Those are verses 35 and 36a of our psalm this evening/morning. Eugene Petersen’s version of these same lines in The Message, puts it this way: “Give me insight so I can do what you tell me – my whole life one long, obedient response. Guide me down the road of your commandments! I love travelling this freeway.”
Do you remember knowing when you were in your teens or early 20’s what you wanted to do when you grew up; what God was calling you to do; what gifts God wanted you to use? I can still remember quite vividly being called by my 9th grade teacher to her desk one morning and being asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told her that I wanted to be a radio announcer. She obviously didn’t think too much of that idea. I never received any career counselling or encouragement for that one, and my response did have an effect on the remainder of my high school education.- - - - For many of us, making such critical potentially life-changing decisions is hard! When I was in my teens, girls in England generally either went to a 2-year teacher-training college, to university if they were clever enough and had a particular subject that they loved, went into nursing or went to secretarial college. I went the secretarial route and ended up working for the Peninsular & Oriental Shipping Company in London. I had visions of going to sea and being able to visit places like Australia, India and the Orient. That was MY plan, but it wasn’t God’s plan. I became sick, went home to my parents to recuperate, and then eventually sought and was offered a secretarial position at the local university. There I met my husband-to-be, without whose loving support, I wouldn’t be standing here today. In fact, it took me until I was in my 40’s before I had any sense that I was following God’s plan.
Today, I’d like to share with you some of my own story of how I came to become a deacon, of how God led me in the path of God’s commandments, and in so doing, perhaps, encourage you also to persist in being open to God’s leading. I’m speaking now of the vocational deacon, as opposed to the transitional deacon. The latter continues on the journey to become a priest. I’ve always found that whenever a new clergy member has begun a ministry in any parish to which I’ve belonged, I’ve appreciated their sharing a little of their story with the congregation. It’s helped me to develop a relationship with that person more quickly. Since it’s been a few years since your former deacon served here, it also might be helpful for me to recap the role of a vocational deacon.
Deacons have been around since apostolic times. The order dates back to the account in the Book of Acts describing a time when there were complaints that the Hellenist (the Greek-speaking Jewish Christian) widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The apostles thought that it was (and I quote) “not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables”. They therefore chose seven men for that special ministry. The apostles prayed and laid their hands on them, much as the bishop does today when ordaining new clergy – it was a simple ordination ceremony! Thus began the diaconal ministry with its focus on service to others. This First Century ministry was specifically for widows. Today, we include the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely.
Another reference to deacons in the scriptures appears in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy. He lays out strict guidelines for their behavior. For instance, - and I quote – they “must be serious, sincere people of integrity, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience”. He goes on: “Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well” – quite a tall order!
Biblical deacons were set apart by, but didn’t necessarily work under bishops. Today a deacon serves directly under the supervision of a bishop and works in collaboration with the parish priest, to whom she or he is assigned. For instance, I’m able to attend parish vestry meetings as a guest and have a voice, but no vote. A deacon is to have “one foot in the church” and also a ministry in the world. It’s from this ministry in the world, that a deacon receives a salary – not from the church. In my own case, my source of income was, until recently, from my ministry as a chaplain at Cooley Dickinson Hospital – that’s been my “foot in the world”.
So how might that relate to a deacon’s responsibilities during church services and their ministry in the church? If you think about the deacon being a ‘bridge’ between the church and world, there are some things that are obvious – such as reading the Gospel, receiving the offerings, praying the prayers of the people and the dismissal of the congregation at the end of the service before everyone is sent out into the world. Other responsibilities may be in assisting in the administration of the bread and the wine, setting the Table for Communion, mentoring Eucharistic Visitors, visiting the sick and those unable to come to church, and enabling and supporting lay ministry.
A deacon’s ministry outside the church is usually a “helping one” – one that ministers in some way to the poor, the sick, widows (and widowers), children or prisoners. Deacons serve, for example, as hospital and prison chaplains, work in social justice programs, community service, global missions or coordinate food ministries. Bishop Fisher is keen to see the diaconate grow in our diocese. There are currently seven active deacons, with four more to be ordained in June and our own Jason who is in the early stages of his journey to the diaconate.
What now of my own journey to become a deacon? I don’t know why, but I’m always amazed and awed by the way God works in our lives, and the number of different ways God uses to communicate with us. During my life, many stepping stones that I’ve taken have been as a result of listening to what someone else has said to me. Often they’ve been coincidences, or what I like to call “God-incidences”.
My active journey toward the diaconate began after a housing market crash led to my being laid off from my job as a title examiner and title insurance reviewer. I decided the layoff was an opportunity for me to return to school and finish the degree I’d begun several years before. After graduation though, I was faced with that earlier, same fundamental question of “what now?” While in the process of trying to decide what God was calling me to do, I “happened” to go for the first time to a particular meeting with a fellow Episcopalian. I “happened” to sit next to an ‘angel in disguise’, a woman who, on hearing my dilemma, suggested I might be interested in clinical pastoral education (or CPE for short). I followed up on her idea and thus began four years of CPE. What, you may ask, is CPE? Clinical pastoral education trains people in the art of visiting patients in the hospital or nursing home. I use the word “art” because there are some ways of visiting the sick that are NOT helpful and, in fact, can be downright harmful.
Each unit of CPE has an “in school” component and a hospital internship component. Since I was working in a hospital setting, I visited patients of different faith traditions. It was helpful to be in a group of students of differing beliefs and Christian denominations. We learned from each other. I trained at three different locations – Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and Westborough State Hospital. Each had unique patient populations. The thought of going to Westborough State Hospital scared me at first. I hadn’t been exposed to much mental illness. I was horrified by the buildings themselves – soul-less-looking, dirty, dark red brick, barred windows and locked doors. But – you know how God works! My time at Westborough turned out to be a transformative experience for me. The Lord ripped open my heart to enable me to deeply love the patients in my care and took away all the fears that I’d had. What grace and what a blessing.
During that first year of CPE, I finally learned ‘what I wanted to do when I grew up’. I was fortunate in that I was able to do either all, or some, of the clinical work at Cooley Dickinson, even though I was based at another hospital. During my second year, I was hired as a reserve chaplain at Cooley Dickinson and at the end of my fourth year, joined the permanent staff of the pastoral care department there.
That wasn’t all that God had in store for me, however. God’s plans are often bigger that we imagine. In my third unit during a class discussion, a fellow student, also an Episcopalian, said to me: “You should look into the diaconate. I can see you as a deacon”. I can only describe my reaction to her words, as a light bulb going on in my head. Something in my inner being knew that this was a direction God wanted me to follow. God was leading me, step by step, into the ministry for which God had equipped me. I told my fellow student that I wasn’t even aware that there was such an Order in our diocese. One of my supervisors, who ‘happened’ to be an Episcopal Priest, assured me that there was. We discussed the possibility. I met with the bishop, formed a discernment team at the parish level and eventually went on to meet with a diocesan discernment team. So began my journey of education and formation, which led to my eventual ordination as a vocational deacon.
Being ordained gave me the special privilege of being able to offer Communion to patients in the hospital – to all baptized Christians, as well as to Episcopalians. My ordination also enabled me to participate more fully in services, which gives me great joy. In all of the parishes where I’ve served, my focus in the church, as you might imagine, has tended to be mostly on pastoral care and that will be my main focus here. It’s a special privilege and blessing to me to be able to visit people in their homes and to bring Communion to those who are unable to attend church.
I pray that God will, in the words of the psalmist “make us all go in the path of God’s commandments and incline our hearts to God’s decrees”. I pray that we will be aware of, open and receptive to the clues and guidance that God gives us, however those clues and that guidance may be delivered. Sometimes we DO entertain angels unawares. May we stop to listen to that inner voice that guides and encourages us to be the person God wants us to be.
So now that I know what I want to do when I grow up, I’m glad that my journey has led me to this time here and now with you. AMEN.
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