September 4, 2018. Today is the first day of school. Our oldest son has moved into his dorm with a week of orientation already behind him, but this will be the first day of classes for all three of them. Everyone experiences the first day of school differently, but I believe that for most there is a mixture of fear and excitement. Even as adults, we can recall to memory quite easily those feelings of anticipation as the summer winds to a close and we get ready to head back to the routines and relationships that will give structure to our lives for the better part of a year.
(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)
In a church, too, September brings a return to ‘normalcy’ as we slide back into our routines and re-connect with the broader community that we may have lost touch with a bit over the course of the summer. In my early years pastoring a student church, I remember that by mid-August I would be questioning why we were even doing this, with our numbers dwindling away the way they would, but then September would arrive and with it a burst of life and energy as students returned to the city and a new crop of frosh arrived. Even if the numbers were discouraging as the summer drew to a close, I always loved the potential latent in that season, knowing that new relationships and wide-open opportunities were just around the corner.
I head into this particular fall on the other side of two very different weeks: the first featured a fissure in a long-time and close relationship with a friend and member of our Staff team, while the second featured an indescribably relaxing time spent with my family at a cottage on a quiet lake in the Muskokas. Before we left, I told the people who provided the cottage for us that I don’t think I have ever needed a vacation this much in my life. And I didn’t just say that for effect; it truly was a breath of fresh air in lungs that were begging for oxygen. We did a whole lot of nothing while we were there: reading, playing board games, canoeing, kayaking, paddle-boarding, watching movies, and making campfires. I’m grateful for the gift that this time was for our family and believe that it has allowed me to get some much needed rest before I walk into what will be a new season in more than the usual ways.
Admittedly, though, I had even higher hopes for this week. Melissa and I agreed that all talk about the recent fall-out and about the past few months of our journey would be off limits, which she was able to handle until the next to last day of our time away. That's not bad for someone with a strong extroverted personality who was isolated from everyone other than her immediate family and desperately needed to process things by talking! But already by mid-week, I was sensing that I might not experience the full recovery I had hoped for. It was unreasonable to believe I would, I can see that now, but at the time I thought that all I needed to recover was a good quiet week away followed by an exciting start to a new fall term with all of this ‘mess’ behind me. But by the time I went for a run on Wednesday morning, I was ready to prayerfully admit to God that I was not feeling the healing I was hoping for, but that I was also willing to carry this weight with me a little further so long as He went with me.
And so this will be my prayer as I get ready for Sunday morning and it will also be what I will find a way to share with our church after all that we have gone through together over these past few months: That there’s no point going anywhere if God doesn’t go with us, and that He will go with us.
I send the following letter to our congregation, naming the loss we’ve experienced over the course of these past months and expressing my hope that we can turn a page and begin a new season of life together:
To My Elevation Family,
Driving into the church this morning, I couldn’t help but notice the steady stream of backpacked children filing down the sidewalks on their way to school. There really is something special about this time of year as we make the transition from summer to fall. In keeping with the theme of change, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on where our Elevation community has been so far this year and what lies ahead.
The first eight months of 2018 have been a trying season for our congregation, there’s no doubt about it. At the start of the year, we intentionally waded into some deep waters in search of a healthy and hopeful path forward with respect to one of the church’s most divisive topics: the intersection of same-sex attraction and Christian faith. We knew from the outset that even the best case scenario would be challenging. I think of the equation I shared with you back in February: diversity + understanding → tension. The vision I cast at that time was that, as we learned to hold this tension, we would gain the prize of unity which Christ prayed for in Gethsemane and which Paul set before the Ephesian believers when he wrote, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
But even our best efforts can fall short; even our best intentions sometimes fail to materialize. And so, over the course of these past months we have experienced loss. Few among us have been left untouched by the departure of some very good people from our Elevation community: friends, mentors, family, mid-week group members, and partners in ministry. I have had the weighty privilege of talking and weeping with people who have struggled deeply with a tension that has proven too tight to sustain. Most if not all of those who have chosen to leave our community have done so with heavy hearts, even as we feel our own heaviness in their leaving.
Our church’s leadership has not been unaffected by these departures either. Earlier in the summer, [—] stepped down from her role on our Steering Committee, and more recently, [—] resigned from his role on our Staff team. Both have long histories with our Elevation community, and so their decisions were not made lightly, but out of a desire to do what they believe is best for both their families and our church. We are grateful for their service, as we are for many of the others who will leave other holes in the fabric of our community life. For those who have chosen to leave, we pray God’s blessing as they make their way into new communities and find new people with whom to live out and grow in their faith.
Before we gather this weekend for the first time on the other side of summer, I wanted to acknowledge and name the hurt of this season we've been walking through. On a personal note, I have never walked through such a trying season. The feelings of loss and rejection are particularly painful for me, and I think it’s important for you to know how deep of a struggle this has been for me as your pastor.
But that is not all there is to our story. The pain is real, yes, but so is the hope. For every person we have lost, many more have remained, believing that the course we are charting together, while difficult, is in fact a godly and inspiring one. That’s what I believe: that the path we are walking will open up new opportunities to be shaped and formed in the image of Christ, and to invite others to join us in our pursuit of the life God calls us to live. I believe we have an important story to tell—one that calls people out beyond the usual arguments and divisions and into the fullness of God’s great love for each and every one of us. It’s a story that our world desperately needs to hear!
This week, I’ve been thinking about the passage from Exodus 33 where Moses is found bargaining with God as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land. God expresses his frustration with His “stiff-necked” people and informs Moses that He will not, in fact, continue to travel with them. Needless to say, not at all what Moses wanted to hear.
During Israel’s years of wandering through the wilderness, the people had seen God’s presence go ahead of them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and even if they didn’t understand it all, they knew that in some unfathomable way their God really was with them. So the news that God was now planning to send the people off on their own was not well received, to say the least, which led to Moses’ bargaining session:
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
Oh, the boldness of his words! But isn’t that what we all need if we have any chance in the world of putting one step in front of the other: for God to show us His glory and lead us on into unfamiliar territory? Especially after a season like we’ve gone through—granted, no forty years of wandering through the wilderness, but still—there’s no point in going anywhere if God doesn’t go with us. And I’m convinced that He will go with us.
I have shared about a dream I had on my last sabbatical where our Elevation community was on a hike and had reached a plateau with an inspiring view. But there was something on the horizon: another peak with an even more inspiring view. The problem was that in order to get there we would have to descend down a steep and daunting path, traveling back from where we had just come. Well, it’s official, we have begun this descent together, but let us always remember that it is in search of the better place that God has in store for our church! And He will go with us, because He is pleased with us and He knows us by name.
This new season brings with it an invitation for you to consider the role you can play in helping to strengthen our church community for the journey ahead. Wherever there are gaps, there are opportunities, so think about how you can respond and come prepared to chip in. I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone again on Sunday and to worshipping together along with our new Worship Leader, [—]. So come with anticipation and come with joy!
May God give us the strength and courage to continue down this steep path;
May we know His healing as we acknowledge the loss we have experienced;
May we keep our eyes on the great task that we have been called to;
May the glory of God be revealed in our midst this year.
Your pastor and fellow sojourner,