Setting up chairs in the Fellowship Hall for our Sunday evening worship service and taking out the trash after a potluck dinner were as much a part of my growing up as going to school. In my family, we were regularly the first ones there at First United Methodist Church in Live Oak, FL, and the last ones to leave.
I kid my Dad about it being his fault that I’m afraid of the dark because he’d usually send my older brother, James, and me to make sure all the lights were out before we left for home. Walking through the darkened sanctuary and down creeky hallways was a bit on the scary side for me as a kid.
My fear of the dark aside, I grew up in the church, and I loved it. FUMC in Live Oak was family for me in the way you hope church should be. Most of my biological family lived in Alabama, so my family became the people I worshipped with, ate and played with, and also happened to go to school with. My family and three others in the church became each others’ family. I like to say I grew up with 4 sets of Moms and Dads, and I still think of all of them that way.
Growing up in the church, I learned to have a servant’s heart by watching and imitating my Dad, who answered the call to licensed ministry in The UMC while I was in high school. From my Mom, I learned–and am still learning–about prayer and compassion for others. Mr. Bero, a World War II veteran, adopted me as his grandson and taught me the saving grace of a good joke and how powerful it is when an adult invests their life in a child’s.
When I was twelve I went on my first week-long mission trip with my paternal grandparent’s church, First United Methodist Church, from Haleyville, Alabama. We went to Ojo Amarillo, NM on the Navajo Reservation. After that first trip, I went back nine more times. On the reservation, I encountered a Christian faith that was young, sincere, and costly. When they prayed, they expected something was going to happen. And when they said yes to Jesus, that meant saying no to their traditional religion.
The Christianity I met on the Reservation stood in contrast with what I knew from Live Oak, where being a Christian was the same thing as being a resident of the county. You just were one.
But I left the Reservation hungry and more committed to my faith. I was reading the Bible more, and looking for opportunities to apply what I was reading. By the time I made it to high school, I’d moved from “reading” to “studying” and even earnestly “searching the Scriptures.”
Youth group, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and mission trips gave me opportunities to practice leadership in the church and work out what I was beginning to sense as a calling into ministry. The story that shaped my sense of calling was when Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, and when Peter said yes, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” I’ve always taken that to mean feed God’s people with the bread of life (God’s Word) and also to be devoted to serving my neighbors.
At some point I guess most of us come to a place where we have a pretty good idea of where God is leading us in our lives, yet we still find a way to try to wriggle out of it. When I was in college I tried to negotiate with God and come up with some other ways to serve the kingdom that I imagined might be more practical or useful, something like a doctor or an engineer or a teacher. Before I boarded a ship for Tarshish, some wise mentors and friends helped me remember my first love and find peace and excitement about a calling into ministry.
After college, and a year of working in my home church in Children’s and Youth Ministries, I was off to seminary at Duke Divinity School. In seminary I learned an even deeper love for God through the gifts of prayer and scripture. And the Spirit taught me that I cannot be in ministry without being involved in schools and prisons/jails. I learned in my United Methodist polity class that my new found loves and convictions were as Methodist as potlucks and committee meetings. In seminary I knew for sure that The UMC is my home.
I grew up in the church, and there isn’t one moment that I can point to and say, “There, that’s the moment I became a Christian.” It’s more like I’ve been becoming a Christian my whole life. My life has been full of surprising moments when Jesus showed up and led me in a new way or the right way, when he called me deeper or stretched me further. All the time, I feel like God’s working extra hard on cultivating in me one or another of those fruit of the Spirit.
Since becoming a parent, I find I’m meeting and relating to God in entirely new ways. So many of my prayers begin and end with “Thank you”, and sometimes that’s the middle part too. I’m seeing, for what feels like the first time, how all of life is a gift. Lea and I are experiencing in profound ways what it means when the Bible describes God as our parent who loves us, is patient with us, and always wants what’s best for us. Rocking Nathanael in my arms ,I realize what a sacred thing it is to entrust our children and our own lives into God’s good hands, and to know that God has proven time and again that He is trust-worthy.
In The United Methodist Church we talk about having the assurance of God’s Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. That assurance isn’t the finish line; it’s the starting line. See, we also talk about growing in holiness, to the point of being filled with nothing but the love of God alone. I’ve been becoming a Christian for a long time. I kind of expect that will still be true at Murphy FUMC. We’ll seek the kingdom of God together. We’ll pray and serve together. I’ll learn from you. We’ll learn from Jesus. And together we’ll see God surprise us with grace and do infinitely more than we could ever ask or imagine.
*My next post will be a Frequently Asked Questions kind of post. If you have questions you’d like for me to take a crack at, you can leave them here as a comment or send them to me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).