It happens every spring. A long winter of cold dark days finally lifts. Birds sing clearly. Flowers bloom. The sun seems brighter. Finally, we all begin to feel like it’s time for some sunlight.
Of course, I actually live in the Bay Area. We don’t really have long dark winters. This year, we didn’t even get very much rain. The flowers have actually been blooming for a while, judging from the allergies people have been complaining about.
But, I’ve been under a cloud for a while and, really, it’s my own fault. A little story here.
It all started between Christmas and New Years. We were at Mt. Hermon Retreat Center here in Northern California enjoying our annual Winter Retreat with our San Francisco New Start Ministries congregation. It’s a very enjoyable time for all of us.
Part of the retreat this year was a free time period in which we offered a Q&A with the pastors in which Pastor Robbie and I sat down with whomever wanted to join us and answered all the questions they had for us. It’s really a good time.
One of the questions was from our friend, Jenny Chang. She asked me what I felt was my favorite part of being a pastor. I gave her an unusual answer. I told her that I thought my favorite part was actually performing funerals. There was a kind of pause as the young people who make up this congregation looked at me like I was some kind of morbid ghoul, but I asked them to let me explain.
Every pastor has their own feel or sense of what God has called them to be. Some are pure evangelists, some are great charismatic preachers, and others display a variety of individual gifting for ministry. For me, the call to ministry is a call to be a simple parish priest; to simply do life with a group of people among whom God has placed me in order to share His voice to that community. The best parts are when you touch the lives of those people in a personal way. That certainly includes the moments of celebration like weddings, births, anniversaries, baptisms, baby dedications, new membership receptions and, yes, those moments of conversion when people give their lives to Him. Those are all times of rejoicing, and I like to rejoice as much as anyone. But, really, everyone likes to rejoice, and it’s never hard to find someone to celebrate with you in the good times. Even those outside the Body of Christ are willing to do that.
But there are also times when people cannot rejoice, when the circumstances of their lives cause them to stumble and look for answers to sometimes unanswerable questions. Relationship failures, divorce, problems with children or, increasingly these days, elderly parents; all these things are not times of rejoicing. And, often, the worst is when they are dealing with the death and loss of a loved one, especially when it’s unexpected or untimely in terms of age. In death, people need answers that only God can give, and the parish priest is called on to bring comfort where there is no earthly comfort.
It’s in those times that I experience God working through me the most, doing through me things I know I am not capable of accomplishing. He is strength in our weakness, and I have come to learn that those are the times when I feel closest to Him and also to the people to whom He has called me to shepherd. So, all things considered, funerals actually represent the pinnacle of my calling in a way. When I explained that to Jenny and the others gathered there, they seemed to really understand.
The next day, I got a call from my sister-in-law, Denise, telling me that Margie’s mother had died unexpectedly. Within days, we were in Oklahoma for that funeral and to help comfort her dad.
Two weeks later, her dad also died, also unexpectedly, and we were there once again with the family mourning a loss.
Between those funerals, I performed the memorial for the oldest member of my local congregation in Fremont, the widow of a Nazarene pastor I had known. And, within a few weeks, we were gathered again to bury the last charter member of our congregation there who still attended the church. And, we weren’t through.
Since that day at Mt. Hermon, I have performed or been a part of 7 funerals this year. Last week, there were two of them. 2013 has been a time of loss.
And, I finally looked up to God and pleaded, “No more!” I have been emotionally drained for nearly four months, even as we dealt with some of the most challenging issues of ministries in my years as a pastor.
There have been bright spots. The unsolicited prayers of people who have lifted me up have been a great solace to me during this time. There have been people who have come alongside us and offered financial assistance at times when we were uncertain that we’d be able to continue in our ministry track. God has been there in so many ways, especially through the words and actions of brothers and sisters in Christ, that we are unable to recount them all.
And now, we are beginning to see the sunlight.
On Sunday, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of New Start Ministries. God has blessed us and there is a remarkable vision for the future and it’s still there.
Fremont Journey of Faith has begun to turn the corner, both in ministry and financially. It does not appear that I’ll have to return to bi-vocational status any time soon.
Difficult times will always come, but God is always able to deliver us. In the moment of our greatest distress, He reveals Himself not only to be there with us, but also to have with him the uncounted multitudes of others who are following Him. He has the resources we need, if we will simply and faithfully follow Him.
Maybe you’re in a dark place right now. Don’t give up!
Maybe things are going your way right now. Keep following Him!
Greater is He that is in us, than he that is in the world!
Always praying for you,
Your older brother,