The beginnings of my service in Pastoral ministries have been an amazing journey – deeply humbing, joyful, and providing signs for the way ahead.
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua…“Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan… from the place where the priests’ feet stood…and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’” ~Joshua 4:1-3
“Do I really want to do this?”
I said this to myself as i stood on the bank of the Quinnipiac River, which streams down from its dam at Hanover Pond in South Meriden, CT. The bank I had climbed was steep, the side of the river rocky, and the water swift. I took a rock and tossed it out into the river. It resounded with a deep “spoosh” – much deeper than I had thought. But I had prepared for this moment for forty years, I had circled my new church and its neighborhoods six times on various days in the past few months. It was July 1st, my first day as Pastor of South Meriden Trinity United Methodist Church, a church beside a lake and a river that seemed to me to be our own Galilee and river Jordan. The time had come to be baptised into my new role, and I could imagine no other way to do that.
Crossing a “river Jordan”
I pulled out my bathing suit and my beach sandals, changed clothes, and gingerly made by way back to the far side of the river. This bank was even steeper and rockier, and as I balanced carefully on some large, pointed rocks in the shallows of the river, a sandal got caught in the rocks. I pulled it out, stepped more carefully into the river, and started to walk towards the other side. Quickly the water got up to my waist, and then to my armpits. The current of the river was fairly strong, and I decided that if the water got deeper, I would just swim to the other side and make my way back. But then, the water got less deep, and soon I was next to the far bank.
I reached down into the murky water and pulled out twelve stones, piling them into a tiny pillar on the bank of the river – a tribute to the Israelites led by Joshua into Canaan after the death of Moses. There was no turning back. Gladly so. I changed clothes, inspected the church offices and sanctuary, and did seven prayer circle walks around the church and its neighborhods, taking a different path each time. Each circle, I prayed for and noticed different homes and things in my new mission field. At the end of the walk, I stood in front of the church and shouted “To God be the glory!” three times, and then unlocked it and walked in. Having just served a church that met in an Elks Club for two years, truth be told I was glad that the walls didn’t come tumbling down!
A funeral before I’ve even begun
My preparations for this day had been underway for weeks, and already in the course of the past two weeks I had been actively in ministry for my new church. I got a phone call from a former church member the week before indicating that there was another member in hospital who was near death. I soon found myself leading a funeral service with 100+ people, with a church service and graveside service, two days before I was even officially the Pastor of this church. I had had a brief introduction to the new church secretary the day before the funeral, and we worked through the details of Sunday’s worship bulletin while I printed and assembled the funeral program. Three years of preparation in school, as a Seminarian Associate at First United Methodist Church Middletown, and in Clinical Pastoral Education training, all came to bear, along with much-appreciated help from the church’s Music Director and some key members, and so I was able to help this family through their days of mourning – my seventh funeral leadership in little over a year.
Then, the day after the funeral, the day before I started officially, I got to put up the message board for my first sermon. A church member came by, surprised to see the office door open, and helped me through this important church ritual. I announced the title of Sunday’s sermon, and included a tagline from the new Web site that I was ready to launch: “Your Church. Your People.” Later that day I stopped by the Post Office to mail about 140 introduction letters to church members that the church secretary and a committee chair had assembed. At 12:01AM on Saturday, July 1st, a Facebook post was published on the church’s page with a photo of the message board next to the church’s beautiful sign.
Day one. And two. And…
After my river crossing and prayer circles, I prayed a bit in the quietness of the church, just absorbing the feeling of finally being in a new home, and then headed down the street to Tom’s, a local luncheonette. I introduced myself to the staff as I ate a well-stuffed tuna sandwich, then met a few other merchants on the street as I walked back to the church to pray some more and to prepare for Sunday’s worship service. I left the front door of the church unlocked and put out an “OPEN FOR PRAYER” sign on the entry’s railing. It is my intention to leave the church open for prayer whenever I am in the building – it sits there for six days a week, waiting to be God’s house. Why wait?
Sunday’s service went pretty smoothly and joyfully on a beautiful summer morning. I had the privilege to serve communion to my wife and son, along with many well-wishing friends, and church members and friends. After the service and some fellowship, I led church members on a small prayer circle walk around the block, with those who could not walk easily joining us in a convertible that one of our church leaders drove. We stopped at several spots to pray, including the home of a church member who was not well, inviting them into our circle of prayer briefly.
Now, I am finishing my third week as a Pastor, two with worship music support from some beloved church friends while our Music Director has been on vacation. My first three sermons are here, here, and here. The new Web site is launched via Weebly, the church sanctuary is now Internet-enabled, which allows us to have prayer reflection slides on display during prayer hours via a Chromecast, and Proclaim slide presentations during worship now enable easy and powerful visuals for guiding people in worship. Next step on the tech front: using Proclaim to record and post audio from our services, including sermons. I have started community outreach, and started meetings with ministry teams and committees.
The joy of beginnings
But most of all, I am letting it all sink in, a day at a time, a person at a time, a relationship at a time. God’s time is not our time, and God’s will is not our will. I have applied what skills and knowledge I have to contribute to get the process of church-building started, but a church is a people, and forging individuals into a people takes, time, trust, and a great deal of surrendering of our own will and lives to the care of our loving God. The are opportunities, challenges, triumphs and disappointments ahead. But at the forefront of all of them is the cross, the constant reminder that our God came to earth to make disciples of God’s way of love, disciples who learned how to make a movement of discipleship that has lasted nearly two thousand years.
I am here, in this place, as a United Methodist circuit rider in training, as a sign that this place is more than just this place: it is God’s place, and God does not give up on us, ever. As I type along in my new office – a table in the church balcony, lit my nearby stained glass – I am reminded that God has been with these people, persistently and insistently, for more than 150 years. I will play a small role in making this people’s story God’s story in this place. But is a good role, A blessed role. And a role that gives me joy so deep, that I simply cannot find words for it. Perhaps that’s why I had to ford the river to get here – we need to understand the depth of what brings us to a place to find the heights to which God is prepared to raise it.
The journey has begun. To God be the glory.