big problem. This way, I communicate by being "me."
God has given me back stuff to write.and I'm glad because I do enjoy the written word and I enjoy the writing process and writing things that people like to read and that help them. I get this blog and all the things I get to write on Melanoma Prayer Center.
All this to say that God knows each one of us and where we are and where He wants us to be and He knows how to get us there...what carrot to dangle in front of us to keep us following His lead.
This ain't over yet.
And I am grateful!