Sunday, April 01, 2007

“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

Eighteen years ago on this date, alone in my bedroom, on my knees, I embraced God’s “call” to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was with fear and trembling and a great sense of unworthiness, as well as a deep awareness of my sin and weakness, that I tearfully said “Yes” to the Lord. The next morning, which was a Sunday, I told my great grandfather. Later that morning, at church, I told my pastor. Thus began this unbelievable odyssey that I’ve been on for the last 18 years.

At the time I answered God’s “call”, I was a committed member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church—the denomination in which I was raised—and an active part of the local church of which my family had been a part for over 60 years, at the time. God’s “call” came within the context of a growing passion in my soul for the spiritual needs of the Black community. You see, my heart ached for the church, particularly “the people in the pew” who, in many cases, were starving for the “living bread” (John 6:51) in churches where the word of God wasn’t preached, spiritually wandering “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). My constant prayer for several months had been that of Saul, when struck down on the road to Damascus: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6 KJV). I desperately wanted to be used by God.

After I made my calling known to my local church and the denominational conference, I embarked on the five-year process to full ordination, and prepared myself for life as an “itinerant elder” (i.e., a pastor) until retirement or death, whichever came first. My main ambition was simply to preach God’s word, feed Christ’s sheep, and win the lost.

As you know, if you’ve followed this blog, the journey hasn’t been anything like I imagined it would be. I achieved ordination, but I never was appointed to a pastorate. The denomination I thought I would serve in for the rest of my life, I ended up leaving in disgust and disappointment. The institution of the Black Church, which I longed to serve, never (to date) embraced me as warmly as the predominantly White church where my family and I now fellowship. As a result of saying “Yes” to God 18 years ago, I have experienced great highs, but I’ve also experienced crushing lows. I’ve had my share of joy as well as pain. There have been times in ministry when I’ve thought, “Yes! This is what I was born to do!” At other times, my faith has been staggered by heartbreaking experiences of profound disappointment. If it weren’t for the grace of God, I wouldn’t be here:
If it had not been the LORD who was on our side
—let Israel now say—
if it had not been the LORD who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

Blessed be the LORD,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!

Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 124)
The apostle I most identify with is Peter. There have been times over the last several years when I’ve felt just like Peter must have felt when, after the resurrection, he tells the 6 other disciples with him, “I am going fishing”—going back to what he was doing before Jesus ever showed up (John 21). Perhaps, Peter felt it all had been a mistake. Certainly, Peter had messed up: he had denied his Lord. Whatever Peter’s hopes had been for ministry, most likely they had gone up in smoke. After all, the “movement” that Jesus led had fallen apart. The crowds from that first Palm Sunday had long gone. Judas Iscariot had hanged himself. So Peter says, “I’ll just go back to doing something I know how to do: fish.”

Eighteen years ago, I was a public school teacher, nearing the end of the second year of my first fulltime teaching job. Having perceived God’s call, my focus was set on ministry in the church. With all the closed doors and disappointments of the last 18 years, I’ve been sorely tempted to conclude that, perhaps, I made a mistake. Maybe God never called me to the ministry. Perhaps I’ve been self-deceived. Maybe I should just go back to doing something I know how to do: teach music.

But, then there is that well-known exchange between Jesus and Peter (John 21:15-17):
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
In the place of Peter in this text, I put myself: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

“Wyeth, feed my sheep.”

Eighteen years ago, 1 Corinthians 9:16 was laid on my heart:
For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
I still feel this burden, this “woe”. I still have the desire. I still see the need. I still long to be used by God…any way that He wants to use me. My prayer remains, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

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