Failed Church Plants and Dead Brides
By the time you read this, the church I have been given the opportunity and privilege to pastor (for the better part of a year) will have closed its doors for good. It was birthed in the mid 1920’s, but by late 2016 it will have been buried and heavily lamented over.
You see, I accepted a position roughly ten months ago in an attempt to “revitalize” a local church in Ohio. I’m a young man exiting my 20’s, with a wife and twin toddlers in tow. In this journey I went from being a comfortable home owning Hoosier to a brand new kingdom building Buckeye. It’s been a very rough run to say the least. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not all been for naught. I’ve seen God work, change lives, open and cultivate relationships through our ministry (and often times, despite our ministry) since leaving Indiana. But once members bail – taking with them over 90% of the congregation in your first two months- its easy to live in a serious and consistent state of disbelief and discouragement. Trust me.
“I went from being a comfortable home owning Hoosier to a brand new kingdom building Buckeye. It’s been a very rough run to say the least.”
Christian ministry comes with a lot of clichés, and most of them are garbage. But some of the best advice I’ve been given about ministry came from a pithy statement I’ve probably ignored a million times; it goes something like this; “If you don’t allow yourself to become bitter, you’ll in all likelihood make it out alive.”
So here’s a story about how Jesus alleviates bitterness.
This past Mother’s Day at our church (re)plant was a day I’ll never forget. But it requires a bit of a back story, so bear with me. You see, the Saturday leading into Mother’s Day, I attended a woman’s memorial. The pastor that delivered the gospel message happened to be the deceased women’s son, and our mentor through this season. I sat in heartache, confusion, and awe, as I tried to listen attentively. God however, had other plans for me.
To be sure, the message delivered was intensely heartfelt and arresting. I often wonder still to this day how he (the pastor) was able to handle such an event amidst all his responsibilities as both pastor and son. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself from being fixated on another gentleman across the room. He sat in a wheel-chair, a neatly folded blanket was laid firmly across his lap. He was broken; this much was evident. But he didn’t project hopelessness. His right hand (with a taped on IV drip tube still attached) covered his face, while his left sprang forth to praise his glorious maker – as the hymns rang out.
Here’s the thing; every time I attend a wedding, as the multitudes passionately gaze at the bride to be, I spend much of my time examining the groom. I’m weird, I know. But I’ve learned over the years that there’s a lot you can absorb if you’re contemplating what others aren’t. This setting was a lot like a wedding. Why? Well, it turns out, this man was the new widower of the woman whose remains now rest within an urn.
“There’s a lot you can absorb if you’re contemplating what others aren’t.”
Even though this man, who had probably kissed his wife every night for the last 60-plus years, had lost something of unparalleled value (namely his closest, best friend) I couldn’t help but feel a bittersweet knot being pulled taught in my chest. I just kept repeating to myself over and over, “…God!!!” Now, most of the time this would be seen as a way of using God’s name in vain, but in those precious moments of listening to this man’s heart ring out in praise and watching him lament over the wife of his youth, I empathized deeply with his pain. I also admired his strength. And all I could muster myself to do, was to cry out to my God, the anchor of my own life. The one who has given me grace upon grace in the forms of salvation, a wife of my own, two beautiful babies, and a call to ministry.
The parsonage we lived in at the time of the funeral had a section of property about thirty paces from our back porch, where they placed a very large cemetery with graves spanning as far back in time as to thirty years before the Civil War. Often times I would catch myself staring at the gravestones from the kitchen window. It was haunting and reality shaking to consider, as Jesus brother James did, our “mistiness” and frailty. I could see old stones decaying, and new ones being placed near freshly broken up earth. I also noticed men, women, and children visiting the plots of their loved ones. I routinely witnessed them weep, laugh, and yell -literally from the “comfort” of my own home. In fact, more pointedly, my standard view involved the place where we fed our kids in their high chairs. I didn’t freak out about it though. In fact, I considered it a blessing. The images we were fortunate enough to see daily were somber and sobering reminders of life, sin, death, and ultimately resurrection.
Now, back to Mother’s day! It was a unique day in many respects. First, the church attendance was much higher than usual, per familial obligatory “show up to church for you mother” time . Secondly, everything I had been experiencing up this point came to a head violently. And I do mean violently.
“The images we were fortunate enough to see daily were somber and sobering reminders of life, sin, death, and ultimately resurrection.”
After preaching and getting home, I noticed a number of individuals and small families visiting gravestones to pay their respects. As I made haste to momentarily join them from the distanced vantage point of my kitchen window, I spotted an elderly, frail looking man slowly heading to what seemed to me to be an all too familiar place; his wife’s plot. Once he arrived at his target, he seated himself atop his walker. It was strange, but he didn’t seem to speak a single word to anyone, family, strangers, nor to himself the entire time.
In that moment, I reflected on every single experience I wrote about above; the men who had been wounded by the sharp sting of death and still fought to love the Lord and those around them. And out of these reflections a desire emerged, a desire to be, more than anything else, a man of their caliber – a man of sincerity, endurance, steadfastness, and above all else; love! Not just in my own home (as I learn daily what it looks like to be a better husband and father), but also in the world outside my kitchen windows. I want to learn better what this love looks like, and to live with that love more effectively – holding onto these “1 Timothy 3 qualities” as a minister of the gospel. As the very bride of of Jesus Christ, remembering that I am dead just like the brides of these men, because Jesus died to hide me, even hold me in His grace. He died on my behalf so that I could be free from the oppression of cowardice, laziness, insincerity, and bitterness. God nailed my baggage (and punishment for that baggage) to the cross with His Son!
“Out of these reflections a desire emerged, a desire to be, more than anything else, a man of their caliber – a man of sincerity, endurance, steadfastness, and above all else; love!”
Like I said at the beginning, God chose (in His perfect will) to close the doors of our church plant. He decided to scatter the congregants and kill what we thought our mission was, but I know He’s still faithful. And I know all of my hard work wasn’t done in vain. I know what God has done, and I know what He’s called me to proclaim until they lay me in my own plot in a similar graveyard.
In closing, I want to challenge you to think analogously. I challenge you to picture the men in these stories (or ones you know like them). Because amid their pain and loss they “knew in whom they believed”. They understand and live Paul’s marvelous declaration, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). No wheel chair, no walker, and not even the death of their brides was able to stop them from loving zealously those whom God entrusted to them.
These men remind me of our God. And these brides remind me of me.
I know the dawn is coming. And with that knowledge, all is well. I will rejoice. The Bridegroom is worth it.
The grave is worth it.