My voluntary Church role began with providing and organising pastoral care for the congregation and caring for our newcomers. I loved it and my areas of responsibility expanded. Several years in, the Church decided to formalise the role to Pastoral Assistant and paid me too! The Church continued to grow and more help was required, so a new role of Associate Pastor was created to replace the former one. I experienced most ministry roles in this position and often mixed with ordained Ministers from many denominations, thanks to our inclusive Senior Minister who loved to mentor and encourage me. My view of the Church and its role in our community enlarged further.
However, I was shy and eschewed most ‘platform ministry’, preferring to remain behind the scenes. Over this period, I was challenged by a few people to add preaching to my role. Usually there wasn’t much need to do so and as I had no aspirations in this direction, I simply declined. When the Senior Minister asked me to fill in for a specific date, a few months’ ahead, I wondered if God may be giving me a nudge. Still not keen, I offered God a deal – if I was to pursue preaching, I wanted to be trained to do so before that date. It shouldn’t have happened, as most preaching courses require a semester and the time was less than this. However, a local Church of another Denomination suddenly offered a short preaching course for lay people, so I concluded God had answered me in the positive. Facing my fears, I was trained and immediately preached my first sermon.
Still feeling inadequate as a preacher, I enrolled in a Public Speaking course at our Theological College sometime later. If I was going to do this, I wanted to do it well! I was directly challenged – twice – to consider ordained ministry over this time. I reluctantly accepted a leaflet. Whereas I continued to enjoy my role at the Church, a little dissatisfaction had been bubbling under the surface for some time, with regard to those who didn’t come to worship on Sunday. We had playgroups, Breakfast Club in the local school, various outreaches and invitations to the wider community to come and join us. A few people did, but largely our Church grew with people who moved from other churches. I knew from mixing with other Ministers that this was a common story. From my perspective, something different needed to happen. I knew there was a good and loving God, who could change peoples’ lives beneficially, but they weren’t hearing this message from us. The underlying frustration was challenging me…
For some years, I had been a leader of our mission partnership in Thailand, entailing annual visits with team members from our congregation. My husband and I wondered whether we may eventually be called to serve overseas longer term in some capacity, especially given my ‘call’ as a 15-year-old. Hence, I decided to give the yearlong ‘Period of Discernment’ a go, to confront this ‘call’ to overseas ministry finally. This PoD is the Uniting Church’s process of serious vocational discernment and a pre-requisite to ordained ministry, amongst other outcomes. After the first 6 months, I had discerned that long-term overseas mission was not my call. I was going to end my PoD, when a little voice inside reminded me that I had signed up for a full year. I asked my supervisor what else there may be to discern?
Far from being a moment in time, my ordination story spans most of my life. It has definitely been a step by step process, rather than a sudden burst of inspiration. Becoming ordained was not something I intended, nor strove to achieve. In most parts, it is a story of God over-turning my resistance to each step along the way!
Experiencing a short time in heaven around age 10, when I prayerfully dedicated my life as a Christian, was possibly the beginnings of the call. Having no knowledge of others’ conversion experiences, I mistakenly believed that although extremely special to me, this was a ‘normal’ experience at this juncture in a person’s life. Now that I know differently, I reflect, ‘to whom much is given, much is required’. (Luke 12:48) Being ‘given much’ applies to most people I know and we all bear this responsibility to give from our position of wealth. However, I have been given much in this particular spiritual way, so it is unsurprising that I now seek to give back in this realm.
In year 10, we had missionaries come and speak to us at our school assembly. I was very moved by their story and felt ‘called’ to mission service from that point. When I entered a World Vision office 6 years later to sponsor a child, I was gently asked whether I had considered working overseas in my capacity as a laboratory technician. I explored that path with the anticipation of doing so, learning French and increasing the breadth of my technical capacity with the help of my employer. It didn’t happen in the end, much to my parents’ relief, who feared Pol Pot would reinvade Cambodia where I was to be stationed. At that point, I met my husband and soon began raising a family.
Raising the family wasn’t easy in those early days. My babies didn’t sleep much and were constantly sick and the same went for me. When I was approached to be an Elder by a lady from my Church, I laughed! Was this woman crazy? But when the Minister also asked me, I decided to consider it. My practice in special times of discernment is to lay it before God as a possibility. So I said to God, ’If YOU want me to do this, please make it clear to me’ and went on with my life as normal. I also raised two objections before God: Firstly, I was a woman and I wasn’t too sure that women were called to be leaders in the Church, and secondly, my children were all-consuming at that point. I had a daily Bible reading habit, so continued reading with a heightened awareness that God could speak to me in this way. One day, I reached 2 John chapter 1 verse 1 (NIV) and read with amazement:
‘The elder, To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth--and not I only, but also all who know the truth.‘
I couldn’t argue with that specificity and I tend not to argue with God (it’s an unfair fight as Jacob found out!), so I agreed to be nominated and became an Elder of that Church. Hence, I began to learn about the deeper workings of the Church and ministry. A few years later, a new Minister arrived. By this time, we had 3 children, but the older ones had begun school, so I was still a busy mum, but had some availability during the day. At an Elders’ retreat he enquired whether I would assist him on a voluntary basis? I decided to put my toe in and have a look at what a Minister did from day to day…
F=ma is a formula we instinctively realise when a heavy object is speeding towards us. No need to explain that F stands for the force that’s going to hit us if we don’t move quickly! Multiplying the mass of an object by its acceleration is a simple law of physics that calculates force accurately. It produces a known outcome that works every time. Not all questions can be solved so simply. As a Minister, I am often asked why God allows, or does, certain things. Why does a good God allow such terrible suffering? Why does one person miraculously recover from illness, but not my loved one? Why do bad people enjoy comfortable lives, while good, honest Mr. X suffers? I read many inspiring explanations for these questions, but rarely do they satisfy the questioner. We may point to certain Scriptures, but usually they will be argued against. If there was a formula to explain God’s actions, however complex, it would make my life easier! There are many ‘tendencies’ I have observed about the way God acts, but no formulaic response. I infer God is a specialist, not a generalist.
In my mind, the answer is simple. God is infinitely beyond our comprehension, wisdom and intelligence. God does what God determines to do. I don’t know why and freely acknowledge I don’t have the full picture. Here’s a Scripture I love which backs up my stance:
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (The Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:13, New Living Translation)
Frustrating as it may be for those who want definite answers now, it’s not yet our time for answers to these complex questions. Our intelligence and breadth of knowledge about life and its complex interactions across time, place, people, environment and so much more, is deficient. Personally, I am grateful I don’t need to carry the weight of such decisions.
We are not powerless however. Many people will testify to amazing answers to their prayers. But not every prayer gets a ‘yes’ and we should be grateful for this. Some of these prayers would ill affect us, as a result of the chain of consequences following the course change. As a simple example, if I pray for rain to water my garden in Sydney, where hasn’t it fallen instead? Maybe on the farm that provides my (and many others’) food. So, when I ask, God hears and weighs the answer, and decides. Either way, our faithful response at its best, is gratitude.
The ‘laws’ of physics, and other disciplines, allow for formulae to help us predict outcomes with great success. These laws are a gift to us. But do not assume that everything will fit into a neat formula. Where is the excitement, variety and challenge of that? God offers us a loving relationship, where we may gradually develop an understanding to request outcomes that are often granted. But there is no law involved here, only grace. Let us be thankful for wisdom that surpasses our own.
The articles here are currently written by Liam McKenna, Lane Cove Community Chaplain.