Sue sent me a romantic card a few weeks back…she is still in the U.S., and a month or so away from returning home to Maua. I, conversely, am in Maua, and a few months away from venturing back to the U.S. It is the longest we have ever been apart, and we are feeling the emptiness.
So she told me on a recent phone call that she had sent a card. And have I ever been waiting for it! Friday the Maua Methodist Hospital receptionist greeted me with the news, “You have mail!” Here in Maua, mail is not a common occurrence, and it usually means a power bill or bank statement. But I had gotten those the day before so I was excited that Sue’s card was here at long last. (Not an accomplishment to take lightly – a birthday card sent by a daughter for my 2012 birthday has still not arrived.) The letter was a parcel, and I snatched it out of the receptionist’s hand, amazed that Sue would send such a thick card, not even looking at the label or the return address. I rushed to my office, closed the door against intruders and opened…..The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference Journal, Volume One. Huh? Not much romance there – although there are a lot of policies regarding clergy sexual misconduct….basically saying “don’t do it!”
For those who are not active in The United Methodist Church, a Conference Journal is the annual printing of policies, rules, addresses, salaries, leadership lists, history, who is serving what church….all sorts of nuggets that are vital if you are involved in the day-to-day life of the church.
For 38 years I received my annual journal in the mail and could not wait to tear open the packaging and read it through. I would look for my name, the names of friends – who was serving which church, and who was on what committee. I would pour over the pages, taking it all in. It was an essential part of life….for 38 years. For a lot of those years I was so ensconced in the leadership of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference that very little on those pages was new to me when it came in the mail. I read not so much for information as for confirmation.
Now, in 2013, my 40th year since being ordained, I sat and looked at what was supposed to be a love letter, and had turned into a tome of church administration. In my frustration I had nothing else to read, and was not yet ready to open the office door and expose my disappointment to the world, so I took the Journal and started looking….for my name and the names of my friends. The only place I found my name was in the clergy directory, with a notation that I was a retired Elder of the church. I knew that – guess I am still reading for confirmation rather than illumination…
As I read, it struck me that often over the years my name had been here and there throughout the thing, but how, in 2013, I was almost nowhere to be found. For just a moment I felt like all my years of being “somebody” were now like…well, to be biblical, like withered grass. What was it Peggy Lee sang? “Is That All There Is?”
But that feeling was fleeting. It was replaced by amusement at my self and my ego.
When I was involved in the day-to-day administration of the United Methodist churches in Oregon and Idaho, I felt like I made a difference; sometimes even a good difference. I always believed that what I did was part of keeping the church moving forward. Now, as I read the names of those in the slots I used to fill, I thought Good for them. I hope they are making a difference, too.
As I set the Journal down, ready to face the world of Kenya again, I had to admit that I have never felt as alive in my ministry as I do now, serving a population much of the world has forgotten.
It would be a mistake to think that I am either patting myself on the back or dissing church administrative tasks. Neither assumption could be further from the truth. I have always believed that administration is a form of ministry. Done well it does great good, and done poorly it does great harm. I respect and honor those in such a ministry. And as for patting myself on my back, I know I am accomplishing only a fraction here in Maua of what many, many Kenyans, volunteers and missionaries have achieved over the years in this amazing place. Kenya, if anything, is a profoundly humbling.
Life changes. And our call to ministry and service changes with it. I could not, and should not be doing what I once did. And I would not have been able to do then what I am doing now. The call to service is a life long calling. The call to serve in a set place doing a set task? Well, that is more temporal. Service really is a journey on a path with many a twist and turn.
What I have discovered late in life is that what is most important is serving as faithfully as possible in the moment and setting in which we find ourselves. I had a friend who once lamented that he felt like he was born in the wrong time – really felt like he should have been a mountain man. When he said that I remember thinking three things – he should see the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” and see if he feels the same; what about the removal of his appendix a few months earlier; and, how sad to be born in the wrong time.
As I reflect on the 2013 Journal, and ponder what once was and what now is, I am convinced more than ever that we are all born in exactly the right time. The challenge and call is to recognize that fact and live as faithfully as we know how…whether it is serving on a church committee, shuttling beans to a school full of starving children, or trapping beaver in a Rocky Mountain stream, flintlock in hand, and an arrow on the way!
There is no “wrong time”. There is only God’s time. And for us, that time is now.
Still waiting for that card, though……..