Monday, June 24, 2019

Compassion Has an Army: Reflecting on my Training & Ordination

Moments of joy shaken together with moments of terror. Two years ago God called me to Chicago where I would be trained as a minister. I didn’t know how I could possibly do such a thing. But God made it possible when it was clearly impossible. Having overcomed all the trials, all the ups and downs of the two years of training, the time was here. Having served in St. Charles, St. Louis, Albert Lea, and Rochester Minnesota, I had come to the end!

We had done it together, truly. We were messengers of compassion together. We couldn’t have done it apart. We had become a family, brothers and sisters.

We'd come to commissioning. Standing on stage in Milwaukee in front of five hundred people wasn’t the scariest part. It was stressful, don’t get me wrong. But what lay ahead was much more overwhelming. Soon we'd be going out as ministers! 

We all put on good faces. No problem right?  But the truth is it is a bit nerve-wracking. Most people don’t really have it all together, they just pretend to. Most people feel as weak and vulnerable as you do. That’s what I’ve learned. They may be able to play it cool better than you, but they’re just as afraid within.

Walking across the stage, to stand in front of the commissioners was like walking through a dream. I don’t know if you’re really sure it’s happening at the moment. Perhaps like Mr. Anderson from the Matrix we accept what we see because we’re expecting to wake up. But I think I accepted it because it was simply what was happening, and I had no choice in the matter. I couldn’t freeze time and go take a nap, as much as I wanted to.

They shouted my name over the microphone and I walked out. I was hoping I wouldn't trip. There I was, ordained, and about to be commissioned! What an incredible journey!

Fast forward to today, and I have to pinch myself and think, “I’m an ordained minister. I’m an officer. It really happened.”

What does that mean anyway? I thought of myself as ministering long before today. I served as a minister in many ways, this just gave the official title. The pride could be dangerous when considering such things! But it was real. Part of God’s call is an outward acknowledgement from the organization, the leaders, and the people around you that this is indeed a true call and commission. That says a lot. We can all have plenty of delusions, but it’s people around us who help reflect what is actually true.

I remember seeing some of my friends from my sister session a year later after they’d been ordained and appointed. Their faces looked chiseled. They looked like they’d aged a bit. They looked like they carried more concerns than in the past. That is the way of things I suppose. We wear our hearts on our faces. The rigors of ministry wear through to the physical.

We all hear the whispers of people leaving the work, and being overwhelmed and burnt out. But I always tell myself, like many times in the past, I’m not a statistic. I’m not a number. I’ve beaten the odds my whole life. 99 out of 100 drug addicts in the level of addiction I once carried never make it out. I beat the odds there.

But I always wondered, from time to time, will I be one of those number that can’t handle the ministry? When I’m really put under real daily pressure, for weeks, months, and years, will I crack like an egg? Will I show my true colors and run like a dog with my tail between my legs? That fear often lingered during my time at my internship and at training college. I wondered if I could really do it. And of course I know the answer to that: Nope. I can’t. But in Christ I can do anything. God makes it possible. We often imagine the future and catastrophize it. Why? Because we’re imagining a future without God.

My trust in the Lord had been somewhat shaken in the past. I was astonished to realize that I would be going out as a single officer. For some reason that was terribly shocking to me. I was so sure that I would meet someone in training. I was so sure God would line it up perfectly, so that we’d go out together. I dared to dream a beautiful dream that this would happen. But it had certainly not happened, no, not at all. And the dread realization came upon me in the closing months of training that I would indeed be going out by myself. And this fact troubled me greatly, until I simply came to accept it, and allow God’s will and not mine to be done.

The trick I played on myself was convincing myself that this idea was of God. But apparently it wasn’t. It sure felt right at the time. But feelings are not always accurate or correct. God is sovereign. That’s the truth. Any time that I’ve ever tried to impose a requirement, a caveat, or a restriction on what God does in my life, it’s always been quickly broken by God. This continues to this very day. We don’t get any input on what we do or don’t do for God. He’s the King, we’re the servants. And that’s OK, his plan has always been much better than mine.

The messengers of compassion were a wonderful session to be a part of. There are some really Godly people in our ranks. But of course we had our problems as well. We didn’t always get along. But much of the time we did get along. I became friends with several in my session. And I became friends with several in both my sister sessions. I had my own distinct niche’ in the session, just like many of us did. Scott the servant heart. Dena was the nurse. Nate the financial guru. Henry was the class clown. Josh was the studious esquire. Shannell was the cautious planner one. Karen was the outspoken photo-taker. I was the outspoken bookworm nerd. We all fit together rather well.

I will never forget first year bell ringing. It was a very very challenging time for me. Some people in my session really liked bell ringing, I can’t say I was one of them. But my session mates got me through all of that. During Christmas we did plays at the schools, a play called Pete the cat. I don’t think I’ve ever been so far outside my comfort zone as being an introvert in a blue Pete the cat outfit on stage in front of a hundred elementary school kids dancing and singing Christmas songs. I was so insanely nervous during the play that Scott and Dena had to whisper my lines to me.

My favorite class was theology of John Wesley with Captain Matt. We studied John Wesley's sermons and then got together and talked about the deep issues within them. It was all messengers of the gospel and me and one other MOC.  I loved it.  We debated and discussed a lot.  And we came to a point of discussion that is a classic consideration: Can we really be holy? And almost all of us came to the conclusion that we could not.  But the class made me re-evaluate holiness, and later on I came to believe that we can be holy.  It seems impossible, but with God all things are possible.  Fleshing it out in open discussion was amazing, and transformative. 

My holiness journey came to a head when Bill and Diane Ury came to campus and shared the word with us.  They described holiness as being yielded to Christ. That made a lot of sense to me. Being filled with Christ then naturally transforms us, and our actions and viewpoints are changed.  I met with a mutual mentor in the basement in the prayer room and we prayed and begged God for holiness in Christ.  It was a huge turning point in my walk with God.

Summer assignment at the St. Louis ARC was an absolute delight. I really fell in love with the drug/alcohol treatment stuff during the summer. The opportunities for ministry were non-stop, and the altar was always full with desperate men seeking hope and redemption at the feet of Jesus. I hope I can somehow find my way into that ministry in the future, it is beautiful beyond words. We went to a homeless shelter and handed out tracts and talked with people about Jesus. We got together in Bible study with guys desperate to learn more about God.  We traveled to recovery groups and brought men with to learn how to stay sober.  I loved it. So much ministry, all day every day!

The experiences of my second year were challenging and at the same time expressions of God’s refinement in my character. In fact the entire two years in seminary felt like a constant spiritual battle. Trial after trial came and each one brought new difficulties to overcome. But whenever one was overcome, I found myself stronger, more powerful in God, and more confident in Christ. That’s the main work of training, spiritual warfare, which is fighting to grow in Christ. We’re placed in the refiner’s fire for two years and forged like hot metal. It was very difficult but I was transformed. What made it much more doable over time was clinging to God in prayer. My prayer, devotional, and bible reading life was stretched by God to encompass much more time that it had previously. What had been 20-30 minutes, became an hour and more. That’s the only reason I survived, was through extensive prayer and study of the word.

My second year Christmas in Rochester was a really wonderful experience. It solidified my own understanding of why I loved what I did. It was tough and sometimes exhausting, but the joy in reward was far beyond any difficulty. We did the usual duties, nothing too fancy, kettles and more kettles, Christmas toys, feeding programs, community meetings, and so on. It helped me embrace the hard work and strategic financial realities of ministry. I was very blessed to have wonderful officers over my field training experiences, the Thielkes, the Muellers, and the Montenegros. It’s nice to have people that are experienced, and good at what they do. 

One thing that got me through training was playing basketball on mondays. We took that time very seriously, and it was a very special thing for all of us who played.  I loved it.  We loved it.  It was a sacred time.

As time passed we finally began to count down the last one hundred days at training. It seemed to drag on forever. But slowly and surely, the days disappeared until finally we had reached commissioning weekend. 

I had become a bit burned out by the last quarter. I was just ready for it to be over, and to go out and do what God called me to do. I could tell others felt the same way. I'd been praying for commissioning, and praying for the moves as they were being prepared. I just kept asking God to send us each exactly where we were supposed to be.  I was sure God's will would be done. 

I had family there in Milwaukee, including my mom, step dad, sister, dad, uncle, grandma, aunt, and others.  My crew from the home corps in Escanaba was there, ten of them all together. I kept randomly running into people I knew from the territory on the way in to the Friday evening meeting, and the Saturday morning sessions.  I realized I was no outsider to the territory, though I had occasionally felt like an outsider in Chicago.  

Bill and Diane Ury, quoting from the Seven Spirits by William Booth, talking about the desperate desire to have compassion for others, when we realize that we often don't.  Oh how guilty I am.  How often have I been so self-absorbed that I failed to really put myself into someone elses situation.  I was too focused on the selfie, my wants, my desires, my schedule, and always trying to find ways to make myself look good.  At the gym, on Facebook, in front of the boss, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile people are lonely, hurting, addicted, caught up in sin, and what am I doing for them?  Not enough, certainly not enough. 

I kept wanting so badly to evangelize in the community around the college.  I wanted so badly to share Jesus. Jesus changes everything.  And the truth is God gave me opportunities from time to time to do that, over the two years.  But those times were too few and far between. Going out with Chicago for Jesus street team, the Picasso event both years, talking with homeless, getting to know the people at Starbucks, meeting the guy by Wrigley, but those were such few experiences. And so many are in such great need!  

These were some of the thoughts in my head as I listened to Bill and Diane Ury speak.  The Seven Spirits is one of my favorite books. It was first recommended to me by a fellow officer from the eastern territory, Lt. Esker. It's about one hundred pages of notes from sermons and messages and lectures that William Booth gave to his officers, about how to be officers.  It's an absolute must read.  I love it.  I love how raw it is, and how theologically incorrect it is.  Theologically incorrect in that it doesn't mince words or try to make things seem fluffy, it talks about heaven, hell, mercy, wrath, and the desperate aching need for all to know Jesus before time runs out.  We need more of that desperation today. 

Of course I was just counting down until Sunday, the big day.  But it was all great.  It was perfect.  It was beautiful.  It was Spirit filled.  I felt God at work.  The Silver Star was amazing, as I imagined it would be.  So grateful to be able to connect with my parents and my mentor, and express my love, admiration, and appreciation for their support in this venture.  My Grandma was there to receive appreciation as my mentor.  I thanked her that Grandpa and her prayed for me, and shared the love of Jesus with me, and gave me my first Bible, and kept praying and praying when I was lost in addiction.  I thanked my Mom for praying for me, and inviting me to church, and continuing to reach out to me for all those years.  I thanked my Dad for being there through thick and thin, always willing to help, and drive me to rehab, and help me get through court and probation. My divisional commanders from WUM were there to show love and support. It was great. 

Then Sunday came... We marched in for the morning service.  It was of course very formal, sober, and reverent.  I enjoy that very much actually.  I enjoy the sacredness of those moments.  I loved watching the flag marched in by our session flag bearer Abby.  She did a fantastic job.  Greg recited that officer's covenant.  I was so happy in how we recited the doctrines, from memory.  It went really well.  One by one we walked up, being ordained and commissioned.  They gave me a scripture that fit me perfectly, everyone thought so.  It was Titus 2:1 which reads, "You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine."  Perfect, indeed. Everyone who knows me knows I love the truth of God's word so much, and I'm deeply committed to teaching the whole council of God.  I watch what I say and write and share very carefully, because I want to honor God in how I do it.  It's really important to me that I teach what is true, not what I like or prefer.  It would break my heart to find out that I hid away the parts of the gospel and the word of God that I found distasteful or contrary to my own personal preferences.  But the truth is, Titus 2:1 is not just a scripture that fits me perfectly.  It fits all of us perfectly.  Each of us must have an unbiased commitment to teach whatever is in the word, whether it rubs against our personal opinions or not.  Our job is not to teach what we prefer, or what we like about the gospel, instead our job is to faithfully preach all of the word, the feel good, the challenging, even the scandalous, and everything in between. 

The morning ordination service was really powerful.  It almost felt like it wasn't really happening!  It felt like a dream, standing backstage in line.  Is this really happening?  It must be happening, because I'm here.  We concluded the morning service, and went over for lunch and to change our uniforms. 

Me and my buddy Henry were joking around back stage. I was missing my buddy Anil. He couldn't make it because his son was being born. Valid excuse. I was closest with Anil, Henry, Joshua, and Jack during training. Anil was so sure that God was gonna line things up so him and Karen could be there, well, God threw a curveball, and that's how God rolls. He is totally unpredictable.  Anyway, me and Henry were joking around about where we might go. We were in our new red uniforms. J-Lo came and prayed with us. Diane Ury prayed with us.  It was beautiful.  It felt very meaningful to me.  

We had changed into our uniforms with the red trim. Next we planned to storm out in a high energy fashion, to some contemporary music with JT rapping. I was pretty nervous as we stood around back stage waiting for the whole thing to begin. We were talking about what our appointments might be. I was feeling the strain as everyone talked about where they might go. Of course our session had various predictions for the open corps.  I really had no idea where I might go.  People had their ideas, but I really wasn't sure!  A few session mates had narrowed it down for me to two possible corps, but given that I was a single, I knew there were many corps that could possibly get an assistant.  

We stormed out, and it seemed to be a big hit.  It was exciting, high energy.  It felt good to let out some of that pent up energy, and I felt some of the panic and apprehension slip from within.

The charge given by Colonel Janice was powerful, outlining the saga of Daniel in Babylon, and how he resisted conforming to babylonian culture, and instead boldly lived out his Christian convictions without compromise. That's exactly the message I needed to hear before going out into a troubled world to preach a transforming world shaking message of salvation! 

Then came the service of appointments.  We filed out, and went back stage, waiting in line patiently to receive our very first appointments.  I was so excited I couldn't hardly contain myself. I had all the predictions memorized, and one by one I realized as each couple went forward that our predictions were quite accurate.  Boatengs to Connor Creek, Bocks to Muscatine, Hubbards to Eagle Creek, Kumars to Farmington Hills, Shanell went to the Kroc, so and so forth, we had it all right.  When I went up I knew where I probably might go. But of course I wasn't sure. 

The commissioners gave me the scripture I had chosen, which God had given me for my time at training.  Hebrews 12:1 "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us..."

I recall the words of the commissioners quite well, when they said, "You're a man of few words spoken, but you are a man of many words, in writing, in which you have blessed many, many people."  I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea.  It was really a wonderful moment for me. I've been writing my blog and on social media for many years.  I've been rebuked several times for my writing, when I wrote something a bit too edgy or controversial, or when I was a bit too outspoken, or when I hurt someones feelings, but I've very, very rarely received any encouragement to continue writing, or been told that my writing helped someone, or blessed someone.  So hearing that was a great blessing for me. 

I was appointed at last, as the assistant corps officer to Flint, Michigan, with responsibility for Owosso, Mi.  I was shocked, surprised, and I really didn't know what to say except thank you to the commissioners for my first appointment.  Several of my session mates had told me previously that my skill set fit Owosso/Flint perfectly, but I had never really been sure of that.  But I'd heard many good things. And I'd heard many good things about the division as well, that it was a wonderful division with a lot of great people.  Many emotions filled my mind and heart as I marched out with my new division, met with my divisional leaders, and the connected with my family again.  Everyone was really excited, and happy for me, and I was shocked. As I drove back to college, for the last time, my mind was filled with many thoughts, and I had tears in my eyes.  It was amazing what I'd gone through over those last two years, and my emotions were surging after such an emotionally powerful weekend.  Much of it felt like a blur.  But I had made it through, all of us had made it through, and now we were officers, ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We worked for Jesus now.  And that is amazing.  I can't believe Jesus would choose me for this. But I'm honored and humbled to be his servant. Truly, God chooses the most unlikely people to do his work.  What an honor, now I hope and pray that I honor God in every decision I make, and show myself to be a faithful minister! 

Two weeks later, as I wait at the airport, preparing to head to my first assignment a whole number of different emotions and thoughts fill my mind.  At one moment I'm filled with excitement, trust in God, and hope.  The next moment I'm filled with trepidation, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and a sense of not knowing anything about what I'm about to do.  But that fades away again, and I remember that God is faithful.  He has got me through everything. He has gone before me.  He has taught me what I need to know.  And though I know there will be struggles, and emotional upheavals, and difficult challenges, I also know that God is already in the future, He is already at my new appointment, and He will guide me through all of it, and make the impossible to become possible for me, as long as I stay connected with Him, love Him, live a pure life, and make decisions in His Spirit and His will. 

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