January 25, 2004, was my first Sunday as a minister. On Thursday of that week, the Raleigh District Superintendent, Hope Morgan Ward, had appointed me as interim pastor for Shiloh and Leah’s Chapel United Methodist Churches outside of Louisburg NC. That Saturday my wife and I drove the backwoods of Franklin County to find the two churches so I would not be late the next morning. I did not want my first congregation’s first comment about the new pastor to be “Where is he?”
I spent most of Saturday night tossing and turning, anxiously wondering what Sunday morning would bring. Would they like my sermon? Would they like me? Would they like my wife? How many people would be there? How would I be sure to end the first service in time to get to the second service? Would I even remember how to find either one of these churches? Needless to say, when the alarm clock rang on Sunday morning, I was already awake, having stressed myself into an unplanned all-nighter. As things turned out, however, all of my worry was for naught because both Leah’s Chapel and Shiloh cancelled their services that morning due to an impending snowstorm.
Since I did not have to preach that day, Cheryl and I took advantage of the opportunity to go back to our home church of North Raleigh UMC one last time. We drove through quickly deteriorating weather conditions to get there, and due to the snow piling up outside, our minister, Dr. Bob O’Keef, was forced to lead an abbreviated service. Dr. Bob’s sermon was about following where God leads, even if it means getting up and leaving where you’re comfortable. I remember thinking to myself, “That message sounds like it was written for me… how did Bob know I would be here this morning?” I was supposed to be somewhere else! Wasn’t that God’s plan?
When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he learned of God’s plans. God said to him, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8 RSV). God’s plan for His people was for them to enter into the Promised Land, but even after they left Egypt, the first Israelite would not set foot in that new land for forty years. God saw that His people were not ready to enter that new life yet. Could that be why it snowed that January morning in 2004? Because God knew I was not yet ready to enter my new life as a minister yet?
Just in case I didn’t understand why my first Sunday as a pastor was put on hold, God gave me a big confirmation of my calling during that worship service at North Raleigh. The closing hymn we sang that morning was “Here I am Lord.” While we were singing, a man named Eddie left his pew, walked all the way across from the sanctuary to where I was, gave me a hug, and then walked out of the church wiping tears from his eyes. Now, here’s the part of the story that still makes the hairs on my arm stand up: two years earlier, when God revealed to me He wanted me to enter the ministry, I was sitting in another church singing a hymn, and it was “Here I am Lord”. God intended for me to be at North Raleigh UMC that snowy, icy morning when the Conference had wanted me to be somewhere else. I guess God needed me to be ministered to one more time before setting me off on my own. It was His way of telling me, “Don’t worry about how things will go for you as a minister. I’m in control. Everything will be fine.” Come to think of it, the following Saturday night – the night before I did lead my first worship service – I slept like a baby.
Sometimes we might feel certain we know what God’s plans are. But those plans might include some unexpected stops along the way. On my first Sunday as a minister, I didn’t get to preach at all. Ten years later, I get to preach at St. Peter’s. Ten years ago, I had no idea how to even be a pastor. Today, I am truly blessed to be your pastor. You know, God’s plans always seem to turn out better than we expected!
See you in church!