Patty Hockingberry: Dying for Good Fruit!
Dying for Good Fruit!
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no Law. Galatians 5: 22 – 23.
I am an evangelical. Now, if you know what that means and you want to toss me out, I’d like to ask you to wait until after you’ve heard my story. And then, if you still want to toss me out, just say so and I’ll leave peacefully.
You see, I didn’t know I was an evangelical until a few months ago. I’d never heard the term and had no idea what it meant. I’m just a naive pastor wanna be. All I want to do is help people who play church, develop a real relationship with Jesus. It all started about four years ago. I honestly thought I was off the hook with God. I believe my nursing career has been a calling that I’ve fulfilled. I’ve been a nurse for over 30 years and a darned good one, if I do say so myself. I was baptized into the United Methodist Church as an infant and I’ve been active in my churches all my life. Well, except for one very difficult time, in the few years following a divorce. But that’s a story for another time. On second thought, maybe it’s important that you know that part about me too.
I married my long term boyfriend just after finishing nursing school. We were a perfect match. He was a good Christian boy, the president of his Methodist Youth Fellowship and I was a good Christian girl. After my marriage, I stayed a member of my childhood church. In hindsight, that was probably not wise. He didn’t care for my church and didn’t go with me very often. I sang in the choir, taught Sunday school, assisted with VBS and directed holiday programs and plays.
We worked hard, built a beautiful house and planned to start a family. It took us a long time, but it finally happened! My pregnancy was fine. But then, just as I started into the fifth month, I miscarried. It was a terrible time. I thought that it would be the worst thing that ever happened to me but I was wrong. Just a few months later, when I wanted to try again, my husband informed me that he didn’t want to be a father and not only that, he didn’t want to be my husband either. So in just a few months, I’d lost my baby and my husband.
My faith in God grew greatly through that experience. I prayed without ceasing. I prayed that God would cure my husband of alcoholism and bring him back to me. I prayed that I could forgive him, accept him back and have a baby. I’d never talked so much to God in my life. I thought I was okay, until the people at my church quoted scripture that left no doubt that I was doomed to go to hell because I was divorced.
My best friend since 2nd grade, whose mom was my Sunday School teacher, called me to tell me that she was so sorry, but she wondered what I was going to do with my life now that I could never be married or have children. I was shocked. I’d never read the scriptures that they shared with me. Or if I had read them, I’d never interpreted them to mean what they were saying they meant. I stopped going to church. I was ashamed to show my face there. I felt alone, afraid and estranged from the God I thought I knew.
My co-workers introduced me to a handsome man who was going through a divorce too. We ended up shacking up together. That didn’t bode well for going to church either. But, it was my relationship with God that forced him to propose.
I just couldn’t go to church while I was ‘living in sin’. So I thought, if I told Steve that I wanted to go back to church, he would simply agree to marry me. So I asked him.
But he said, “No”.
He didn’t want to get married again – ever, he never wanted to have more children either. He certainly didn’t want to go to church and so he moved out!
I cried every day for nearly a month. But then he called and said we needed to talk. When I finally agreed to see him again, he got down on one knee and proposed. It took me three days to say yes! We had so much baggage to sort out. The one thing I really wanted was for him to go to church with me. He agreed! We didn’t get married in a church, and he said I wasn’t allowed to pressure him, but he promised that someday he would go to church with me.
For our first wedding anniversary, he bought study bibles and told me that he was ready! He was baptized and we both joined a nearby United Methodist Church. The next few years were wonderful. We were extremely active in our new church. From Sunday school, to Bible studies to VBS and mission trips, we did it all.
But then Steve was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Over the years, he continued to decline. Finally, tired of one terrible winter after another, we gave up, left our children and grandkids and moved to Arizona where I am happy to say he has a much better quality of life. The first thing we did when we got to Kingman was find a church! We are blessed to have the people at St. John’s as our new family. Steve couldn’t come with me today because he’s back there cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the whole church! He spends more time in the church kitchen than he does in ours!
So St. John’s has been such a blessing to us these last 10 years. He’s had to have several surgeries and endured many painful flare ups and through it all, our church family has been invaluable. I don’t know what we would do without them. We’ve been very active in our church and I am very grateful. I’ve directed several VBS programs. The last one I directed, we wrote ourselves.
My pastor at the time commented “I’m just waiting to hear when you’re going to seminary.”
And the seed was planted. I’ve tried to ignore that growing seed but it just gets bigger. We visited Israel in the spring of 2014. The very first place we stopped was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is the place where we believe Jesus served the disciple’s breakfast after his resurrection. You can read that story in the gospel of John chapter 21 verses 4 – 14.
There is a huge rock there with a plaque on it that reads “The deeds and miracles of Jesus are not actions of the past, Jesus is waiting for those who are still prepared to take risks at his word because they trust his power utterly.”
I made a decision, at that moment, to go to seminary.
I thought it might just be the drama of being in Israel, so I tried to squash the call. But, I cannot be at rest. I know that God wants me to help His people. I really don’t know how this is going to work out. I am currently the Nurse Manager on our OB unit. It is more than a full time job. Anyway, last year, when the church asked me to be their lay leader, I said “yes” not really knowing what that entailed. And a few months later, Pastor Sandy offered to let me preach here and I said yes! I was so excited to be finally on my way to becoming a pastor.
As I prepared for our annual conference this past summer, I grew even more excited. I planned to go forward and declare my call to ministry. Before the conference, we were sent numerous e-mails and we were asked to complete a survey about the activities of our church. Intertwined through it all was this inclusivity issue. I had no idea that our church excluded anyone. And so I began to educate myself.
I was shocked at what I learned. I do not know how I have been a member of the United Methodist Church my entire life and I did not know that this issue has been tearing our church apart for over 40 years! At one particularly memorable time, during my daily prayers, I cried out to God to “fix His people” before I had to go to the conference and deal with this difficult issue.
I clearly heard God say, “You fix them.”
I had no idea what to do. Just before it was time to go, I learned that the general conference had decided to form a coalition of bishops to find a way forward. So I didn’t think I needed to have everything figured out before the conference. I just went in a spirit of eager anticipation.
When we arrived at the conference, I called out greetings and waved to my friends. But they all seemed cool and removed. At the first timer’s introductory breakfast, I hugged our district lay leader and said how excited I was to be there.
He turned to another and said in a wry tone, “We’ll see if she still feels that way on Sunday!”
I was surprised and disappointed. Some of my excitement faded away that morning. As the conference went on, it became obvious that there was really only one agenda item. Everyone seemed to be in on a plan that I wasn’t a part of. All of my closest friends were all for this inclusivity issue. As the proceedings wore on, I was devastated. I left not sure if I wanted to be a pastor in the United Methodist Church, if all we were going to do is argue about policies. I left the conference very confused.
The weeks and months that followed were filled with anxiety for me. I enrolled and was accepted to Fuller seminary. I tried to be excited. I was to start classes September 12. But I just couldn’t do it. I was so full of anxiety about it that I couldn’t sleep. I’d get up in the night and pray but it seemed like God was ignoring me. I have never been an anxious person. I have always relied on God and He always calms my fears. But it seemed that He wasn’t listening. I e-mailed my student advisor and delayed my start until winter quarter.
My anxiety only got worse. I worried that God was angry with me for denying my call to ministry. I worried that God was disappointed with me because I do not want to be involved in this issue of exclusion. I do not want to try to “fix His people.” I just want to help church people know Jesus. I do not care about their sexual orientation. I figured I just go be a pastor in a different church where it didn’t matter. But as I continued to educate myself, I understand that this issue is in every church. Furthermore, the issue is deeper and bigger than excluding some people. The issue threatens the very word of God.
My anxiety continued to plague me as it came time to attend an Emmaus weekend retreat. I was to be a table leader on the retreat. I felt like such a hypocrite, that I didn’t even think it was right for me to go but it was too late to get someone else to do it. As I got ready for the retreat, I just hoped and prayed that God would guide me. And maybe I would be able to figure out what God wanted from me.
The first message of the Emmaus weekend is to understand one’s priorities. We were given a rock as an illustration. You’ve probably seen the demonstration. You have to put the big rocks in the jar first, so that they fit in. If you fill your life with all the little insignificant things, there’s no room left for the big things. I was careful to select the perfect rock from the bag that was offered. I picked one that was big enough to write on, but small enough to fit in my pocket. I liked it because it had one flat side so it was able to balance up-right on a flat surface. Of course, I know to put God first, but I needed him to be more specific. I needed to know exactly what he wanted me to do next. I held the rock in my hand and asked God to help me write His number one priority on my rock, so that I could be at peace.
Later, at another time during the walk, we were given time in a meaningful way, to give up something that is a barrier to our ability to trust God. I used that experience to give up my anxiety. I really meant it when I prayed to give up my anxiety, but I didn’t feel immediate peace, and I still didn’t know what to write on my rock.
At still another time on the walk, we were encouraged to spend individual time in the chapel alone or with a clergy person. I took my rock into the chapel and squeezed it really hard while I prayed fervently for God to tell me what to write on my rock. I poured out all my anxieties. I know that God knows our hearts but I think that we often believe that if we just don’t acknowledge something, maybe he won’t hold us accountable for it. So I confessed to God all of my doubts, fears and worries about heading into ministry.
I confessed that I know Jesus says over and over again ‘do not worry’. My favorite ‘do not worry’ verse is Matthew chapter 6 verse 34. Do not worry about tomorrow. That pretty much says it all, huh? So I know that it is wrong to worry. I confessed that I want to be like the disciples who immediately dropped their nets to follow Jesus; Matthew, chapter 4 verse 19. I confessed that I feel like I am the rich young man in Luke 9:29 or the man who needed to go bury his father in Matthew 8:28. I feel like I am dragging my nets behind me, full of baggage, as I make a feeble attempt to follow Jesus.
As I came to the end of my list of worries, I tried to wait patiently for God to answer. That’s the hardest part for me. I’m good at sharing all my concerns and all my prayer requests, but I’m not good at listening. I made a special effort to listen that day. I clearly heard God say just one thing in that quiet manner in which He generally speaks.
He said simply this. “My Grace is sufficient for all of that.”
I actually wanted to be upset. I wanted God to be more specific; and yet, I was at peace with His answer. I don’t understand why. But then it dawned on me that we aren’t supposed to understand that peace! It’s the peace that passes understanding, right, Philippians chapter 4 verse 7?
As the weekend progressed, my anxiety dissolved but I still did not know what to write on my rock. I wanted God to give me clear step by step directions, even though I know that’s not typically how God works. Finally, on the last evening, at a particularly special service, we again are given quiet time with God. I tried to quiet my mind to hear Him clearly, and I did! I finally knew what to write on my rock. It’s hard to explain, but I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt and I was at complete peace with the direction that God had given me. This makes no sense, because the word God gave me was: OBEDIENCE. I honestly have no idea what my next step is, but I am totally okay with that because it doesn’t matter.
I could hardly wait to write the word obedience on my rock. The next morning, during my prayer time, I pulled out a black Sharpie and prepared to write the word Obedience on my rock. But, alas, I am not a very good speller and I didn’t know how to spell it. I wanted it spelled right; after all, it was going to be written on this special rock, in permanent ink! And, it was a directive – straight from God.
I was too lazy to get up and get my tablet to look up the word in Webster’s. I figured the word obedience had to be in the concordance of my bible, so I looked it up. Sure enough, there it was. I carefully copied the word in all caps on my rock. I was careful to space the letters just right so they fit on the rock. When I was finished, I stood the rock upright on its flat side and immediately took a disliking to it! All I saw were three big black letters that read DIE! D. I. E.
I was so disappointed. I wanted to call the Emmaus team and get a new rock! Who wants to look at a directive straight from God that says DIE! I tried to wipe the letters off so I could print them differently, but it was a permanent marker! I set the rock aside. As I was closing my bible, I noticed that one of the scriptures referenced to the word obedience, was the one about the fruit of the spirit; Galatians, chapter 5. I found that odd and interesting. So I turned to that scripture and read the familiar verses that we read together earlier. Verses 22 and 23 don’t seem to be directly related to obedience, but when you back up and read what comes before those familiar verses, the meaning becomes much clearer.
Beginning with verse 16, I read 16 So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 17 The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. 18 But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses. 19 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, 21 envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. 25 Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. 26 Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another.
Suddenly, for the first time ever, I understood that scripture in a much deeper sense. The fruit of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are not gifts bestowed upon us by God because we believe in Jesus and attempt to follow Him. The fruit of the Spirit comes forth from us as a result of our obedience to God.
Suddenly, when I looked at my rock, I was not appalled that the only word I saw was DIE. I understood that to experience the fruit of the spirit, all I had to do was force my sinful nature to die so that it will no longer have control over me. And then, when my sinful nature no longer has control, the Holy Spirit will have control; and the fruit that will come forth from within me is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control!
But I feel like I’m in some terrible horror film with my sinful nature. In the first scene, I’m slashing away at my sinful nature.
“Die, sinful nature die!”
But in the very next scene, I’m crying out, “Let my creation live!”
No wonder I am not at peace! Ever since I started writing this message, I’ve been trying to figure out how to kill off my sinful nature. I figure, if my sinful nature just died, then I would be reveling in the good fruits of the Spirit. But it won’t die. I do not know how to crucify my sinful nature.
While I’ve been struggling to finish this message; Tracy, friend of mine, asked me to teach her Wednesday evening tween group. I was confident that the class would go well. I felt prepared and I’ve known the kids since they were preschoolers. But the kids were so disrespectful. And they were rough with the bibles. One of the boys slammed a bible down on the table so hard, that the binding broke. And another boy “accidently” tore out a page!
The lesson was all about the bible. There were points about how we know that the bible is true. Why the book is different than any other book ever printed. How we know that the bible is historically correct, and when and how often we should read it. The kids started sharing how they struggle to explain to their friends why they believe in the bible. They talked about how the universe was created from a big bang. They said that they knew that Noah’s flood never really happened.
I barely got through the class. I tried to defend the bible with the points that were highlighted in the lesson. I could tell that the kids really didn’t believe them. One of the boys said that he would never take a bible to school. He said that he witnessed a student tearing a bible to pieces at school. Another boy said that their school doesn’t even allow them to bring a bible to school. I was at a loss for words.
I’ve taught these kids since they were in preschool. I taught them the creation story. We read and re-read the flood story. We had in depth discussions about many fantastic bible stories. I worried that I hadn’t taught them well enough. Maybe I focused too much on the “stories” and not enough on the gospel message.
I felt terrible when the class was over. I was so frustrated because I thought I knew the kids and they certainly had never acted that way before. I started thinking about the kids I’d had in class. One of the girls had just experienced her father’s unexpected death. One boy’s parents had just gotten divorced. Two of the children had parents who are incarcerated, awaiting trials for their involvement in using and selling drugs.
It occurred to me that these kids are simply broken. Their spirits are broken. All of the teaching I did for them when they were younger is not enough. They cannot survive the terrible situations in their lives, with hope in their hearts, for a positive future; if all they have to lean on is fantastic, idealistic stories. They need the gospel message, the good news. They need the hope of the world. They need Jesus!
And it is up to us to show them. It is not enough to tell them. We have to live the gospel message! It is not enough to teach them the stories. It is impossible to force them to believe in the scriptures. We cannot defend the scriptures with our words. To be understood, the scriptures must be read in the very presence of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, the scriptures are pure folly. They are ridiculous and meaningless. When we read the scriptures away from the presence of the Holy Spirit, they tear us down instead of building us up. God created us with His word. He sustains us with His word.
So please help me. We must stop banging the bible around, breaking the binding and wanting to tear out some pages. Because while we are busy tearing each other apart, throwing scripture at each other in an attempt to condemn one another, our children are watching. As we are defending our sinful natures, trying to fake the fruit of the spirit, without succumbing to the Holy Spirit, the gospel message loses all meaning.
So how? I was talking to my mom last Sunday evening. I’ve been working on this message for months and I just couldn’t pull it all together. I was stuck because I don’t know how to crucify my sinful nature. So I asked her. She’s 82. She’s been a Christian her whole life. Surely she knows, I thought.
But she said “I don’t know.”
I was crushed. Will I be 82 and still not know, I wondered?
But then she said, “I think that happens while you’re down on your knees.”