Ten years ago today, I stood in a church in Salisbury, North Carolina, and affirmed solemn vows that would mark the course of the rest of my life.
To answer your next query, Christy and I were already married with two children, so these weren't our marriage vows. The sanctuary was playing host to a worship service that involved my ordination to the ministry as a Presbyterian clergyman. It was a day that was a blur, as almost all the members of the small congregation that I would serve were there.
It was a church revitalization project that would become more daunting in the weeks and months ahead, as it always does after the honeymoon period. I was entering public ministry with a head full of dreams that I prayed aligned with God's own, as well as with a firm hope that if one preached the Bible faithfully and reached out to others, God would give your church whatever reproducing it needed for that time.
Things didn't quite turn out that way over the following fifteen months. I haven't been able to seriously consider going back into church ministry since then, mainly because teaching fits better (and sometimes I joke that I'm holding out for the Anglicans to make a better offer). But in looking back on that day, I found that what was shared and implored when I was ordained was not for me when I served as a pastor in Salisbury. It was meant for the rest of my life. If there was a theme for the day, it was a spot-on match with the words of St. John Chrysostom when he said, "My work is like that of a man who is constantly cleaning a patch of earth into which a muddy stream is forever flowing."
One memory of that afternoon came from Jamie Hunt. Jamie has since retired as the senior pastor of Coddle Creek Presbyterian Church, just a half hour west of where we were gathered that day. In all my dealings with Jamie, I have found him to be a gracious Southern gentleman and who never turned down someone in need. Jamie gave the charge to me as the incoming pastor and new ordinand. He didn't back down from what I would face in the time ahead--and it made me wonder if he had an inkling about it. But his point was that there would be some bomb craters and bullets given enough time. And sometimes I would be leading and then looking back before realizing I was the only one trying to take the hill. But if God wanted me there, God would sustain me, Jamie said. Yet what is right and good is not necessarily popular, even with God's people. "The day may come," he said, pointing at me with pastoral affection, "when you may have to stand alone."
The other memory of that time occurred later that evening. My father, who is still going in ministry like the Energizer bunny, was the one I asked to preach at the service. It also happened to be thirty-five years to the same weekend when he was ordained in a small Presbyterian church in northeast Kansas (which, no offense to Tar Heels everywhere, I would take over North Carolina any day of the week). Dad left a note behind when he and Mom left, and I still have that letter to this day because it has driven so much of what I do in my job as an Ethics teacher or an occasional preacher.
Dad began by admitting he'd been thinking for some time about the biblical picture of "the man of God with the Word of God", who stands--as it were--with "only" the Word.
Dad continued, "That is where I pray you take your stand, with no reason to be ashamed...It is an amazing pleasure to be with you at your ordination. It is thirty-five years ago this weekend when I was in your position. As I look back, I can't claim many ripe successes. I can honestly say that a ministry under the Word is neither highly lauded nor particularly easy. But it is the only refuge for you and God's people...You and Christy are ever in our prayers."
Those words and the truth behind them sustained me through the failure and frustration of my labors until we were delivered to another field of fruitful ministry. For whatever reason, knowing about that "only refuge", kept me plowing back into the Bible, trying to preach it as carefully and compassionately as I could, and God would do whatever he did, and that would be fine. The perspective Dad gave was extraordinarily liberating. And in a world of ministerial moral failure due to either sexual proclivities or heavy-handed tactics (I brushed on this in my "open letter" post), it peels back all the man-made layers of supposed success and forces one to rely on Christ. Which is the point of faith all along.
Since that day, I've seen others enter the ministry. I used to think of it as a celebration of God's provision. Now I feel more like we're back in 1914 commissioning British lads to go off to the trenches of Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele. Ordination is a starting line, not a finish line, and my celebration is always cautious, if it arises at all.
But whenever I pass on hope and advice, I use my dad's words. A couple years back, the husband of one of my former students had landed a position as discipleship pastor at a church near Indianapolis. We had corresponded leading up to this (and now have the added cyber-fellowship of being Facebook friends and Twitter followers) and as he was set to embark on his new endeavor, I felt it only right to send Tom a letter to encourage him.
And nothing else made more sense in it than echoing my father words: A ministry under the Word is neither highly lauded, nor particularly easy, but it is the only refuge for you and God's people.
Ten years since that day, and that refuge is becoming more a part of me than it was before.