, , , , ,

Sanctuary of Maple Avenue Ministries, Holland, MI

There is a sign above the bed in my sister and brother-in-law’s guest room that reads, “Home is where your story begins.” I first noticed its arrival in when they were hosting an international student for a year.  It was in a different place then, but the message was just as effective. It is so like my sister-in-law to do something like that — purchase and hang a sign to share a subtle yet immensely hospitable sentiment. A sense of home is important, especially if one is separated from one’s family by oceans and multiple time zones. I have no idea if the student saw or read the sign, but I remember thinking that I would have appreciated it (and my host mother) if I were in his position.

“Home is where your story begins.”  I experienced the timeless truth of this statement on Sunday when I returned to the church where my pastoral ministry story began. Eric and I first stepped into the building of Maple Avenue Ministries (MAM) in July 2001. We had just moved to Holland, MI. where via transfer I would attend Western Theological Seminary (WTS henceforth, one of the two seminaries of my denomination, The Reformed Church in America). I was so green! I was high on passion and void of pastoral experience.

As part of WTS’ teaching church program, MAM took me in as one of their pastoral interns. (Each seminary student is required to have a certain number of part-time and full-time internship hours to graduate.) For the first two of my three years at WTS the MAM congregation loved on me and watched me grow while somehow granting a level of pastoral authority to me. They grinned and bore my clunky sermons of those early days, and by some means found space for shouts of “Amen!” and “Hellelujah!” One time, when I went too far in a children’s sermon about the Sabbath, saying that God “slept” instead of saying that God “rested,” my theology was gently admonished in a way that did not shame me. What I remember most clearly about Eric and my time there is how generously the staff and congregation showered and sheltered us with love, love and more love and prayer, prayer and more prayer when our first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. MAM was our church and we were MAM’s people.

“Home is where your story begins.”  I felt a feeling of home on Sunday even before my foot stepped across the threshold of MAM’s entryway. I swooned in palpable memories of love, embrace and the congregation’s ownership of me as I walked through the familiar halls, smiling into mostly unfamiliar faces. MAM has gone through quite a bit in the past 10 years, but (praise the Lord) faith, strength and a deep understanding of mission remain. The folk I knew not welcomed me with warmth.  “I understand you used to be an intern here? Well then, welcome back.” When people did recognize me and I them, bear hugs ensued. “Welcome home!” each one of them said. Together we celebrated coming through our respective Refiner’s fires not unscathed, but renewed nonetheless. We wished, it seemed, that the greeting time could have gone on for another half hour.

Everything was not perfect during my internship at MAM, of course.  My second clearest memory is preaching a sermon about the biblical witness of God as Mother. On Mother’s Day no less. I was wracked with anxisty before, during and after that sermon. I’m not sure I had ever heard that sanctuary so silent as it was after I said my final Amen.  God bless the pastor who was there at the time and served as my supervisor. Heaven knows what kind of heat he took for that.  I experienced other struggles as well while serving there, to be sure.

What stands out, if the point is not clear enough already, is MAM’s love for me as I discerned and fumbled my way into embracing my pastoral identity.  I was not the first seminary intern that MAM accepted and shaped, nor was I the last.  To this day MAM remains committed to forming the next generation of Reformed Church in America pastors, as does Trinity Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, the church I served as an intern during my final year of seminary.  This is a priceless gift that they and other teaching churches give to the denomination.

It seems so trite to say thank you to teaching churches who are committed to pastoral formation, but I express my gratitude nonetheless. I feel safe in presuming that many past and present pastoral interns would convey the same sentiment. Seminary students and the churches and special ministries they eventually serve post education and ordination are indebted to you and your gracious care.

Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears (Phil 1:3-6, The Message).