by Rev. John H. Farmer
What we can do may not be what God wants us to do
In 1975 my first family of four said “good-bye” to Virginia friends, hearth and home just before Christmas to begin my journey theological. We had sold our home in far western Chesterfield County, took down the tree, loaded up enough belongings to fill the small two-story Seminary Village apartment in Louisville, Ky. The kids were 10 (Lee) and two-and-a-half (Mary Ellen). Our journey was more than miles down the road. It was a journey of accommodation to the wishes, standards and dictates of others. Now, years later, I still feel it a journey holy. It increases in worth the longer my shadow on earth; the more I tell of how God moved us.
Being older than my new student colleagues we sort of became unofficial house parents to several neighbor families. Tears, love and laughter traded well. Many a short night was spent at Louisville’s Baptist Hospital while some young preacher boy and wife presented their heirs. Like us, all their families were back home.
I was working with the Indiana Baptists, helping with their musical ministry on the north shores of the Ohio River (that muddy band of water that separates Kentucky from its northern neighbor). I felt it was what I could do, so I should do that. I had missed the mark. No matter what I could do, there loomed the question of what should I do?
While singing along my first few weeks there and hopping on and off organ and piano benches my phone rang off the hook. Most of the evangelical pulpits in north central Kentucky and Indiana are populated by seminarians. My age, education, experience and family got me more invitations to preach than I could fill. Less and less were opportunities for singing.
One night late the phone rang. It was a lady whose world was collapsing. She was calling from the waiting room of Norton’s Infirmary. Her dad was dying. “Could I go down to her home church and preach that next Sunday?” She was chair of the pulpit search and supply committee. Her husband, who would have taken her place, was there to comfort and support her struggle. I weighed the invitation and deferred to some other day as I already had an Indiana commitment for that Sunday. We prayed on the phone and I tried to go back to bed. It was an experience that has happened many a night since. The pain of the call would not let me sleep.
I got up, dressed and drove downtown to Norton’s Infirmary. We found each other in a jiffy and became prayer partners. About ten minutes into the visit Janice asked if I could just cover one Sunday, until she could get back and hand her assignment to another. I was hooked. On the back of a Bible tract in the lobby she drew me a map to the Blue Ball Baptist Church (community so named by Mormon missionaries who came up off the River to a blue ball on the horizon).
Something told me that I ought to check out the geography. After classes the next day I loaded up the clan and we set out destination unknown. A few short interstate miles south we found Elizabethtown. A turn or two here and there, over hill and through valley floors we drove. The terrain looked nothing like the hospital drawn map. But just over the next hill a brick church came into view. Finally. No sign graced the lot. Nothing formally announced its flavor—but it must surely be the little brick church that those heavy tear-stained eyes had foretold. It was a serene setting. Back in the car and fast-food-fueled, we returned to the city.
The following day I went to the hospital where my new Elizabethtown friends kept vigil. I shared the expedition with them. They rolled with laughter (oh, how they needed a laugh). It seems as if her map and my mind had found a place, just not the correct place. I had stumbled into their neighboring churchyard, it too a brick church on a hill. I had found St. John’s the Baptist, Roman Catholic Church. Oops, good name though, on St. John’s Road too; just the wrong church.
The rolling hills of the area captured me. God remembered a text, infected me with it. The Psalmist had brought it to life on some dark night tending his flock of old. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from which cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, (Psalm 121:1-2).” It gave purpose to the new direction my life was finding. That was the text for my first Sunday in Kentucky. I began to see that sometimes what we can do may not be what God wants us to do. Sometimes he wants us to do what we can’t do, so that we will depend upon him and not ourselves. In that tension, we find true direction.
Janice’s dad recovered and lived on another few years. That one Sunday in that little brick church, turned into four years. It is a place etched into my heart 42 years ago. It was the first place I remember God fixing me on a text with such resolve. What an awesome God he is!