Responding to a calling to serve the church is about the journey more than the destination – but what joy there is to see your destination arriving!
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
~ Revelation 21:2
Forty years ago, I responded to God’s call to ordained ministries and enrolled in a theological school. As a child growing up in a United Methodist Church, I had been deeply inspired by sermons, worship, and Sunday school – enough, apparently, that when they assigned me a default major in my freshman year at college, they made me a religion major (I eventually chose English instead). As a counselor for three summers at Camp Aldersgate, in Swartswood, New Jersey, I had felt the warmth of genuine Christian love and fellowship, led kids in finding faith, trust, and the joy of creation, and found the center of my soul. There were moments when I was speaking about God when words came out of me that were my own, but not quite my own. These moments slowly grew in college; the first night that I got to know June-Ann, now my wife, we were talking about things in the college chapel, and I found myself talking to her from the pulpit. By my senior year in college, when June-Ann and I first got engaged, it seemed obvious to me that God was calling me to serve a church as an ordained minister. I entered theological school, filled with hope and joy.
Responding to a calling may take time. Lots of it.
I enjoyed my classes, but I struggled academically, and I could see that I was far less prepared to respond to my call than I had thought. I could see that I had not really prepared myself for a life as a Christian leader. In my supervised ministries at a United Methodist Church in Dumont, New Jersey, I found great joy and reward in calling on people in the hospital, in the kids who I supported as a youth minister, and in supporting worship. The church that I served, though vital by many measures, seemed out of touch with where I saw myself then, and I had a hard time answering for myself who I really was as a Christian, and how I would be leading a congregation in faith. I had a calling, but it turns out that the answer to the call was about discovering a lot more about myself and others than I reckoned at first.
Long engagements? Got the T-shirt.
So, I put aside my studies, and took various jobs, but the call never left me. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of a very long engagement with my calling – a time of discernment, of growth, and of discovery. As it turns out, June-Ann and I went through the same long engagement process, also – it was seven years after that first “Will you marry me?” that we got married at a church in Boston. Thirty-three years later, we’re still together, and we love one another more than ever, but it took both of us a while to get the awareness of ourselves and one another to make that commitment last. After we finally decided to get married, I was very excited for our wedding day (yes, we were celibate with one another all that time!), and it was a joyful event. At last we could start on our lives together in full. Still, though, there was this other calling of serving God in the church, that continued to grow in me.
Growing up in the church as an adult.
It’s not that I hadn’t been exposed much to church as a kid – I was very spiritual in many ways. But getting to know God very deeply took time. It took a lot of triumphs and tragedies, friendships and lonely walks, and, most of all, a lot of Bible reading, praying, and opening up myself to what God was offering me in the moment. My father had given me an Interpreter’s Bible set as a gift when I entered seminary as a young man, and between this and many train rides with a small, worn pocket Bible in hand, I began to know the promises that flow from love of God that has endured through all time.
Working in New York City and visiting various places brought me to many churches for worship and prayer, and sometimes to some miraculous encounters. I was walking into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York one day, and I had the good fortune to meet – and to touch – Mother Teresa, as she was passing by with her followers. Her sense of humble service to God has stuck with me through the years. By a miracle of faith, an office building in London that I was visiting brought me to John Wesley’s chapel that the building had been built around; a friend welcomed me in to it, where I encountered the Holy Spirit, as I had never experienced it before. God hadn’t given up on my call – I was being shook by God the way a dog shakes a rope toy. God wanted me to play in his house! I studied Wesley’s writings and the Bible intently from then on out.
Finally, after many years of getting to know God and myself in fellowship groups and local volunteer service, I walked in to Golden Hill United Methodist Church in Bridgeport, CT one day, to drop off some food for a mission project. It was instantly apparent to me that what I had been missing – and avoiding, perhaps out of shame for my past failings – was becoming an adult member of a church. As the pastor showed me the church, he walked me up to the pulpit, where the face of John Wesley had been carved into the base of its banister. I looked at that familiar face, and I knew that God wanted me to start to take my call seriously. Many years of humble service, mission work and study followed. I got to be just another Christian, serving and sometimes leading others, and growing in the joy of being in a vibrant faith community. The Holy Spirit works as a fellowship, and the fellowship of the church worked wonders in my heart.
“God speaks through you, John”
As my faith life deepened in the church, so did my calling – not so much because of my will, but because people kept telling me what they saw happening in me. I was speaking to someone about something spiritual quietly one say, in what I thought was a rather matter-of-fact way, and a look of awe and surprise came across my friend’s face, who said, “God speaks through you, John!” There was something in me that God had planted, it just couldn’t help but to come out. I participated in Disciple bible study, a long course of group exploration of our faith, which culminated in a short retreat. At the end of the retreat, we were each asked to identify gifts in each of the people in our group. One person, whose faith and devotion to the church I respected greatly, looked at me, and said, “Apostle.” OK, God, I thought, what are you telling me here?
I started to get more serious about my discernment towards ordained ministries, and started to talk with our pastor about responding to my calling again. I became a Certified Lay Servant, and responded to requests for supply preachers whenever possible. It took me a while to grow in this ministry, but it didn’t take too long before people were speaking to me afterwards and asking me, “Where is your church, pastor?” This happened again and again – people were seeing things in me that I had been afraid all of those years weren’t really there, but they saw them clearly. People who I prayed with and comforted in nursing homes saw it, in suburban churches, in country churches, and in city churches, too. Did I have the courage, after all these years, to respond to this calling that just kept on getting stronger?
Are you still ready to let me marry you?
After a mission trip to Ghana, I made up my mind to have one final discernment after we moved to Guilford, CT. We arrived fairly much broke, but safe, in a place that was near a great United Methodist congregation in Branford, and twenty minutes from the nearest seminary that The United Methodist Church accepted for studies towards ordained ministries – Yale Divinity School. I visited the school, and in their daily chapel service that I attended it became clear to me that this was the place through which my calling would pass. To be truthful, I was excited, but also very frightened – I had not been in school for 38 years, Yale was not an easy school to get into, and I really didn’t have any funds to pay for it. I prayed hard, had a chat with June-Ann and my pastor, announced my intentions to our New York Annual Conference CT District Superintendent, and applied to Yale.
Well, it wasn’t too clear at first that the bridegroom was ready for the bride! My District Superintendent was doubtful – and so was the District ordination committee on which I had served for several years. Yale Divinity School rejected my application. I probed into this afterwards, and their answer was, more or less, “We like your heart and soul, don’t know if you’re ready to be a serious student.” These were setbacks, to be sure. But just as with that long engagement with June-Ann, I realised that if God wanted to make this work, it would happen. I cannot second-guess my calling – it may not go where I want it to, I can only offer my willingness to serve and to love others in God’s grace as God has already loved me.
A God of third and fourth chances!
Fortunately, someone mentioned to me a programme available through Hartford Seminary that would allow me to complete half of my degree work there, and then, if I had done well, I would be able to complete my degree at Yale. I applied, was accepted, got a scholarship for the first time in my life, took out a student loan, and dug in to the books for the first time in many, many years, as I rattled up and down to Hartford in a car with bad brakes, or bad whatever, depending. I was determined to be as good a “schoolboy” as possible this time, and so, for the first time ever in my life, I became a straight-A student. I was amazed and humbled by it all, and so grateful for the amazing students and faculty who surrounded me at Hartford Seminary. It is an amazing institution, one that opened my eyes not only to the world, but to who I really was in the world. I was a person with deep faith, a deep heart, a deep soul, and a deep mind. My bridegroom expected a lot, but I was ready to do whatever God wanted me to to – even, and especially, the hard parts!
But the hard parts were very hard, and I wound up falling asleep most nights with a book or my ebook tablet in hand. Money was scarce, but a call to work part-time at First United Methodist Church in Middletown, CT came after my first year at Hartford Seminary, and I was so excited that I would finally be working in a church after all of these years. It was a church that had sold its building, was meeting in an Elks Lodge – and I was totally psyched. The church’s Pastor and I worked hard to revive God’s love in these people’s hearts, and, a day at a time, the church began to move forward after a traumatic ending to their time in their old building. I got the chance also to do Clinical Pastoral Education at the same time, and to serve as a volunteer chaplain in a local hospital. To do this, and to serve a church, and to do school, was absolutely exhausting, stretching me to the very limits of what I could manage in all directions, but the calling kept on coming to me: “John, keep going.” This kind of covenant love is for keeps, and I intend to keep on following it!
Getting ready for the joy at the altar
A couple of months ago, Yale Divinity School accepted my application to complete my degree there, and shortly after that, I finished up my CPE work. These were both great joys for me, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that I need a bit of a break before digging in to Yale – it’s been an enormously rewarding faith walk these past few years, but I have had very little time lately to reflect on hardly anything, much less on the flowers growing in the garden, a quiet walk, more meaningful time with my faith friends, or just to spend those few extra moments in prayer that I enjoy so very much. I think that’s shown up in my appearances before my ordination committee – now they see the excited, over-achieving “schoolboy,” making up for years of underachievement, and I think that they have a hard time seeing the “heart and soul” person who has taken up this scholarly path with great difficulty to fulfill a lifelong passion. So much has happened to get me to where I am, that it takes a while for me sometimes to express where I am in the middle of it, and to remember that it’s just fine to be exactly where I am.
But in spite of the temporary exhaustion and lack of immediate perspective, in the middle of it all has been a profound joy – the joy of serving others, of helping them to feel the presence of God’s story in their life, to help them to heal and to grow with hope in God’s loving hands, to be with them to comfort them when their loved ones die, when they themselves are at heaven’s doorway, when their children are baptised, when their marriages stumbles, when God calls upon them to become a church leader, when the Bible for the first time seems to makes sense to both the mind and the heart, to witness fearlessly to the injustices of the world with one another, and to be God’s hope for the world together. I enjoy my studies, and I look forward to learning much more at Yale in the months ahead, but most of all I look forward to the complete fulfillment of the joy that God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life. It will be my pleasure and my privilege to serve and to lead others in this, for as long as God will have me in this grace. Thanks for the engagement, God – it’s worth it, every step of the way.
Whatever the calling, the stumbling or falling, you follow it, knowing there’s no other way…
~ Mary Chapin Carpenter