Close your eyes with me for a minute. Imagine you are out in the middle of nowhere by yourself. Some of you will immediately be transported to the mountains; others will find yourself on the sandy shores of your favorite beach. Wherever you are, I want you to settle in, consider the sights, sounds, even the smells of what you regularly experience there.
Suddenly, you notice that there is a bush reasonably close but still outside your clear picture to see into it and not yet close enough to touch it. You may have seen bushes like this before, and you’d probably be inclined to ignore it.
Except that this bush is on fire. This bush has burst into flames but it is not being consumed by the fire. This bush is blazing hotter, stronger, more dangerously than any fire you have seen before, and yet it is not being burned up.
How do you feel? Do you move closer to see why it is on fire or do you move farther away for safety? Do you want to know more or are you afraid of what you might find? (You can open your eyes now.)
This story of Moses and his experience of the burning bush has been the one I most related to when it came to experiencing my call to become a full-time pastor. We’re often asked in ordination and pastoral conversations to share which figure from the Bible we most relate to. For me, it has been Moses.
Moses, who chooses to approach this burning bush, and accepts a call from God; Moses, who didn’t always get it right but did his best to be as faithful as he could be. Moses, who spends more time talking back and asking questions than saying “yes,” even when he’s directly interacting with God! Moses… who has a classic case of the nerves.
Are any of you nervous? Are any of you uneasy about the transition from one pastor to another? Are any of you experiencing a job change or a life change that makes you wonder what’s behind the burning bush – or what God is calling you, too?
As my family enters this next chapter of ministry, as I assume the mantel of Wesley’s next pastor, I will admit that I come to the burning bush with my own trepidations. But I also come with a healthy dose of excitement for what will be and passion for the good news of Jesus Christ – because I’ve seen how this story of Moses has played out in my life.
In Exodus 3 and in Luke 5:1-11, God calls people to the kingdom of God. They don’t know it at first, but they come to understand it. They have faith that God’s plan will work out good in the world.
Moses approaches the burning bush, out of curiosity it seems, and God calls out to Moses. God acknowledges that Moses is in a holy place, that God is the same God who Moses’ forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, worshipped. God references the suffering of God’s people in Egypt – and that God will use Moses to bring God’s people to freedom.
And Moses has excuses. Moses asks who Moses is that he would be the voice of God to Pharaoh and the people? Moses asks who he is supposed to say God is? And a little while later, Moses even asks God how Moses is supposed to talk, because he says he talks funny.
Moses’ excuses might sound different than mine or yours for the call of God on our lives. But we all have excuses. Like Moses though, God has always been working through, around, and over my excuses.
For me, the call originated loudly and persistently in college. I had grown up in a Christian home, the type where you went to church whenever it was open – some of you, I’m sure, can relate to that kind of church experience. But college, well…
Freshman year, I did it all. I was a card-carrying member of at least a dozen organizations by Christmas, and going to class was sometimes an afterthought to my co-curriculars. And I settled in as a participant and later leader in the on campus chapel services. That said, I found that life inside the Christian bubble had its own set of ‘hard knocks.’
In one of the organizations I participated in, Christianity was about abstaining from everything “the world” was involved in, and I wondered sometimes if I fit in there. The organization made the decision about participation easier for me; when I applied for a leadership position for the following year, I was told I had “too many non-Christian friends” to be a good fit there. (Somehow, they still asked me to lead a Bible study for the first years.) I went home that summer wondering where I fit into the picture of “Church” on campus, but confident that I had some straightening up to do of my life.
But during my sophomore year, a friend invited me to another organization, FCA, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. There were just ten students and two adults who lead the study and worship. Pretty soon, the guy who’d invited me stopped coming and I was left with nine football players… and me, the non-athlete. For as homogeneous as the school was, our group was different. And what we had grew under the right situations: prayer, a desire to share what we had, and some encouraging administrators who funded outreach. By the end of the second year, we had grown to a group of over one hundred, still multicultural, but now co-ed as well.
These situations made me recognize that I had experienced two kinds of campus ministers (broadly) in the half-dozen Christian campus ministries on campus: one group who knew the Bible and judged me severely by it, and one group who were less comfortable with the Bible than I was but who were culturally relevant. And while forty years my senior, the Scripturally-savvy and openly welcoming chaplain proved to be the kind of person I wanted to be (the happy medium) when I grew up. Which was about the time that God made it clear that maybe I was supposed to be that kind of minister, not one who was either too far one way or another.
Fast forward a year and a half, and I’m sitting in class at Asbury in the middle of Nowheresville, KY. I had heard that there was a solid, Biblical, academic reputation to the school, even though I didn’t know what a Methodist was yet, and so I went. (I might choose Duke Seminary should I ever get the call for a second degree, but here’s hoping my days in school are done. You know how that goes.) I didn’t know anyone, I’d never visited, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. (Did I mention I didn’t know what a Methodist was yet?)
Let’s be clear: I hated seminary. I was eight hours away from the woman of my dreams (although now I’m only a few pews away). I snapped my leg in half playing soccer while I was there and found myself alone (or so I thought). I flipped my car and totaled my parents’ graduation present to me. I found myself facing the inability to pay the bills to stay in school.
Life outside of the classroom was certainly interesting. Over the two and a half years I was there, I juggled several jobs to pay the bills: admissions work, work study data entry, water and sewer in town, tutoring at-risk boys, construction, serving cappuccinos near the University of Kentucky. I served at a local hospital (the first week, an elderly woman told people she’d been abused by a hospital employee but she’d only talk to the administrators if I was present) and a megachurch (fifteen hundred people came out to seven different services a week). I played basketball five days a week, volleyball twice a week, and Playstation with a few good friends until the wee hours of the morning… every day. In some ways, it was just an extension of college.
And yet God kept showing up, through people and situations over and over again, until I made it through. And yet, I am the man, the pastor, the husband, and the friend who I am today in part because of seminary. Isn’t that how God works sometimes?
Here’s Moses, in the middle of the wilderness with someone else’s sheep, far from the life he imagined as a kid.
Of course, he’d been the child of slaves and condemned to die. And yet, God snatched him up out of the basket in the Nile.
Of course, he’d been educated and raised as an Egyptian in the palace of Pharaoh. And yet, when he saw an Israelite being beaten severely, he defended the man to the death and ended on the run.
Of course, he found a safe place, far from the Egyptian hustle, with a wife and kids … in the middle of the wilderness. And yet, God found him anyway through a burning bush.
And yet…I’m a pastor today because in the midst of my wilderness, God showed up.
After graduation from seminary, I married Joanne and found a job. Soon I was working for a Methodist church – and volunteering as the campus minister for FCA at UR. [That’s a story for another day.] For now, it’s sufficient to know that I am in ministry but I don’t consider myself a minister.
And yet…I was asked to speak in the mid-2000s as the Saturday night, “come to Jesus” speaker at a District retreat. My senior pastor, Rhonda Van Dyke Colby, had been pushing (prodding?) me to take a renewed interest in the United Methodist ordination process, but I had rebuffed all of her efforts. But now I was faced with a situation I hadn’t been in before because we never considered FCA to be church: what would we do about communion?
The UMC’s Book of Discipline states that the laity don’t consecrate communion, but that elders do. At this retreat, on this night, at Eagle Eyrie in Lynchburg, I was going to present the message and I was supposed to explain communion to these four hundred kids. But in between, an elder had to step forward and consecrate the elements. I couldn’t do that. So, here were kids who were looking at me, having just presented the gospel, but I couldn’t be the one to serve them communion?
I walked to the back of the auditorium in tears. There could be no more running. There could be no more stalling, denial, or doubt about it. I was supposed to get ordained.
I was offered the one-year job of interim associate chaplain at UR with the potential for an extension. Having respected, admired, even idolized the chaplain during my time as a student, this was my dream job. Unfortunately, the interim period ended the following spring, and I experienced what it’s like to lose a dream at the ripe, old age of thirty. And yet…
In 2008, I was appointed to a local UMC in Prince George, Va. After eight years, I have been through the training to plant churches but I’ve never planted a church; I’ve helped a church plant become part of an established church setting. I’ve married, buried, and baptized people. I’ve counseled couples and preached over four hundred sermons! And the guy who didn’t think he’d ever be the pastor of a local church was ordained in 2012!
For right now, I’m clear where I am supposed to be, here at Wesley with all of you. In Jeremiah 29, it says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” I’ve seen God’s grace show up again and again, in the midst of my wilderness, my wandering, my questions.
God is always the and yet.
I’m very aware that I didn’t choose this, it chose me. Or maybe more correctly, God chose me. God’s plan from birth til now has prepared me along the way, in the same way that Mowgli’s friends prepare him for a dangerous life in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. I haven’t danced like a bear or roared like a panther (lately), but the journey helps prepare us for the next mile as we go.
So close your eyes again with me. You’re standing in your place, the mountains, the beach, your back yard. Before you is a bush ablaze, a burning tree, a spectacle of flaming foliage that is yet unburnt. God speaks to you, reminding you that you are God’s, that God has been and always will be with you.
What is God calling you to? Who is God sending you for? What vision of the kingdom of God do you see unfolding before you?
Do not be afraid now, but open your eyes. Where you are is holy ground.
God is here in our wilderness and in our land of plenty.
There will be work, and challenge, and even struggle ahead.
And yet… God is here.