“HE IS NOT HERE” No, really…

It’s Easter Sunday and I’m a pastor. But this morning, I slept in.

This is my first Easter not to spend the day leading or preaching. You see, last Sunday after 5 years spent planting a new church, we called it quits. And I figured instead of going through the motions for Easter, the honorable thing to do was release my people to find a new church home on the Sunday most churches put their best foot forward.

I did drive over to our old location about 10 minutes before our usual service time. I told my wife I just wanted to make sure no one showed up expecting church at the space we’d been renting for our services. I guess we got the word out well enough, the parking lot was empty.

What I didn’t tell my wife was, I think I really drove over their because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I’m a pastor, by golly (sound like one, too). It’s Easter, the best fodder for sermons, and God gave it to us on a silver platter. But I’ve got nothing to do.

I drove around the parking lot, haunting the place like a ghost. I eventually drive back home and have brunch with my family, spending a lazy day together watching “Godspell” on the TV as background noise.

I remember driving past an ugly little country church one Easter. The sign out front said simply “He is not here”. From some churches I’ve been in, I knew that sign was probably a great example of truth-in-advertising…

Five years ago I’d left the staff of another church. I did it so suddenly, lots of people thought I’d been fired. In truth, I’d had enough a long time before. But I waited until God gave me the word, and left to start a church focused on reaching the truly unchurched.

You know, the people every church says they’re trying to reach, but never seem to get around to.

For five years, I pushed a sound system in and out of three different rented buildings, hoping I’d have enough help to get everything together by worship time. We’d been everywhere from a foreclosed warehouse to a school to a nightclub. And along the way, we did get to see many people come to Christ. But unfortunately, not quite enough to pay the bills.

To make ends meet, I tried to get odd jobs. I did a stint as a jail chaplain, which was scary and frustrating. Nothing like having to hand out copies of the Qu’ran when you’re a Baptist preacher. By the end, I had blown through most of my savings and retirement, trying to fund the thing and hoping to eventually attract some stable, mature Christians who’s come in, tithe, and help me disciple the new believers.

Unfortunately, most of those folks want a nice church building and a gazillion programs for their kids: all the things I didn’t have. We did have terrific worship and a pretty decent sermon each week, But as my teenage daughter noted, it was all a little too personal for some who just wanted to watch and blend in with the surroundings.

The smaller crowd made some people uncomfortable, especially those who just wanted to be entertained and leave. Everybody was working, so it probably made folks feel bad if they weren’t helping. And you knew a church that small really depended on your giving to survive. Skip your tithe for a few months after your Christmas bills come due and the pastor’s family starts looking a lot worse for the wear.

So we worked and struggled and reached out and succeeded at the Great Commission, winning and baptizing new believers into the faith…yet ultimately failed.

Today while I’m home with my family at 10:30am, my mind focuses on my young, vulnerable church members as they are now looking for a new home. I pray they stay away from the myriad of Prosperity Gospel Emporiums in our area, all promising an easy life in Jesus. On the other hand, I worry they’re attending some place dry and spiritually dusty, and get too frustrated to keep looking next Sunday.

I feel like a father who just drove his toddlers to the mall, dropped them off at the food court, and then turned and drove away. 

Tonight we met on the beach for baptism and to be together one last time as a church family. As they arrived, many shared their experiences from visiting other churches that morning. Last night, my family attended a Saturday night service with one couple from church. It was the big baptist church in our town, running thousands of people. We sat through ok worship and a frustrating, meandering sermon. I squirmed as I wondered how the first-timers visiting today were receiving it.

My friends were not impressed, and were really turned off at the bulletin insert about a new million dollar renovation project to their state-of-the-art sanctuary. Really, you pick a weekend when you’ll have hundreds of guests to beg for more money? I look around the room at the high tech lighting and listen to the crisp, clear sound and wonder what our church would have been like with all that. I would have given anything for it, but it’s evidently not good enough for them.

As more friends gather at the beach, they say nice things about how hard it is to listen to a pastor after getting used to my quirky sense of humor and delivery. The great thing is, they seem to really mean it. I always tried to say things as clearly, simply and passionately as possible. It’s nice to think now that it’s all come to a close and I’m feeling like a failure, I might actually be missed.

Maybe we didn’t die simply because I stink at being a pastor. Maybe…

After a few words of instruction, we move toward the water’s edge. One by one they walk out into the ocean toward me. Some stop and tell me how much our little church meant to them, how they can’t imagine finding God anywhere else. I wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of my now-deceased little church. We slip around together in the cold Gulf of Mexico, a sloppy mess trying to keep our footing…a perfect picture of our awkward little church trying to stand for five years.

Now all the baptisms are done. They ask to say a prayer over me and my family, for God to bless whatever comes in our future. God reminds me once again, “These people really care about you”.

We give our final hugs, promising to keep in touch…

I wander back toward my car, covered in sand, soaking wet having forgotten to bring a towel. Another church member shows up late just then from work, a young adult girl. She apologizes for being late, but just wanted to tell me what the church had meant to her.

To be such a screw-up, these people really care about me.

I finally make it into the car and turn the heater on that warms my car seat. I sit there for a minute watching families hurry past on their way to the beach. I stare out and realize I’ve just lost something very precious. There were hard times I tried to tell myself I wasn’t losing much at all, but now the significance of it all comes crashing over me like one of those waves I’m watching through my windshield.

I’m realizing what I’ve always heard to be true, but probably never really believed until now: that the significance of a work of God isn’t properly measured by its size and scope. A pastor is foolish if he presumes the impact on lives and on the world is equivalent to the number of people through his church doors or the number of years his church survives.

In truth, I understand something most of my big church pastors can’t face, that all churches eventually die. Some just sooner than others. And my sweet, happy little band of young, immature people in love with Jesus was meant to be predominantly a birthing station. Once they were alive and able to stand on their own, God thrusts them out abruptly into the world.

And all I can do is watch, like a father watches his child’s car pull away toward college.

“They’re in your hands now, Lord,” I think to myself, missing the fact they were really there all along in the first place. I only got to watch over and pray for them. I’ll continue to do that, only now from a greater distance.

I cannot put in words how paternal this all feels. I start the car and drive back home, with the weight of it all bearing down on me.

After a few hours, the rain that had threatened us momentarily at the beach now starts in full. It peppers the patio outside me now. My Father knows how much I love the sound of rain, so I take it as an intentional gift for me. Hopefully, a gift for a job well done.

Tomorrow I move on, giving away the last bits and pieces of equipment we’ve collected over the years. But for now, a Father and His servant sit and think about their kids and all that has transpired.

More than anything, I’m thankful for perhaps being a profitable servant during the last five hard years of my life.

And even with nothing left now to show for any of it, that somehow makes it all seem worthwhile…

Easter Sunday, when one church’s life was over. Yet I’m holding to the promise that despite how dark things appear, new life will yet rise from every grain of wheat that’s fallen into the ground to die, every seed that’s been planted.

Because He is risen, we shall rise with Him.

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