There are unforgettable days in every life. Special days and painful days. One year ago today was one of the most painful days of my life.
I remember the day clearly. It was already hard. We didn’t want to leave. However, there was a growing sense of calling in our lives that we couldn’t escape…it was a tension that didn’t make any sense to us. For over twenty years the trajectory of our life had been the same; bible college, seminary, pastoral ministry…this was the direction that culminated in a place and people called New Beginnings Church.
For nearly eight years we served as nbc’s pastor. The first four years were extremely challenging as we struggled to clarify a shared direction. Church-building debt had become our master and robbed us of gospel freedom. Pride created resentment and resistance. Doubt and fear led many into desert wandering. It required a bold relinquishing to break the cycle. It came in the form of selling the church building, eliminating debt, ending our efforts to build a church and to begin living as the Church.
The next three years were different. As free people we began serving rather than seeking to be served. Loving extravagantly rather than withholding grace. Giving ourselves away rather than building something for ourselves. It was a beautiful three years. But for me, the experiences and stories of all seven years are well remembered. If a good story requires some chaos, it was all good. Very good.
Around January of 2015 the dread began. It’s the one word that best defines the sense. Dread. A sense of disrupted passion, a weariness, a nagging unsettledness. For a few weeks, I considered exploring other pastoral positions, but there was no peace in it. I considered pursuing further education. No peace. I wondered if it was just a season of weariness; perhaps I needed sabbath.
The year before there had been conversation among the church board about providing a sabbatical, but I had insisted it wasn’t the right time. I brought it up again thinking perhaps it was what I needed to resolve the dread. Graciously, the church provided eight weeks of sabbatical. July and August; we rested. When we returned the first of September, I was eager to reset and continue pastoring. But within only a few weeks I recognized it again. The damn dread.
“Why?” I cried. I hated it. Cursed it. Tried to ignore it. I visited my Spiritual Director and asked for help. What is wrong? Why am I struggling with this dread? Like any good counselor he didn’t try to resolve it, but rather, instructed me to face it head on. Listen to the dread. Speak truthfully about it. Pay attention to it. What is the dread saying?
As I sought to listen, I invited our church leadership and congregation to join together in prayer three mornings a week for three weeks. I prayed alone nearly every one of those mornings. The dread increased. I went back to my Spiritual Director and as we discerned together it began to become clear. There was a disruptive voice from elsewhere speaking a new calling. It didn’t come with specifics, just an invitation to act. It was a call to purge our minds of airy claims and seek a fully embodied life. This time my Spiritual Director offered words of clear direction. It was time for another relinquishing. A letting go of the former to embrace the new.
As I look back over the past year, relinquishing has been the theme. Letting go, leaving, a turning away from the past in order to embrace a new future. And today, I am choosing to relinquish once again. October 25th marks one year since my last day as pastor, and for the past year I have held onto the pain from how that last day unfolded.
As I approached our final Sunday together as pastor and people, I spent extra days in preparation for my final sermon. The weight of the day was heavy. It represented a final test of obedience. A blind act of faith. I preached with passion, proclaiming Jesus as Lord. We responded to the Table and shared our common bond. I spoke a word of benediction and blessing. I sat down on the front row with the sense of ending well, expecting some sort of word from the church leadership acknowledging the end of our pastoral tenure. But there was none. I was later told several reasons why there was no response to the moment. The most common reason was simply “we forgot it was your last Sunday.”
That’s what has hurt for the past year…the “we forgot.” For our family, that moment was the crux of obedience. A test of our willingness to relinquish and follow into an unknown future. We had felt alone in the discerning process…and in that moment we recognized we were alone. Abandoned. Marooned. Forgotten.
In a way of healing irony, over the past year our family has sat through three “last” Sunday’s of other departing pastors. In each one we both grieved and in some strange way received the words offered to them as a gift for ourselves. We have also received the gift of letters and calls from some expressing regret. We are learning to lean into mercy, recognizing how our own struggle created confusion for others. We have even begun to see that, perhaps, the pain itself was a gift…a way of pushing us toward the new.
So today, I write these honest words in attempt to fully relinquish the pain. A letting go and a raising of empty hands; relinquishing the former to receive the new.
“God give me a generous spirit in all I say and do, generous in my words to speak kindly of others, generous in my forgiveness to restore relationships, generous in my support to those in need around me. Let my generosity not be an occasional act, but a way of life, the core from which my behavior emerges, generous in praise, patience and prayer. Remind me that I am not a hoarder of grace, but a source of blessing. Let me give and give freely, joyously, that what little I may have can be transformed into abundance. God give me a generous spirit in all I say and do.” – Steven Charleston