My heart was beating so fast as I opened the door to the office suite which housed my Greek professor’s office, utterly convinced that not only had the McAfee School of Theology faculty and staff finally realized that they’d made a huge mistake in admitting me into the program, but that they had also voted, and selected the nicest professor to let me know that seminary and I were not a good fit, and I was being released from the program.
I walked down the hall toward Dr. Jones’ office. He’d asked me to come meet with him after Greek II. It was a Tuesday.
I stood awkwardly in the door frame, for a few seconds that seemed like a horrible eternity, when he finally looked up and said:
“Come on in, Sara, and have a seat.”
“I see. We’re gonna drag this out. Ok, I’ll play along.”
“Well, tell me a little about yourself,” he said.
“Um, ok, well I was born in Abilene, Texas, but I was raised in Brazil – my parents were missionaries for 11 years, and we moved to Georgia when I was in the 6th grade. I went to Greater Atlanta Christian School for Junior High and High School, and I majored in Social Work in college. I worked for the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services for a year, and then I came here.”
“Where did you do your undergraduate work?”
“Lipscomb University, in Nashville Tennessee. It’s a small, private Christian…”
“ I know Lipscomb. I went to basketball camp there.” He interrupted enthusiastically.
*Awkward pause * “Neat.”
“ I like missionary kids,” he continued. “I know a family who used to be missionaries.”
“Yeah… it’s really fun.”
“Well I just wanted to meet with you to get to know you a little better, and let you know if you ever need any help with anything, like your exegesis paper coming up, don’t hesitate to ask. Seminary is hard for anyone and can be especially tough if you don’t come from a religious studies background, so if there’s ever anything I can do to help, please let me know.”
“Oh. Well, THANKS!”
So, I wasn’t being asked to leave. What great news!
Keenly aware that I hadn’t breathed in about 30 seconds, I tried to catch up on the oxygen I was missing out on, by breathing in deeply, but very slowly, so as not to look stupid.
I don’t think it worked, but I left Dr. Jones’ office feeling inspired and hopeful that I really did, somehow, belong at McAfee.
I questioned myself off and on about whether I was supposed to be there, and whether or not someone more qualified, more intellectual, more pastoral should have had my spot instead of me. I was a good student, but not an exceptional one.
A learning “disability” made it hard for me to concentrate for extended periods of time, or retain a lot of what I read unless I was highlighting, taking notes and reading all at the same time. During my time in seminary, though I genuinely loved the material and the work (most of the time), I generally felt underqualified and not quite like I was really supposed to be there.
This has been a theme for a good part of my life, and when I reflect on what this seeming “inferiority complex” is all about, I see two themes that seem prevalent in the stories that have shaped my life to this point: feeling like there’s always someone more qualified than I am, and a pervasive need to belong somewhere – and both are themes that are rooted in insecurity.
To some extent, these are natural things that people deal with on and off throughout their lives, but if we’re not careful, insecurities left unchecked can take over our lives – and when that happens, we can become controlling, manipulative, selfish or withdrawn.
I bet Jacob understands exactly what that feels like.
It’s like he was destined from birth to be a swindler, beginning with the name he was given. The name “Jacob” means “he takes by the heel.” He’s a grabby little cheater with no scruples to speak of. He grows up into a selfish little mama’s boy who conspires against his brother and father by taking advantage of Esau’s hunger one day and tricking his father into blessing him with Esau’s blessing.
Steeped in insecurity from the very start, his actions as a result of those fears have finally caught up with him and he’s now on the run. He’s a fugitive from his own home, from his own life of trying to stay in control; and this is where we find him: hiding out in a deserted place, amidst the dust and stones at nightfall. Behind him, a life he can never go back to, ahead of him, uncertainty. For this night though, he will rest.
He’s hoping for a deep sleep so that he can be refreshed for the journey ahead. What he gets instead is so much more than he bargained for – an encouraging dream, a blessing from God, and a promise of God’s presence with Jacob wherever he might go.
In the place you’d least suspect, the most unlikely of persons receives a blessing from the Lord, and a promise of safety and belonging. This promise comes to him at a time when he has been greatly humbled by life – the choices he’s made and their consequences, because God’s grace usually comes to us in the times when we are most vulnerable.
The words “know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” echo in his ears all through the night, providing a wonderful experience of transformation. In a gift of promise – to be kept in safety wherever he goes, and in the knowledge that Jacob’s God will not leave him until he has kept that promise, an ordinary resting spot becomes a holy place that has been transformed by God’s presence.
In the early morning as Jacob prepares to continue his journey, he thinks back to the dream; so vivid, so rich, so transformative and full of promise. He takes the stone he’d been sleeping on, a tangible representation of that time Jacob hit rock bottom, and pours oil onto it, anointing it, consecrating this ordinary stone which houses the sacred, holy memory of the presence of God in this place, and the promise to Jacob and Jacob’s offspring.
The place is renamed “the house of God,” and for the rest of his life, Jacob will remember the transformation that happened here.
He’ll remember it when he and Esau are reconciled to each other, and when his children are born.
He’ll remember it when his son’s bring him Joseph’s blood stained coat, and when Joseph himself sends word to his father to come live in Egypt.
He’ll remember it on the long journey, when he is reunited with Joseph, and on his death bed,
Jacob will remember the words of the Lord that echo as clearly as the night he heard them “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
In an unexpected encounter with God while on the run, Jacob finds peace in a promise of protection and knows that in everything, God will be with him. In this place and throughout the course of his life as we read in the Bible, the voice of God will be for Jacob a force of guidance that is bigger than his greatest fears, his deepest insecurities, and his most epic failures.
That day in Dr. Jones’ office, though I was petrified that I was about to be asked to leave seminary, and even after our meeting in times throughout my seminary career when I wasn’t sure that God had picked the right person in me, to learn there, preach there, and graduate from there,
and though the voices in my head of fear and insecurity tried to discourage me when classes became difficult or the future seemed uncertain, the voice of God was much bigger, and much clearer than my fears and insecurities, and the words of the Lord “ Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” echoed in my ears and guided me on my journey through seminary, through a chaplain residency at a children’s hospital, and now, to the start of my new journey with you.
The family at Scott Boulevard can also certainly testify to unexpected meetings with God on life’s journey. Regardless of how long you’ve been here, I know you’ve grown to love the people, and this building holds a special place in each of our hearts. Some of you were married here, some of you raised your kids here, built your lives here, and found a family here.
When I first heard about the new ministry direction that Scott Boulevard was taking, I wanted so badly to be a part of it – but I was also interested in what the process would be like for each of you. For a people used to doing ministry in a certain way, going against the grain – especially when society says “it’s all about reaching younger folks” must have seemed a little scary, and maybe, committing to ministry and service with society’s most isolated seemed a little daunting at times.
Amidst a society that seems completely obsessed with youth, and committed to youngness, you committed to serving in an unlikely and new way, and in this unexpected turn, God was here, guiding this church through a decision process that lead to a leap of faith and an encounter with God’s promises – for us, in us, with us, and through us.
After Jacob’s encounter at Bethel, he goes from being a grabby little scoundrel to a man on his way to becoming Israel.
After this church’s decision to follow God’s call, we go from being a local neighborhood church to being a group of Christ-followers on mission to bring God’s presence, and God’s promises to the isolated.
When Jacob woke up from his dream, he was a changed man. Blessed by the Lord, he became a carrier of God’s promise. He recognized this change, and paid tribute to it by anointing the stone that he’d been sleeping on – the stone where his head lay when God appeared to him. He set the stone up as an altar, a monument to the presence of God, and renamed the place Bethel, which means “house of God.”
Every time he needed a reminder of the promise he carried inside him, he only had to think back to his transformation at Bethel – the place where he saw God most clearly because God was standing next to Jacob the whole time.
In a few weeks, this church will pay a similar tribute to the presence of God through the years, as we gather for a service commemorating the longstanding legacy of Scott Boulevard Baptist Church; and a celebration of the covenant God has made with us for an enduring relationship committed to this congregation’s future and well-being.
We will unite with people who’ve had some kind of relationship with this church over the years, and on that day, we will experience the presence of God in this place, because God has been here too, standing next to us the whole time.
The words of the Lord “know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you” will echo in our ears as we gather as promise-carriers on our way toward a new life in ministry, to remember, reflect on and look forward to God’s promises for us, in us, with us, and through us.