I was a nervous wreck, still a mostly impressionable 22-year-old young man, recently married in the summer of 2003 as I ventured from one side of North Lexington Avenue in Wilmore, Kentucky, to the other. In the opening chapel service of my orientation weekend at Asbury Seminary, Maxie Dunnam, the president of the seminary at the time, addressed the incoming graduate students and began with these words:

 If you don’t remember anything else during your time here in seminary, I want you to remember these two things for the rest of your life: number one – There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill; number two – There is something that you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Well I’ve forgotten a few things I’m sure and with the help of notes and textbooks I’ve remembered other things, but those two statements have kept coming back over and over. As I look back, however, I have come to realize that he was only reiterating something that I had already known and been taught ever since I’d sensed the call to ministry that would take me to the pastorate. They were instilled in me by my loved ones, but especially my Papaw & Granny.

 

Five and a half years prior, right around my 17th birthday, about half the age I am now, I had broken the news to my family that I had sensed the call of God upon my life into ministry and that I intended to follow that call. I shared this over dinner (where I grew up, that’s the big meal in the middle of the day that others call ‘lunch’) that was our custom on every Sunday after church at Papaw & Granny’s house, just a few hundred feet from our church in Oscar, Kentucky.

 

Papaw's Letter

 

Later that week I received a hand-written letter from Papaw (left) in response to the news I shared. He vowed his unconditional support and from Granny as well as I pursued my calling. There were several things in that letter that were quite prophetic but one thing he said curiously yet subtly foreshadowed the second point of that inaugural message to my seminary career. Papaw wrote:

Just remember, always, that nothing can happen to you in life – no setback, no disappointment, no temptation – nothing that you & God together can not handle.

Papaw’s life and teaching exemplified to the nth degree the value of a life of humility and acknowledging that life’s fulfillment is found in depending on the Lord to live into God’s purpose for our lives and to make it through the most difficult of times. There have been plenty of setbacks, several disappointments, and a multitude of temptations, many to which I have fallen prey. But every victory, lesson, and new beginning have been because of the help, saving help, of God’s Spirit. I’ve held onto that letter Papaw wrote. It was the last one he addressed to me. He died six months later.

Granny and Me

 

And then there’s Granny (right), who I’ve known my whole life to be filled with infectious joy that manifested itself in her seemingly incessant singing. That’s a trait that has found its way into my ministry as those who are burdened with the task of listening to my preaching can attest when all of a sudden I break into song. I shared this with her on my last visit to see her before she died earlier this year. In recent years, the smile became rarer and rarer, but one adorned her face that day. That’s how I’ll remember her!

 

But there was something she always wrote in my birthday card every year that stood out to me when I recall the first point of that opening chapel. She would sign every card written to me with this phrase:

There is a special place in my heart just for you.

With each child, and son- or daughter-in-law, with each grandchild, and expansion of the family with more weddings, and with every great-grandchild that arrived in our family, we saw Granny’s heart grow. And so, I believe, it is with God. With every new creation, with each bundle of joy, with every masterpiece, we see another chamber of the heart of God. In this small, yet significant, way Granny gave me a picture of the loving God who prepares a place for each of us.

 

In a few weeks when I am ordained as an elder in full connection in The United Methodist Church, I will kneel down and have hands laid upon me as a closing, of sorts, to the chapter upon which Papaw and Granny helped me embark and through which they prayed me. But it will be a new beginning as well as I start a new journey in ministry as lead pastor of Ellendale UMC in Bartlett, Tennesse, just outside of Memphis. The ordination will be enjoined with celebration not unlike how I began this journey at half my current age when eating a meal at Papaw and Granny’s table surrounded by loved ones who always encouraged one another in our love for God and our neighbors. At the service, there will be beautiful singing and I will long to hear the angelic voice of my Granny belting out louder than the rest of the congregation. There will be praying that I may humbly take up this yoke and I will long to see the face of my Papaw who quietly but dependably taught me about the importance of humility. But though I won’t get to hear her voice or see his face, I’ll experience the truth and beauty of all they embodied in the faithful community that seeks to follow the Lord of us all. After all, they’re now a part of that great cloud of witnesses who urges us on in our pursuit of the One who authored and perfected this faith that unites us in our acknowledgement that:

  1. There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill;
  2. There is something you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s grace enough to carry us the rest of the way.

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And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.

And he shall be the one of peace- Micah 5:4-5a

I’ll never forget the first and only time I was referred to as a “fine young chap.” I was sitting up in the balcony with a few friends at Barlow United Methodist Church during a cluster revival meeting of the UMCs of Ballard County, Kentucky. The visiting preacher had this very distinguished British accent with an inviting tone and compelling stories that drew his audience (or at least me) in to try to capture the vivid details and concepts he was portraying. The visiting preacher’s name was Dr. Reginald Mallett and he was from England. Unlike most ministers with the prescript “Dr.”, Dr. Mallett was a medical physician, not a doctorate by means of a Ph.D.

The late Rev. Dr. Reginald Mallett was both a minister and a physician.

The late Rev. Dr. Reginald Mallett was both a minister and a physician. Dr. Mallett passed away on September 8, 2010. You can read more about his ministry in a lovely article written in the wake of his death. See http://www.lakejunaluska.com/reginald-mallett/

After the service was over, I went down to shake his hand upon my departure, and he said, “Oh, you were one of the attentive fine young chaps in the balcony today! I hope you will come to some more services during the week.” That is what I just did. I took in every message and found myself compelled and confirmed in my recent direction to answer the call to ministry I had been perceiving. I found his sermon delivery very appealing as he would repeat the same Scriptural text or line from a hymn to serve as transitions throughout his sermons. This is a practice I have employed as well, though at times I perceive I have much growing to do in making the transitional phrases flow much smoother.

For those of us who cherished Dr. Mallett’s sermons, we are grateful that he set several of them to print. Last year, I checked out a copy of a book with a collection of his sermons delivered at Lake Junaluska. One of the sermons in that collection was about shepherds and when I read the Scripture from Micah, at the top of this post, in preparation for this Sunday’s sermon, I remembered an anecdote he relayed to his readers…

Edward Rogers told us how on this particular Sunday as he and the family were just about to begin lunch there was a loud knocking at the front door. It was one of the farmer’s neighbors. “Quick,” the neighbor cried, “Your sheep are in the wire.” It was obvious that this was a fairly common emergency to which the family was accustomed. As if on cue they all immediately rose from the table and rushed out to rescue the sheep. Edward Rogers confessed that, wearing a clerical collar, he could not sit idly by so he reluctantly offered his services. He was assigned one part of the field and as he went amongst this high grass, searching for sheep he said dryly, “I was unlucky, I found one!” He struggled to extricate it from the barbed wire as the terrified animal wrestled with him. Eventually, he finished up with the sheep in his arms, although he confessed that he was not sure whether he was carrying the sheep or the sheep was carrying him. Just then, the farmer arrived on the scene. “Here, let me have that sheep Mr. Rogers,” he said. Rogers then told us how the farmer, a big, strong man, his sleeves rolled up, arms lacerated and bleeding from encounters with barbed wire, took hold of the front paws of the sheep in one big fist and the rear paws in the other. He then slung the sheep on his back like a sack of coal and carried it to safety. The preacher concluded, “Now when I think about the good shepherd, I see that strong man, his arms torn and bleeding, carrying that stupid, struggling, frightened creature from danger to safety.

Something about that story communicated to me the significance of the promise of a coming ruler who would reign more like a humble shepherd who was willing to put his life at risk to save and take to safety an entangled sheep than a domineering sovereign who would overpower his unruly subjects.

Advent is for the tangled and torn sheep like you and me, unable to break free from the barbed wire that holds us in bondage. And we’re promised here by Micah that our promised rescuer will administer peace, that is, bring reconciliation and wholeness, not from political power, economic coercion, nor military might, but from a small village that is home to the likes of disreputable shepherds…one who would make and give peace, “not as the world gives” but “through the blood of his cross, reconciling all things to himself.”

Tangled and torn? The shepherd who is the prince of peace is on the way!

In preparation for pastoral ministry, I spent time reflecting on the vitality of the sacramental life of the church and the importance of visiting the elderly and shut-ins. One of the practices I have always wanted to incorporate in my ministry, which I had heard that some pastors do, is to share the Lord’s Supper with these folks. After all, as many persons get more aged and fragile and eventually come to a time when they are unable to physically attend and participate in the worshiping life of the church, then that’s when it becomes time for the church to care for those and make their attendance and participation possible in another way.

This is but one key way of making our ministry an Incarnational one. What do I mean? Reflect on these words of the liturgy of The Great Thanksgiving – “…Pour out your Spirit upon us gathered here and on these elements of bread and wine; make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood…”

The sacraments express the goodness of the physical, created order as God has established these elements of nature (water, bread, and wine) as the means by which God communicates God’s love and grace with us. Just as we were unable to attain eternal life where there will be a heavenly banquet and God took on flesh in Christ’s body to make that possible, so also we ought to take Christ’s body and proclaim his suffering, death, and resurrection with those unable to come and feast with us in the sacrament.

So I shared my desire to do this practice with the churches, and they were all for it! They gave me names of people who have been unable to attend, especially those members in rehabilitation facilities or nursing homes. I began practicing this last month and have found myself blessed beyond measure in the experiences of sharing the church’s sacramental life with them. Let me tell you why…

On one visit as I was going through the liturgy and began to serve an elderly gentleman, he raised his hands and began to cry. As he partook of the elements of the Supper and tears were streaming down his face, all he could say was, “Praise God!” I got choked up in that moment and became a witness to one who was indwelt by the Holy Spirit and had dedicated decades of his life to the kingdom of God in Christ’s church.

This is what Carrie put above the cabinets in our kitchen at the parsonage. I love it and a few of the people in the churches have said how much they like this. We hope our home is a place in which bread is regularly broken and our lives and stories are shared.

But beyond these moments of the actual partaking of the broken bread, I’ve been able to “break bread” with them on another level; that when one “breaks bread,” she is sharing some asset or possession of hers with you. This other way I’ve broken bread with the folks I’ve visited is through sharing stories and lives. And though I may have shared a couple of my own stories with them, I’m more interested in hearing theirs. Stories from a man with Parkinson’s who served as a fighter pilot in 3 wars (WWII, Korean, Vietnam), who, after his first wife passed away, rejoined with his high school sweetheart who was also widowed and learned the joy of marriage once again. Stories from a 97-year-old lady who was reading Scripture as I walked in and she began to share with me about the lessons she learned of having a good work ethic, building a loving home, and the pride she had in her children’s lives, one of whom was a United Methodist pastor in a neighboring state. Stories from a man, whose wife attends church regularly and visits him, who decades ago lived a handful of miles away from my hometown working for a few years before making his way back to Camden, and has known the joys of married life for 70 years.

I encouraged the people at my churches to visit just one person a month to “break bread” in this way. To ask to hear one story of their upbringing, of their travels, of their children’s livelihood, of lessons they’ve learned somewhere along the way; and maybe every once in a while, share a bit of their own stories and there will have been an experience of mutual blessing in this “breaking of bread.”

Caring for and visiting those who cannot care for themselves…this is (part of) what it means to be the body of Christ. “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:35-36)

Many readers of this blog, friends of mine in person and on facebook, and followers from twitter are aware of the educational journey I have been on for the past 3+ years in pursuit of a PhD in Wesley Studies at Nazarene Theological College (NTC), whose degrees are conferred by the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Several of my classes in seminary at Asbury, from which I graduated in 2006, centered upon the theology of the atonement, and this drove me to investigate the doctrine of the atonement in the theology of John Wesley.  In January 2009, after a couple of years getting acquainted to fatherhood in the arrival of Sam into our family, discerning the specific topic I wanted to pursue in my doctoral research, and applying and being accepted into NTC’s PhD program, I began fully investigating this issue, focusing in particular on how Wesley’s atonement theology stood in line or at odds with the diverse theological tradition of the Church of England, in which he was raised, ordained, and remained faithful as clergyman until his death.

View of one of the buildings on NTC’s campus. It’s truly a beautiful place and community in which to study! (Photo credit: http://www.nazarene.ac.uk)

Well, it is with a great deal of sadness but also a great sense of peace that I announce that my pursuit of this degree has come to an end. Although the crayons started making a few subtle marks on the wall a little over a year ago, it really didn’t become fully evident that the end was near until a couple of months ago.

As my family and I moved back to the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church for me to re-enter my calling for pastoral ministry, my hope was that I would continue in the program, getting research done when possible at home and continuing my visits to Manchester for 4 weeks per year until I could conclude, which was to be by May of 2014. But as financial resources/assistance began to run dry, as I could tell that time was running short, and even as my attention to the research and desire to make the time kept deteriorating, which was easily noticed by Carrie, she point-blank asked me as we were going to bed one night in early July: “So, are you going to finish your PhD?”

The weight of the question hit me like a load of bricks and after a very long pause where I felt like I was holding my breath, Carrie asked if I was still awake and still thinking about the question. I chuckled a little, said “Yes, I’m still awake” and then began weeping. Here I was in a home (parsonage) that was still quite new, in a community I hardly knew at all, away from most of my dear friends who have been alongside of me during this entire educational journey. Of course, I knew I didn’t have to answer the question right then and there in the middle of the night, but I already had the suspicion that the time had come for me to shut the door on this dream/wish I had been pursuing. Since my district superintendent was on leave for the month of July and I didn’t want to make a decision that might have some bearing on my ordination process, I decided to devote my prayers for the remainder of the month for God’s clear direction, my calling and investigating the desires of my heart. Carrie and I asked a few close friends to join us in these prayers, which they did.

During that time, my suspicions were confirmed and I began making the necessary appointments and having conversations with the folks who needed to be made more aware or would be directly affected by such a decision. These conversations took place over the course of the month of August. What was great about all of these meetings and discussions was that everyone wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being forced out of this against my wishes by external forces like financial limitations, travel/time-off restrictions, or limited accessibility to the research resources that would be needed to support the argument(s) I was seeking to make. But what was also communicated to me was that they had my support regardless of the decision I made as I was seeking the will of God in doing what was best for me and my family. To everyone reading this who offered that support either explicitly or implicitly, I deeply feel your prayerful encouragement and advocacy as I have gone through this sort of grieving process on the closure of this endeavor I was pursuing.

Two main questions have risen to the surface in the wake of my decision to withdraw from the PhD program and pursuit: 1. What should/can I do with the research and writing I have done to date in the program? 2. What, if anything, is next on the educational front?

With regard to the former, one of my causes for hesitating on this decision was the fear that the work I’ve done in researching and writing on the atonement in the past few years would go to waste if I didn’t go on and complete the dissertation/thesis. I don’t want that to be the case, but want to contribute to the field of Wesleyan theology or to find a way to adapt the writing to make it accessible more for a lay and/or pastoral audience. To that end, I’m going to spend some time in organizing the work into something cohesive to submit it to a scholarly journal for hopeful publication or develop a primer or short book on the atonement from a Wesleyan theological perspective.

The answer to the second question depends on what directions are given to me by the Board of Ordained Ministry as I apply for provisional membership in pursuit of ordination as elder. To be ordained as an elder in The United Methodist Church, the Book of Discipline requires the ordinand complete a Master of Divinity (MDiv) or its equivalent. My masters degree at Asbury Seminary was a Master of Arts in Theological Studies and was a few hours shy of a full MDiv. So it all will depend on how I respond to the questions as I am interviewed by the Board of Ordained Ministry and their evaluation of my transcripts as to what additional coursework would be deemed necessary so that my education would qualify as the “equivalent” of MDiv. So both you and I will have to stay tuned on this front.

Thanks for reading! And if you have suggestions or questions, please comment or ask me!

Some of you read the title of this post and thought, “A lot depends on the size of your bite.” This is true! Some people can handle chewing & swallowing a bigger bite than others. I have eosinophilic esophagitis (EE), so my bites usually have to be smaller than what most adults can handle. Now I could tell you about the details of how my gastroenterologists/GI specialists came to that conclusion, but that’s another story for another day. Suffice it to say that nine years ago, when I had a chunk of steak lodged in my esophagus, I didn’t know about this syndrome (as many of you reading this have never heard of it), much less that I would one day be diagnosed with it.

It was Thursday and was premium night at the Asbury College cafeteria. That meant that instead of the usual array of “meh” choices for your entree, they offered a more elegant selection, which included grilled steak on one particular evening. As fate would allow it, this particular premium night was the night before Senior Chapel, where I had been asked to share a testimony about my life and/or my time at Asbury as my class was getting prepared to graduate. Being the night before Senior Chapel, those involved in the service the next day were to go to rehearsal in Hughes Auditorium, where chapel is held. Because of the unfortunate circumstance that occurred in the cafeteria that evening, I was unable to make it to rehearsal. Instead I spent most of the rest of the evening in the ER at a hospital in Lexington.

I tried to swallow the bite of steak after not chewing enough. The food met resistance. I grabbed my glass of coke and tried to wash it down with liquid. The trouble with a food impaction is, if the liquid you try to force it down with doesn’t do the job, that liquid comes back up. So my tray started getting fizzy from the coke. I wasn’t choking, the food was just stuck on its way to my stomach. So although the cafeteria manager knew the Heimlich maneuver, that wasn’t going to help and in fact may have caused worse damage had he tried to do so. He sent me to the Health Clinic. They didn’t have the necessary means of assisting me, so they gave me strict instructions not to lay down but to go to the Emergency Room. Carrie (we were engaged at the time) took me to the ER. We waited in the waiting room…waited…waited…waited… After about an hour and a half (on top of the hour it had taken to go to the Health Clinic, see what they could/couldn’t do and then drive to the ER), I finally said to the folks at the front desk, “It is really hard having food stuck in your esophagus for over 2 hours, not being able to swallow any sort of liquid, including my own saliva. Can I please be seen soon?” They called me back a couple of minutes later.

Then I had to prove I was having this problem. They gave me 3 cups of water to attempt to drink. And the same thing happened with that that had happened in the cafeteria with my coke. The water came back up. So they paged the GI doc to come in and do a scope to push the food down through an endoscopy. At that point, the doctor at the ER told me to lay down. “Are you sure, because my Health Clinic said not to.” “Yes, I’m sure.” So I laid down, and within a minute I felt the food go down. [Note: this activity did not do the trick the next couple of times I had food impactions…that’s when I knew there was an underlying problem that needed to be addressed.] I told him I felt that. Being skeptical of this, he asked me to attempt to swallow three more glasses of water, which I did effortlessly. So they called the GI doc to return home since there was no need to perform the scope.

A few minutes later, the nurse came back with specific written instructions on how best to proceed, especially when consuming food. On the sheet in bold print were these words: “When eating, cut your food, especially meats, up into SMALL pieces and CHEW THOROUGHLY before attempting to swallow.

When God called Abram (Gen. 12), God said, “Go…to a land I will show you.”  In the creation account in Genesis 1, God had paused at the end of each day to enjoy & celebrate the work that had been done. “God saw how good it was”(CEB) – Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31. At the beginning of his venture in following God’s call, Abram stopped at various times, celebrated and worshiped the God who had revealed himself to Abram by building an altar unto the Lord (Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18). If eating a meal is anything like walking a journey, then we ought to take time to enjoy each of the courses and not rush through them. Trying to eat a steak in one bite will not only land you in the ER, it will also rob you of the joy of enjoying each savory bite.

Some speak of biting off more than one can chew. I had bitten off more than I could swallow. The same principle applies. But as grace would have it, I got to go back to campus that evening with no scars and only an embarrassing story to share. Ever since, I’ve tried not to eat the whole steak at once (literally & metaphorically). I must confess that I have failed a time or two though.

Oh and I did get to speak in chapel the next day. I guess they trusted that I wasn’t really going to choke. ;^)

If anyone I’ve ever known fit the bill for what John Wesley described as entire sanctification, it would be my Papaw (pronounced “paw paw”). Papaw loved the Lord his God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength and loved his neighbor as himself. Those who will have the burden of hearing me preach will doubtless hear many examples of how important this man has been in my life. Papaw died in 1998 and I miss him still.

Papaw and I in front of my hometown church, Oscar UMC. This picture actually made it to the cover of the Lexington Herald Leader one day, but that’s another story for another time. 🙂

One of Papaw’s spiritual gifts was that of encouragement. Being a recipient of God’s grace throughout his life and of generous support from his community during a difficult financial time, I witnessed Papaw give public and private support to others in a variety of ways in their time of need. One way his gift of encouragement manifested itself was in his craft of writing letters by hand. I was the recipient of such a letter after announcing to my family my intentions to enter into the ministry. I had just turned seventeen years old and declared these intentions at our usual family dinner (or you may call it lunch, depending on which sub-culture you live in) after church one Sunday. Later that week, I received a letter in the mail, which is pictured at the bottom of this post (in the caption is the letter’s contents, in case it’s illegible to you). This letter was the last one I received from him before his death later that year.

I share this letter with you because I have found myself opening this letter time and time again, not only for the sake of the fact that it was his last letter to me, but because of its rich and rather prophetic content. His words have proven true as my vocational journey has taken its interesting yet subtle twists and turns these last fourteen years. In particular, his affirming words that God would lead as I would pursue the area of service to which God was calling me and the final statement reminding of God’s presence with me come what may, have become etched in my memory. I think you might find his words could be applied more broadly as well, so I hope these words will encourage you!

To Jeffrey Wed PM Jan 14 1998 Dear Grandson,
Words cannot express my happiness, my appreciation for your announcement Sunday of your feeling and hearing God’s call for a deeper commitment to serve Him.
We do not think it too important for you to decide immediately the area of service you are to pursue – God will lead. But we do hereby pledge our full support, whatever it may be.
Sue & I will continue to pray for you daily (just as we have for many years). And not only for you but for each of our dear children and other grandchildren.
Just remember, always, that nothing can happen to you – no setback, no disappointment, no temptation – nothing that you & God together can not handle.
We love you.
Best regards,
Papaw