Sunday, May 17, 2015

Necessary Beginnings --- A Final Sermon at Ridge UMC

Deuteronomy 31:7-8    (NRSV)
Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

I don't know how many of you read Malcolm Gladwell's powerful little book called The Tipping Point.

In the book, Gladwell seeks to explain how change happens once a product or idea reaches a "tipping point" --- that spot where it pushes the --- product or idea --- over.

As I have reflected on my journey --- I have come to realize that there was a tipping point that took place a little less than two years ago.

It was July of 2013 and I was really struggling with some things.

In a conversation with Larry Whitehead, our North District Superintendent he suggested I read a book by Henry Cloud called Necessary Endings.

He had suggested the book, because it was clear to him, that there were some "Necessary Endings," that needed to take place in my life.

Cloud writes:
the tomorrow that you desire and envision may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are doing today.

Getting to the next level always requires ending something, leaving it behind, and moving on.  Growth itself demands that we move on.  Without the ability to end things, people stay stuck, never becoming who they were meant to be, never accomplishing all that their talents and abilities should afford them.

I read the book with a set of expectations --- but as I worked my way through it I began to realize that the necessary ending that was needed was me.

I needed to make some changes in my life --- if I wanted to achieve what God desired of me.

It was by this time last year --- I had begun to come aware that I needed a necessary ending --- but I wasn't --- at that point --- willing to admit it to myself.

So what was the tipping point --- because by November of 2014 --- I would put on my Staff Parish form that all clergy and SPRC's fill out every fall that "I was willing to consider a new appointment?"
Which I knew meant that my tenure as pastor of Ridge UMC was up.

It is strange looking backward at the past couple of years and seeing my journey in the rear view mirror.

But I think I know what it was ---- I think I have somewhat figured it out

Pastor's are storytellers, so we are always looking for good stories to share --- and when we come across one --- we cut it out and hang on to it for the right moment.

I am on lots of weird email lists ---- and last fall, I had an email about a webinar that a woman was doing that was focused on the issue of change

As I shared last week --- I understand how hard change is --- but I also understand how important it is.

As John Maxwell loves to say      
          Change is inevitable
          Growth is optional

As I was listening to this webinar --- and remember --- I am very conflicted at this moment in my life
          I know things have to change
          I just haven't figured out what that means yet

She tells the story about the Barnum and Bailey Circus and a fire that took place in the 1960's.
Now I want to give a disclaimer --- I searched high and low trying to corroborate that this story actually happened --- and I could not do that --- but I have NO DOUBT, but that it is a TRUE story

It was a story about a family of seven elephants that were killed when the circus tent that they were in caught fire.

Circus elephants (at least during this period) --- when they are babies --- were trained by having a chain wrapped around their ankle which is then tied to a post.
The elephants learn over time that they cannot get away, and so they become somewhat docile

Eventually, all trainers need to do is tie a rope around the elephant's ankle and they will not try to run away

When the fire broke out in this circus tent the elephants did not try to run away because they had been trained that with that rope around their ankle they could not escape

When their bodies were found following the fire --- the firemen were baffled because the elephants had ropes tied around their ankles and the rope was simply looped over a sawhorse

The elephants did not have to die --- they could have simply walked out of the tent

But they died because they had become conditioned and did not think they could change those conditions

How many of you over the years have said to me --- you should have been a professor?
          I was even told it again this past week

I think over my 30 years in ministry, I had convinced myself that I was TIED securely and completely and that there was no place to go
Of course, I have a Master's Degree from Duke University, one of the finest institutions in our country that also has a great basketball program . . .

But it is a Master's of Divinity --- that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee at McDonalds.

It is not the most widely desired of degrees for employment outside the church . . .

I had CONVINCED myself --- that the only thing I could do was be a parish pastor

And I know a lot of you will tell me how silly that belief was --- but it was REAL

And I have done enough counseling over the years to know that one's perception of reality --- often becomes REALITY to that person

          And it was to me

But then something happened.

I got courageous

Sometime late last fall --- and I can't tell you exactly when it was --- I applied for a position.

I never got a response from my application,
          Not a phone call
          Not an acknowledgment

But I took a risk --- and stuck my neck out.

Because I had said I WOULD CONSIDER A MOVE on that form last November, I knew what that meant.

It meant that I WOULD MOVE --- but as I wrestled with God over my future, I realized I really didn't want to move on to another church.
I have told you all for years this would be my last Church
          And I still believe that is true

On December 30th, I met with the District Superintendent to talk about where I might be moved to.

Following that meeting, I called the CEO of TradeWinds to see where things were in their search for a new Director of Development and Marketing.  A few days later I sat down with him to discuss the possibility of my coming on board.

On January 13th, as I drove to an interview with a committee from TradeWinds, Nancy called to let me know that she had been let go from the School Town after 16 years.

As I walked into that interview, to say that I was in turmoil would be an understatement!

Obviously the interview went well, and 2 days later I accepted the position.

During this whole process something has surprised me
NOT ONCE did I say: "O my God, what have I done."

Every time I have left a church I said that

But not this time

And for me the answer is pretty simple
          God has been in this

And the necessary ending and new beginning was already become real to me.

This was my sixth appointment as a pastor
·         I served as a student at Richfield/New Mt Tabor in NC for a year while I was in school
·         My first full time appointment was at Pretty Lake Trinity on the west side of Plymouth
          Nancy and I got married while I served there
          Jessica was born there
·         Nancy and I started Celebration Church in Warsaw
          Lindsey and Haley were born there
·         Simpson UMC
·         Ridge UMC

Every church I have served has had its unique appeal

But it is here, that I finally figured out who I really was
          Those of you who sat in my classes got to see the real Steve
As we wrestled together trying to figure out what God desires of us

And what I have really come to understand about myself --- is that God wants me to be a community activist --- someone engaged in actively caring for the least, the lost and the last
The most difficult time in my life --- but without a doubt the most rewarding was the three year period when I was head of LARRI --- the flood recovery group

They almost killed me, but I found my real purpose in life

And since we closed up shop with LARRI, I have been trying to find my spot

One of the things that I am looking forward to ---- as my life settles down if being able to really get engaged with Children of Abraham
          I love what they are doing

And I hate that I have not had the time to commit to their mission

I will this fall!

I also want to get more involved in trying to bring the region together.

No community can be an Island --- as much as we want to try
And what happens in Gary and north of the Borman Expressway affects us all

I hope that I can be an agent for positive change and community building in the region

Ten years ago, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book that had a huge impact on me.

It is the story of her journey from Parish Ministry to academia.  She was a parish priest for twenty years before accepting a position at a small Christian College.

What she came to realize is that leaving Parish Ministry freed her to a new relationship with God.

I think I am coming to the same realization.

But there is one more piece to this story --- and it is an important one.

Ridge Church needed a new beginning as well.

I know for some of you, you cannot see that right now.

But I saw that before I saw the change I needed.

Most of my life I have identified with Joshua, but recently I have realized that I have had the roles reversed.

I have led you as far as I could.

Sometimes it seems like we have wandered in the wilderness

But we have always had one goal in mind
To be bears of hope
To help people see that God has something special for them

I have gotten you as far as I could

Today we stand at the Jordan River and God has told me that my time is up --- that it is time to pass the mantle on to somebody new.

And I do that with a joyful and grateful heart.

You have loved the Congers in more ways than we will ever deserve

We have been through good times and bad times together.

But today --- God says --- this is as far as you get to go --- somebody else will lead Ridge Church forward.

I am excited in the leader that is coming.  Pastor Michelle will take you to new places.

I am happy that the cabinet and our Staff Parish Relations Committee have given you some time to grieve

So over the next few weeks --- grieve --- I know that Nancy and I will

But on July 1 when Pastor Michelle Knight and her family arrives, welcome her like you welcomed us --- with open arms and hearts

On July 12th, pack this place for her first Sunday.

Give her the benefit of the doubt --- and I think you will find that you are blessed.

I pass the mantle on to her.

Ridge Church will ALWAYS hold a special place in our hearts and lives

As a matter of face, Ridge is so important to us, that Nancy and I have decided to purchase a columbarium niche.

Thank you --- for letting me be your pastor
Thank you for loving my family and making us welcome

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words:
Great is the art of the beginning, but greater the art of ending.

We end --- so that we can begin anew!

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