When candidates for ordination (elder and deacon) are examined at my church, we don’t ask them questions about their theology or their understanding of church government. Maybe we should, but we don’t.
Instead we ask them about their religious experience. In reality, we ask them to give their testimony, to tell us how they came to faith and how God is currently visible in their lives. We have a dinner meeting, and for more than two hours we listen to story after story about how God has changed lives.
Each year that I’ve been a part of this “examination,” I have found myself deeply moved. The stories are often surprising. I didn’t know, for example, that the parent of one of our deacons committed suicide when she was just 26 years old. I didn’t know that another was the son of pastor, but for many years had not been a part of the church. I didn’t know that still another was soon going to start receiving chemotherapy and would, by next week, be without her hair.
Telling these stories was easy for some, difficult for others. Some are clearly comfortable standing at a microphone and telling jokes and embellishing a life story. Others read from a crinkled manuscript and struggle to finish without stammering and crying.
I like to lead by example, so by the end of the evening I was thinking that I should tell my story. And here it is.
When I was in college, I wanted to be a writer or editor or somehow involved in the publishing world. I served on the editorial staff of the college’s student newspaper, and for a couple of summers I worked at the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Co., a publisher of excellent theological books.
While there I noticed that all of the senior editors had advanced degrees from important theological seminaries, so I decided that that’s what I should do too, if I wanted a career in publishing. And so, I enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary after graduating from college, and for two years I thoroughly enjoyed my coursework.
However, as I approached my third and final year, I realized that I was not going to graduate without doing “field education,” which all of my classmates had already been doing each weekend, usually in nearby churches. I had little interest in the church at that point – an understatement, to be honest – and had avoided this path. But I had no choice. I either had to work in a church or not graduate.
So, between my second and third years of seminary, I served as a student pastor in a church in Iowa City, Iowa, a Big Ten university town. A few months after my arrival, the senior pastor left to accept a new call, and I was asked to be the primary preacher for the remaining eight months of my commitment, for a congregation made up mostly of university faculty and graduate students! This was precisely what I didn’t want to do, and I ended up doing it every single Sunday for the remainder of my time there, often both morning and evening services.
The truth is, I wasn’t very good. My performance evaluations confirm that fact. But the church loved me anyway. In fact, I started to see that quality everywhere in church life. These church members knew how to love each other! Freely, genuinely, unconditionally.
One Sunday night, as I was preaching a sermon about the prodigal son (a bit of irony), I suddenly choked up and couldn’t go on. What happened, I realized later, was that I finally realized the truth of what I was talking about. In the middle of my sermon, I understood something that I had never really understood before.
Talking with my supervisor the next morning (when the pastor left, one of the church’s elders was assigned to “guide” me), he gently helped me to name what I had experienced. And I quickly found the word. It was grace – an overwhelming experience of unconditional love and acceptance.
I had never felt something so good or so wonderful before.
And so, not only did I have a life-changing spiritual experience, I also had a dramatic vocational clarification. I went back to seminary on fire! I felt called to take my experience of a church filled with grace and try to replicate that wherever I might be called.
And that’s been the focus of my ministry since then – God’s grace.