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What I Wish I Had Known When I Entered the Ministry — Never Say "Never"

by Cheri Walters

Chéri Walters has served as music minister, staff pastor, Bible teacher, worship leader, and pastor's wife for over 35 years alongside her husband, Ken, in Oklahoma, Florida, and their native California. She is the current president/presbyter of SoCal Women In Ministry for the Southern California District Council.

You have to love the disciple Peter. He was impulsive, passionate, full-speed-ahead, and often dead wrong. Just like me. Peter's mistakes are full-color, life-size posters of grace. Peter made lots of mistakes, petty ones and cosmic ones, but he kept getting back on course, and he finished well. Peter gives us hope. Peter gives me hope. I have something in common with Peter: We've both said "never!" to God, and not just once.

Picture Peter praying on a rooftop patio, stomach growling while he waits for lunch (Acts 10:9-15). In some kind of trance, he sees a vision of all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds, and hears a voice telling him to "Kill and eat." Peter recognizes the voice, but this kosher Jewish man is shocked nonetheless. "Surely not, Lord! ... I have never eaten anything impure or unclean" (verse 14, NIV).

I wonder if God laughed at Peter. The irony is inescapable. The God who created everything, including the Jewish dietary laws, reassures Peter, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (verse 15). The Message puts it, "If God says it's okay, it's okay." God has to reassure Peter three times before Peter stops replying with a knee-jerk "never" response (Acts 10:16-20). But Peter did get what God said, not just about food barriers coming down, but about ethnic and racial barriers coming down (verses 28,29). Maybe Peter didn't get it the first time, or even the second, but he did get it. This makes me feel so much better about me.

When my husband and I were at university preparing for ministry, he asked me if I would be willing to go anywhere the Lord sent us.

"Anywhere but the desert," I blithely replied.

I wish I had known early in my ministry to bite my tongue when the word "never" pops into my head.

It was a knee-jerk reaction from this naïve coastal California girl, with no thought attached. Our first church staff position was in Taft, located in the barren oilfields of California's San Joaquin Valley. Yes, the desert. The day of our interview with the pastor, we drove for miles with nothing to see but brown hills, oil wells, and tumbleweeds. The temperature was 112 degrees, and it was May. Our pastor said he was glad it was so hot that day, so we'd know what to expect. He said, "All God's chosen servants started, like Moses, on the backside of the desert. And it doesn't get any more backside than this!" I'm pretty sure I heard God laughing.

So I learned the lesson to never say "never!" to God ... at least about where I was willing to go. He tested me again 2 years later when our first child was 3 weeks old. He sent us to Florida, 3,000 miles from both our families. Saying goodbye to my mom and dad and carrying my baby up the ramp into the plane was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But I went. I cried a lot the first few weeks, but I was learning that where God calls us, He takes care of us. He did, and we ended up back in California a couple of years later, this time near the coast. What a gift of grace! I never again took it for granted.

But Peter and I have said "never!" to God more than once. Remember Peter at the Last Supper? Only a few days after the palm branches and the crowds and the "Hosannas," the disciples were riding high on the wave of Jesus' celebrity status. They were full of themselves, jockeying for position, and arguing over who was greatest in the disciple pecking order (Luke 22:24-30). Jesus alone was fully aware of the countdown to the Cross, of the few hours remaining to prepare His closest friends for the unthinkable. He stands up, removes His outer clothing, and wraps a towel around His waist. He takes up a basin and, like the lowest in the servant pecking order, begins to wash their feet (John 13:1-10). When He gets to Peter, Peter replies "No, ... you shall never wash my feet" (verse 8, NIV). Jesus anticipated Peter's response, because just before that He said, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand" (verse 7, NIV). Like so many of us, Peter blurts out a never first, only to think about it later. Jesus knows him thoroughly, and loves him anyway. Nevertheless, He holds Peter's foot to the fire, or in this case, the basin: "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." And passionate, headstrong, headlong Peter says, "Then, Lord ... not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!" (verse 9). Did Jesus laugh? John doesn't say. Maybe He just shook His head and sighed.

Just when I thought I'd learned my lesson about never saying "never" to God, my husband and I left staff positions at a church of a thousand to pastor a church of 20. Talk about culture shock! This time, I didn't say I would never go there, but I did say I'd never play the piano there. You'd think I would have known better than to say "never." Even though I'd been the minister of music at a couple of churches, I'd only had to schedule the many accompanists for worship — not actually play an instrument myself. But on our third Sunday at the new church, the pianist left. So I started in the key of C and practiced during the week, and worked my way through the keys, one sharp or flat at a time. The first few weeks I cried on the way home from church. I was humiliated. My mom is a fantastic keyboard player, and I could hear her playing in my head, but my hands were obviously not tuned to the same station. Eventually, God brought others alongside to play with me, and it got better, and I got better.

Over the years, I have made impulsive, thought-free comments like, "I am called to music ministry, not (fill in the blank)." I said "never" to teaching preschool Sunday School class, leading girls' ministries, teaching new believers, and preaching on Sunday morning — all of which I ended up doing. As recently 6 years ago, after much encouragement from good women minister friends, I decided I would seek ordination. And I said at the time, "But I can never see myself being a presbyter." Wrong again.

I wish I had known early in my ministry to bite my tongue when the word "never" pops into my head. I have had to learn that if "never" is bouncing around my thoughts, it usually means I'm scared, or I think something is too hard, or it's beneath me or above me, or I'm not good at it. Saying "never" to God is me putting boundaries around God's call, around His power, around my own potential for growth, trust, and maturity. It's code for relying on my own power and understanding instead of God's boundless resources.

I'm not proud that it's taken me so long to learn that God often calls us to places, tasks, and ministries outside our comfort zones, even though it's all spelled out in the Bible (Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Jeremiah, etc.) But when I think of Peter, who talked and listened, ate and lived with Jesus, who saw Him resurrected, who experienced the Day of Pentecost, and yet still said, "never," I have hope for finishing well. Like him, I want to learn to never say "never" again.