I was wrong; this is my final entry. It’s December 17, 2018, and while I suppose this could go on indefinitely as our story continues to unfold, yesterday was a significant day in the life of our church and it feels like sharing some reflections would be a more fitting way to wrap things up.
It was the next to last Sunday before Christmas, so the morning’s service was anything but typical. It’s the third week of Advent, so for starters, there was the weekly lighting of a candle to mark our ongoing journey toward the celebration of Christ’s birth. Then, as you might have guessed if you’ve ever stepped foot in a church around this time of year, a gaggle of twenty-some children took their places on a small riser at the front of the sanctuary waiting to perform a seasonal song, replete with adorable actions and wide, stretching smiles. And because you can never have too much Christmas—a sentiment shared by just about every church in town during these high holiday seasons—once the younger children had taken their seats, we also had our junior youth band make their debut, leading us in some more Christmas revelry. My thirteen year-old son stood among them playing guitar, which was quite significant for me, and I’d be lying if I said my eyes were completely dry by the end of the song.
But it wasn’t the content of the service that I want to reflect on here so much as what came afterward, and then, finally, what came after that.
(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.)
With a desire to bring this season of our church’s journey to as much of an end as possible, our Board arranged to have a members’ meeting following the service and invited two representatives from our denominational office to join us. The members would be voting on a motion to disaffiliate, which was at the request of our denominational family, as I’ve already shared. I did my best to ignore the fact that these representatives were there during my sermon, risking an unexpected emotional twist if I were to actually think about the fact that this twenty-year relationship was less than an hour away from officially coming to an end. So I avoided eye contact and led our community through the story of the angelic announcement to Mary and her brave, borderline miraculous acceptance of God’s will for her life. The service wrapped up and we took a short break so those who would not be staying for the meeting could make their way into the gym to sit around tables discussing the morning’s theme, and so I could sneak out and grab a glass of water before starting the ‘official’ business.
I had spent the previous couple of weeks sharpening my understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order, keenly aware of the significance of the decisions our community of faith would be making, and not wanting there to be any room for further controversy due to a lack of attention to detail. As senior pastor, I would chair the meeting, and one of the blessings in disguise, I thought, was that the chair is to remain neutral in all discussion of business, something that would help me stay focused and hopefully keep things on the surface. (I wasn’t exactly hoping for a public display of emotion.) The idea was that we would vote on a motion to disaffiliate, to be followed by two resolutions regarding the wording of our By-Laws, assuming the first motion was carried. In the end, this is what happened, and while there was some spirited dialogue, it was a healthy and reasonable discussion. Admittedly, there were both tears and laughter on my part, which I joked was not supposed to be the case at a members’ meeting!
The tears came when a member of our community spoke up and articulated her appreciation for the strong leadership I had shown over the course of the past year. With her own eyes moistening up, she talked about how grateful she was that she could raise her children in a community where they could look up to their pastor as a role model who led with courage and conviction. It was a humbling moment for me, and I don’t imagine the picture of her sitting there in the front pew of our sanctuary sharing about the impact of my leadership during such a difficult moment of my life will ever fade from memory. It was a gift to me, made all the more significant by the heart-felt applause the rest of the membership gave as she concluded her remarks.
One of the District representatives came up to respond to a question that was asked from the floor, and then again at the conclusion of the meeting to stand alongside Melissa and I and speak words of encouragement and pray blessing over our leadership and over our church’s future. It was an incredible display of grace and understanding. He didn’t use the moment as an opportunity to cause further division or to make sure everyone knew where the denomination stood on this issue and why, but simply created a space for an honest expression of appreciation for the twenty years of partnership and an acknowledgment that, while our paths diverge at this point, we will each continue to do God’s work in the world in our own ways. I think ‘holy’ would be the best way to describe the moment as he and the other representative laid hands on my wife and I and prayed over us to conclude the meeting.
As people began to file out, a number of the members came up to the front to personally express support for both Melissa and I. My parents, who are members of our congregation, were the first in line. Afterward, Melissa would say to me, “They hate to see you struggling like that”—and I know that it’s true. They were followed by others, some of whom we have sojourned with for fully twenty years now, and others who have more recently merged their path with ours. People could sense that this was a significant moment for our church and for myself as a pastor. One member came up to me and expressed how, though he disagreed with the direction we had chosen, he was still appreciative of my leadership and of our church community. Is it possible to over-emphasize just how important it is for people in a congregation to hold a perspective like that?
But it was a group of children from our oldest Sunday School class that I’d like to end with. They brought Melissa and I a gift bag and told us that it had “chili and cookies” inside. It was adorable! We thanked them and set the gift aside, and when we got home, we opened the card. The names of the children in the class were scrawled somewhat aimlessly around the inside, a couple of them sharing brief words of thanks, and then one writing what might be the most appropriate and honest summary of the past year of my pastoral life: “Thank you for being at church even when you don’t feel like it.”
Every pastor has days like that, and I hazard to guess that most pastors even have seasons like that. Well this has been one of those seasons for me. Even on those days when I didn’t feel like it, when the only thing I felt I could handle or the only thing I felt worthy of doing was crawling back under the covers and hiding away from the day that awaited me, I was given the strength to keep moving, trusting that in some unfathomable way, God was with me in this, that God was with all of us in this.
For our Call to Worship during Advent, we have been reading a prayer written by the late Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen. During yesterday morning’s service, the prayer was read by one of our grade three children with his mother standing by his side as his father and sister lit the aforementioned candle on our Advent wreath. The prayer concludes with a line that I also think is a fitting way to conclude my writing, and so it’s with these words that I’ll sign off (for real this time):
“We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ ”
Peace be with you.