Wednesday, March 25, 2015

FINDING MY MISSION FIELD




When I was 12 years old, I fell in love with the movie, ""Born Free", and the music and the African countryside.  My mother has reminded me since that it was then that I started talking about being a missionary.

As an adult, I always had a soft spot for missionaries, and often wondered what had happened to my yearning to be one myself.  When I was 34 years old, I was marrying for the second time.  Our church was involved with mission work in Tanzania, and the yearning started again.  I got a pen pal who was an evangelist in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, and every time I read her letters I cried and cried.  I wasn't sad, just filled with the Holy Spirit.

My husband told me, "If you want to go to Papua New Guinea, go ahead.  I'll be here waiting for you when you return."  That was a wonderful idea, I thought.  But how could I go to Papua New Guinea when I had three children to raise?  How could this happen?  So I began to pray about this idea.  Some time later, God responded to my request.  I felt that God was telling me that if I couldn't minister to my own people, in my own town, in my own home and family, I had no business looking to minister to people half way across the world.  Really?  Could God really be saying this to me?  What about my yearning to be part of the mission field, and this support from my husband?  

I was very disheartened.  In the next few years, I studied through our synod's Lay School for Mission which was a 2-year program meant to deepen and strengthen your faith to prepare you for many things: a stronger faith and walk with Jesus; more active participation in your church; or answering the call to go on to seminary.  Going to Lay School was my quest for being a missionary.  I wanted more, and wanted to know more, and wanted to know Jesus.  

As a student in Lay School, I met many others from many walks of life.  Judy and I each had an Associate Degree, and at that time had heard of a man who went to seminary (which is a Masters Degree program) with only an Associate Degree.  So that became our quest.  We felt called to the ministry and started looking at seminary with our 2-year degrees.  Although I can't speak for Judy, I can tell you that I wondered how I was going to carry this out, with children to raise and no financial means of support.  These were the same questions I had when I wondered about being a missionary.  I prayed, but seemed so sure that this was the answer, that I left God out of the process. So when the answer came back that I did not have enough education to enter seminary, I was again very disheartened.

I continued on in Lay School.  One of the classes was a preaching class.  I was scared out of my wits and kept telling myself that I would do this one sermon because it was a class requirement, but that I was never going to preach anywhere.  (Smile)  God had other plans for me.  I started preaching for absences in my own church, mostly around July 4th and the Sunday after Christmas when my own pastor had vacation.  I preached at other small local churches for vacations and when there was a vacancy.  The Holy Spirit moved me again, by tears of joy, and the ability to speak His word to many people, many churches, many towns. At one time I was leading worship at the Presbyterian church in my own town at 10:30 am. and would drive to Covington, an hour or so west to preach at the 4:00 pm. service once a month.  I recall driving the hour and a half trip Skanee, north of L'Anse, on such a snowy morning, no one was on the road.  

I continued filling the pulpits for many years, and felt God had revealed my Mission Field. I enjoyed it.  I loved meeting the people of the many congregations, and hearing their stories.  I loved praying for them, and I loved the preparation each week for the sermon.  I loved what I was learning.  I wanted more, wanted to know more, and wanted to share the Jesus I had come to know.  As time went on, my opportunities to fill the pulpit started to lessen, as my own life changed, and with my work schedules.  During the time I was employed part-time, I still had the dedicated time needed to prepare every week.  But when I began to work full-time, now with teenagers, I found it very difficult to focus in a way that was necessary, so I removed myself from the pulpit supply list.

Every now and then I would hear that a small, rural church in our synod was looking for a pastor or lay pastor (who may be a graduate of Lay School).  I wondered if one could be my Mission Field but I soon became resigned to not serving God in this way. My job was needed to supplement our income, and I knew I couldn't do both. I became involved in my own congregation and served in many of the ministries, but I always felt something was missing.  And every now and then I would think of how I once wanted to be a missionary or a pastor, but that God had revealed this was not his plan.

A few years ago, the pastor left the Presbyterian church, and one of their members that was a graduate of the Lay School was appointed to fill his position.  During Mary's time as CRE (Commissioned Registered Elder), I filled in for her while she was on vacation, and when she was recovering from a serious fall that involved injury to her neck.  While there, I was as comfortable as I always was as far back as 1999.  I started to recall the many memories I had of preaching, singing, praying and sharing fellowship with the members and how they were like a second home church to me.  I recalled the members who had passed away since I was there last, and how much their presence in that church was still felt.  

When Mary announced her retirement, I was called to fill in like the many other lay people who were also filling in.  I wondered again if God had me in mind for this opening. But something was notably different for me now.  It was a real struggle to prepare a sermon.  I prayed.  I listened. I read. I hoped.  Something was lost in me that I couldn't seem to recapture.  For the first time in many years, I felt like I should not be in the pulpit, and I couldn't shake the feeling that this was not where God wanted me. 

The feeling that God was tugging at me, that he was pushing me to do something was so immensely overwhelming, I was confused. I tried to listen to what God was saying to me, but didn't get a clear picture. During this time of contemplation, I joined Motions Fitness club with my own personal trainer to work on relieving hip and shoulder pain I couldn't manage.  Soon my list of personal goals and abilities, "I can't do this, I never thought I could do this, I didn't ever think of doing this.." began to grow and change.  I was changing my thinking, I was learning about being healthy, I was starting to feel better than I ever felt.  With the physical changes came emotional trials.  My personal trainer was like a personal coach, a confidante, a true friend.  It wasn't long and the tears started.  Every day I cried.  I cried when I worked out.  I cried when I was home.  I cried and cried. I wasn't sad. The Holy Spirit was working in me.  

Although I had always wanted God's plan for me, I never prayed that he would change me and reveal his plan through my participation at a fitness club! I began to feel so comfortable there, that I felt that other than my own home, this was where I could truly be me.  This was very odd for I had never really participated in any kind of physical fitness; and yet very comforting, that I had found a place to be me. We don't know how God will reveal himself to us and that is a very good thing!  We give him some ideas, and even pray that "this" will work out the way we want it, because we think know best, and give God a few suggestions.  As my bi-weekly sessions produced strength and confidence, I could see that it was not only my weakness in muscle strength that needed attention.  I admitted that God was pushing me - where?  I didn't know - but that the feeling was stronger and stronger, more like a nagging.  

In the fall I went to the Salvation Army to interview them about their 140th anniversary, their history in our city.  A Chamber of Commerce article would share their mission and activities with a greater area, and timed perfectly before Christmas.  Something happened to me while I was there.  I took a tour through their facility, which until that day I had never thought of as a church.  Inside their doors were the Captain's office, receptionist office, office manager's office, the sanctuary, a full size gym, dining room/fellowship hall, kitchen and food pantry.  I figured if I didn't know all this was behind the doors on Division Street, I would be willing to bet many others didn't either.  The Office Manager spent some time telling me about the different requests for help they get year around, and their programs.   I felt ashamed in a way, that I had never been in there; that I didn't think about the Salvation Army as a church; and that I had been judgmental about who received services from them.  I was so humbled by the work they do.  There were two words that stuck with me, and forever changed my mind about the mission of the Salvation Army - "No Exceptions".  They extended the love of Jesus to all who need them, with No Exceptions.  I had seen the active love of Jesus in my own community.  I couldn't think of one faith community in town, that offered the hand of Jesus with No Exceptions.  

As I started to feel the changes in me taking hold, I joined a bell choir, which I always wanted to do, at the neighboring Lutheran Church. I also realized that it wouldn't be easy to belong to one church while participating at another.  I had already dealt with this when I sang with another Lutheran church's choir for their Advent cantata the previous two years. It often seems unusual for such a small area to have four Lutheran churches, who are all proud of their heritage and mission.  So to be on one side of the street instead of the side you've been on for sixty years, is really a big thing.  I enjoyed learning to play the bells and attending worship services there so much.  I started to attend an Advent Bible study there too. I spoke with the pastor about this nagging and nudging I felt from God.  He was very understanding and listened intently.  Then he told me that he would not approach me about transferring my membership, that it would be something I should take time with.  Then all the confusion and wondering about this nagging and nudging from God started to be revealed in the Bible studies for five weeks.  So the tears started again.  Tears.  Not sadness, but tears. 

Early in December I decided to attend worship at the Presbyterian church where I had preached many times.  There was an interim pastor who I had heard was dynamic, and who was leading Bible study, with many members claiming they had never known so much about the Bible until his studies. I attended worship.  He was dynamic.  The new organist was just as dynamic.  I couldn't wait to get back there the next Sunday, I wanted to be filled with the Word, to experience this dynamic love-filled worship.  I contacted two of my friends who once attended the same Lutheran church as I, but had since become discouraged.  I told them, "You better come to worship at the Presbyterian church because you don't know what you're missing."

The next Sunday, I was so excited to go to church there again.  I went to the Advent Bible study at the other Lutheran church, then went to the Presbyterian church early.  No one was sitting there, it was peaceful. The organist was rehearsing. Then a member I know said the pulpit assistant wasn't able to come and she had to read, but was very nervous.  I told her I'd do it because I love to read aloud.  The old testament reading was from Isaiah.  I got the shivers.  I had sung this text last December for the Advent cantata, but didn't remember it was scripture.  I began to sing the scripture/song.  She asked me, "Did you feel that?  I just felt something go through me."  I smiled. The Holy Spirit was working again.

I sat in front and read the texts as pulpit associate that morning.  Before the reading of the gospel and sermon, I stepped down and sat in the first row.  The pastor read the text and came down on the floor to deliver his sermon to the people.  It was as dynamic as the week before.  Near the end of his sermon he said something like this, "If you want to grow your membership, you're going to have to change.  You need to invite people in and you might say to them, 'You better get over to the Presbyterian church because you don't know what you're missing.'"  I teared up.  These were the exact words I said to my friends the week before! He concluded his sermon and asked if there were any comments. 

I raised my hand and said, "Yes."  What I did and said next was so uncharacteristic of me or of anything I've ever done.  I said, "Those are the exact words I used with my friends last week! I told them to get over here because they don't know what they're missing."  By this time I was crying, and I stood up and walked over to the front of the church.  I continued to cry and cry and sob, and tell them how God had been nagging at me, how I felt he was somehow telling me that I am to serve him, by serving my community (26 years ago he told me that), but that I didn't know how;  and how when I interviewed the Salvation Army for their history, I was somehow changed; about how I felt an urging to pray for the drug addicts of our town and how I was so thankful for being able to share this with them that morning.  I continued to cry and look out at them, never once feeling that my actions or comments were inappropriate for church, never once feeling that they were judging me or were uncomfortable with me pouring out my heart.  I felt so safe and so welcome.  I told them that I believed God was calling me to worship beyond the four walls of my own Lutheran church but I didn't yet understand what it was all about. During my tears I heard people saying, "Praise the Lord,"  "We're glad you're here."  

I asked the pastor if I could hug him, which I did, and then I sat down, totally drained, still crying some and feeling so awesomely wonderful.  The next part of worship was telling of our joys, and he declared that I was a joy that day.  "We don't know where Sue is going to end up, but she is welcome here, and we will pray for her on this journey."   I attended Bible study there on a very snowy night two days later.  I asked them to keep my comments confidential as I shared my concerns of leaving my family church where six generations had been baptized, and where my elderly mother still attends.  I asked for their prayers as I planned to talk with my mother and the pastor.  And before the evening ended I looked across the table and spoke words of forgiveness to a long-time member who had given me a rough time in years past as a fill-in preacher.  The Holy Spirit was working in me in so many many ways.  The tears were there again, and again and again, as each week I celebrated the love of Jesus with the Presbyterians, and each week more and more answers were revealed to me.

I had been wondering if God was calling me to become active in the Salvation Army. Becoming a member of a church has been something I hadn't really thought about to any degree.  I had become a member of the family of God with my baptism in my family's Lutheran church as an infant.  I confirmed my beliefs in the triune God and in the theology of the Lutheran church at my confirmation when I was 16 years old. After my divorce, I was invited to attend the Episcopal church in town by a co-worker who knew I was really struggling.  I became very active there and was confirmed there too.  The community and support I received while a parishioner there were everything I needed during that difficult stage of my life.  Then one day my four-year old daughter asked if we could go back to "Gramma and Grandpa's church", so we returned to the Lutheran church I was raised in.  And until this nagging and nudging, I have been active there.

Becoming a member of another Christian church is something I am giving great thought and prayer to.  I have had to ask myself what it means to be a member anywhere; and what I would gain from becoming a member. Am I interested because of the dynamic pastor?  Is the music a draw for me? How do my spiritual gifts fit with their mission? Am I approaching membership with the right intentions? How does the congregation react with other churches in the community, and what is their relationship to the community itself?  Do they listen to to each member's needs? 

A couple of weeks ago, the movie that interested me in Africa when I was young, "Born Free," was on TV. A flood of memories and mission fields came into my mind: from Africa, to Papua New Guinea, to serving God in my community, to No Exceptions.  God directed me 26 years ago as he is directing me now.  I am to serve my community - that is my Mission Field, to the Glory of God, through intentional ministries, by helping those who need the love of Jesus - No Exceptions. 

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