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Which are you - a sheep or a mule?

On Sunday, July 14, 1985, Linda and I just happened to participate in the worship service at Sacramento First Covenant Church. I don’t remember the title or the passage for Pastor Ted Smith’s sermon, but Linda vividly remembers one line from his message: God may ask you to go somewhere you don’t want to go.

Who could argue with that statement?

The guy who timidly raised his hand in the back row … that would be me. A dozen years prior the Good Shepherd had picked this surprised sheep out of the flock and directed me into vocational ministry. You might remember that story.

But in 1985, I more closely resembled a stubborn mule. What follows in today’s post is one specific instance in which I was not excited about a specific order I received from above. Yes, sometimes God will lead you in a direction you don’t want to go. What will you do? To put it another way, as we explored in my last post, which path will you take when God points a different way?

Let’s first set the background for my story.

God has made a binding promise to everyone who seeks to trust him – he will direct our paths.* But how does that take place? One of the ways God directs his followers is through the actions of people who providentially cross our paths. My story involves four specific men – the first one being Pastor Ted, who just happened to decide to speak about obedience on the Sunday that Linda and I just happened to worship at his church since we weren’t connected to a congregation at that time.

In 1984, a year earlier, I left the ministry to study Intellectual History at Cal State Sacramento and was accepted for the fall of 1985 into the PhD program at the University of Chicago. This was an exciting development for me, but one with a big price tag. With no scholarship money, Linda would step into the role of chief breadwinner for a few years, and we would delegate the raising of our one child – oh wait, Linda’s expecting; make that two – to the staff of a day-care somewhere in Chicago’s south side.

About ten days before Pastor Ted’s sermon, I buried my doctoral dreams. Sitting across from the director of ministry for our denomination, I informed him of our change in plans: I’m not willing to sacrifice our family on the altar of my aspirations. I need a call to a church right away, if for financial reasons alone.

That didn’t take long. A few hours after Ted finished preaching, I just happened to receive – did you notice that phrase again? – a phone call on Sunday evening from Clarence Winstedt, the superintendent of the regional conference of our denomination. He asked if he could recommend my name to a congregation about an hour south of our home.

Was I excited? Nope. I had zero interest in speaking with the search committee at Escalon Covenant Church.

Dozens of times I had driven through “the town with all the churches”, as it was known: a small farming community served by thirteen congregations, more than half of them on the highway bisecting the town. Having graduated from Cal Berkeley, and lived in four metropolitan areas, I was pretty sure that I would fit in like four-alarm chili at a senior’s potluck lunch. I had frequently declared my intention – I’ll never serve there!

I had to answer Clarence’s question, and did so by switching to a different language, one we both spoke fluently. In the wonderfully insincere language of Christianese, no way! translates to I’ll pray about it. I told him that I was hoping for a different place to serve God in a place more suited to my gifts and upbringing.

For the next forty hours, I talked honestly with God, expressing both my displeasure and my disappointment. And I would have continued in that vein if it weren’t for the doorbell ringing at our home on Tuesday afternoon.

Ron Short, a friend from seminary and the previous pastor, just happened to drop by our house. He was laying the groundwork for a new church plant in Sacramento, and said he had some free time that afternoon. Although he assured me that Clarence hadn’t asked him to seek me out, I still wonder about that.

Whatever motivated him, a good friend stood on my front porch, and I invited him into our home. I stopped talking and started listening to the story of Escalon Covenant Church, narrated by the one who had been their shepherd for five years. After an aggressive effort to change the focus and the culture of the church, the stubborn Swedes had bolted in frustration, and there was a lively and gifted core ready to move ahead with energy.

It appeared that God’s directing of my life was pointing to a completely different direction than where I wanted to go. Whose judgment would I trust? Mine or his?

Learning to trust in God – relying on his wisdom, stepping out and doing what he says – only happens when we honestly ask ourselves a bucket of questions, especially this one: Why would God want that for me?

A few days later I carried that bucket ten miles to the south and dumped it on someone who over the years had been my pastor, a surrogate father, a colleague, and a trusted friend – Bob Herrington**, who just happened to serve at that time as one of the staff pastors at Modesto Covenant Church.

Two conclusions surfaced from my conversation with Bob. Serving in Escalon would teach me how to become a pastor in the classic sense of the word. In a smaller congregation, the shepherd knows and tends to the needs of the sheep. That does not – in fact, cannot – happen in a larger congregation, which is what I wanted. 0

It would also be a lesson in faithfulness, a character trait God seeks to develop in each of us, and rewards everyone who exhibits it. ***

The word Escalon is Spanish for step, like a rung on a ladder, or better – a steppingstone. Just fifteen miles from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east, Escalon is one of several cities that link the San Francisco Bay to Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest.

I’ve had many years to analyze why I didn’t want to serve in Escalon. Not one of my motives is flattering. I didn’t want to be – didn’t deserve to be, I told myself – on a flatland steppingstone that would likely lead to another struggling congregation. I wanted to be placed on a Yosemite granite boulder, one that would elevate me above my peers, and cause people to look up to me.

And therein lies the problem. Me and my ego, which needed to be set aside. I decided to trust God’s leading for the path that lie ahead and accepted the call to serve. A few weeks later I was installed as Pastor of Escalon Covenant Church, a position I held for the next twenty years. I am so grateful for God’s wisdom and leading, for blessings received and lessons learned.

Some of those years were a picnic. Others were painful and problematic. I’ll share a few highlights in the next post.

It’s fitting to close this story with two words – subordinate and sacrifice – both integral to our pledge to follow the orders of our commander-in-chief.

When you trust God to direct your paths,

what you want to do is subordinate

to what you are asked to do,

and you sacrifice your personal wishes

for the greater cause

of loving God and loving your neighbor.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you. Do not be like the horse or the mule,

which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle,

or they will not come to you.

Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds

the one who trusts in him. Psalm 32:8-10

Benediction of Blessing

  • May you have the wisdom and the courage to look honestly at your past decisions, noticing when you took the path to which God called you, as well as the times you followed your own instincts

  • May you accept the bountiful mercy of God for all of your life, and hear his tender voice still beckoning you to trust him.

  • May you be all in with your willingness to trust God with your past, your present, and your future.

* See Proverbs 3:5-8, Isaiah 48:17-18, & Jeremiah 42:3-6.

** The further intertwining of our stories – Bob’s and mine – will be a topic in a future post.

*** See Matthew 25:14-30 and Revelation 2:8-11.

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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM


Gary Melhaff
Gary Melhaff

This was good timing as yesterday our staff recounted how we all came to World Vision in chapel (a benefit of a virtual chapel). we were asked to share how we came there and what we gave up to be there. It was a decision I questioned through a number of hard years however God was faithful and I have no regrets. Following God costs us but it also blesses us does it not?

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