It’s been exactly 40 years since Bishop Jesse DeWitt of the Northern Illinois Conference laid his hands on me and said, “Take thou authority!” Then after a few years after that day of ordination, I had to deliver a sermon on the opening day of the Annual Conference. Seeing me all nervous before standing in the pulpit, Bishop DeWitt held my hand and prayed, “Lord, strengthen this young servant of yours to boldly proclaim your word by the authority bestowed unto him.” That year, the Northern Illinois Conference was undergoing tremendous pain, and I had to preach into that reality because of the role I undertook as District Committee on Ordained Ministry Chair. What happened was that the votes were equally divided in the case of one candidate, and I chose to abstain. As a result, the candidate didn’t pass and tragedy followed. On the one side, some spilled cruel comments like, “It was foreseeable. The person had issues,” while the other side was filled with grief and anger. The point I raised in my sermon, simply put, was this: “We are called to be a community that gives hope and love in Jesus’ name, but we have given despair to a young person and we ourselves have turned into a hate-filled community. Why?” There was no boldness in me as I preached. I cried, together with others present at the Annual Conference, and we cried again after the worship service.
Someone who knew about my 40th ordination anniversary asked how I’m processing this milestone. “Be humble. Be thankful. Be attentive,” is what I remind myself these days. Some call their years of ordination as ‘holy terrain,’ but that’s not the description I dare to use for myself. I know my shortcomings before the Lord. But one thing I can say for sure. I am very thankful – thankful for the grace that called me to a holy calling and sustained me to walk on this road of ministry. There are many significant life lessons I wish I had learned sooner, including the purpose of my calling to pastoral ministry. But I’m grateful that I could come thus far, learning and growing with those lessons a step after another.
Bishop Jesse DeWitt’s declaration “Take thou authority!” still resounds in my ears. For long I did not know what true authority meant. At times I felt lost without the sense of authority, and at others, I was proud with a skewed sense of authority. But for most of the past 40 years, I wrestled by the burden and responsibility of that authority. Looking back, hardly a day went by without something happening, either good or bad, big or small. Ministry had so many unforeseen facets and it was exciting to learn something new in its wide spectrum of colors. As a young pastor in his 20s and 30s, I ministered primarily to young people. It was physically demanding, but those were very happy days. Then in my late 30s, bishop appointed me to a congregation of about 300 members with a considerable number of doctors, but they ended up picketing in front of the church entrance resisting to receive me as their pastor. Transferring to Atlanta, I earnestly prayed: “Lord, have pity on me. Enable this church to grow. Give us 300 in membership, so that all who ridiculed me will see that you are with me.” God heard my prayers. Not only God propelled us into 300, but so much abundantly more, into over 2,000 in membership. I witnessed God’s miracles, both big and small, and really enjoyed building up a healthy and vibrant faith community. Then for the past 6 years, I have been a pastor here in Flushing, NY.
Over the years I learned that if there is a high tide, there is also a low tide. Life has all sorts of hills and valleys: if there’s a time of struggle in the valley, there will also be a mountaintop experience. So I try to not get overly excited just because something’s going well, or too disappointed when things don’t work out. When someone gives a compliment, I’m thankful and glad in the moment; when someone gives me hard time with disapproval, I’ve learned to float above it too. It’s true that there can be too much of a good thing, and as the old saying goes, good medicine can be bitter to taste. At the end of the day, there’s only so much a person can do. The real lasting blessing in ministry that knows no bounds is God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. Through all circumstances, God’s grace overflowed and the congregation supported me with love more than I can fathom. Looking back, all I can say is thank you, I’ve been blessed.
Lately, I think a lot about my role as a bridge and stepping stone. I train to plan less and wait more for the movement of God. I’m at peace, trusting that God will use me accordingly within the bounds of time and space he placed me. For the remaining years in ministry, I want to be a pastor who fully demonstrates the authority given at the ordination – the authority as the power to empower the powerless. It’s Christ’s life-giving, life-nurturing, and saving power of love. In the remaining time that I have, I hope to draw closer to that true pastoral authority of Jesus Christ.