Next month will mark the eighteenth anniversary of my first Sunday at Central Baptist. Looking back over the years I’ve been here I can see how much has changed. I’m not the same person I was back in 2003, and neither is this church. In a lot of ways Central and I have grown together–pushing and pulling against our own inclinations, and highlighting things which needed to be addressed. We’ve shaped each other and I hope we’re all better for it.
In a lot of ways I can’t believe I survived at Central for this long. I’m a consumate trouble-maker who can’t help but press the button labeled “No one is to press this button, under any circumstances. If anyone presses this button there will be wrath poured out on the guilty party.” Any time I see those metaphorical signs posted I assume the button will reveal something a culture’s gatekeepers think should be hidden, 1 so I figure a bit of exposure is probably for the best. As you might imagine, this can cause some tension. For my first few years at Central I thought everyone hated me. My wife had to talk me down off that ledge on more than one occasion 2.
Having been here for nearly two decades, however, means I’m also experiencing something rather profound. A deep sense of loss.
All pastors experience this to some extent. A significant portion of our calling is to help people navigate through grief, and it’s inevitable that we wind up burying people with whom we have formed deep and abiding bonds of love and friendship. After eighteen years I’ve presided over many of these funerals, and the longer I know people the more I feel these losses. Two years ago I led the most difficult funeral I’ve ever experienced–one in which my personal sense of loss was deep. I still have the bulletin from that service on my Mac’s desktop–that grief is real. It’s going to become deeper.
And loss isn’t limited to death, either. I’ve been here so long people who were children when I arrived 3 have grown up. They’ve graduated from High School, many have graduated college, and some graduate school. They’ve gotten married, and become parents themselves. And, as children are wont to do, they’ve moved away. Jobs, family, or just plain wanderlust has led them to start their own lives elsewhere. This is the nature of our culture.
And I’ve said good-bye to folks, a lot. People’s life situations change–retirement, a new job, a death in the family, an opportunity to buy a home and escape from renting–and they move on. And this isn’t limited to church members, either, pastors I’ve befriended find calls elsewhere or they’ve come the point retirement so I don’t see them much any more 4. I don’t begrudge people this, it’s the nature of our culture and so it’s part of pastoring in this context. And don’t get me wrong, saying good-bye doesn’t mean I’ve ended friendships. In fact, I’m grateful that I remain friends with many of the folks who have passed through Central over the years 5. Recognizing the mobile context in which I pastor, however, doesn’t erase the sense of loss–it only offers perspective.
People move on. I’m still here. I’m not stuck, I’m just here, taking care of that which God’s called me to tend.
My point is this. Like all communities, Central Baptist is a living community. And because of this, it’s always dying and being reborn. If this were not the case, it would just be dying… or dead. Being reborn will always entail loss, and the longer one is around to experience the cycle, the deeper that sense of loss will become every time it turns over again. This isn’t bad, it’s life. But it needs to be acknowledge so the grief provoked by the cycle can be addressed and processed. This way, as painful as it can be, we will be able to embrace these transitions and keep moving. If we refuse to acknowledge this grief we become stuck, grief becomes toxic and prevents us from living–we may even become angry with those who are able to live.
If eighteen years as a pastor has taught me anything, it’s that grief must be embraced for the painful blessing it is. To let grief’s ache fix memory of what was in our hearts so we can live anew.
- Let’s be honest, they really aren’t hidden. People who want to hide things can do that very well. When people are up front about what must never be brought up they aren’t so much hiding as saying, “I will not face this thing, so there.” ↩
- Only some people wanted to get rid of me. More were happy, and a good number were just plain confused. ↩
- Or when they arrived. ↩
- Not that we see anyone much, any more. ↩
- And nourishing those connections is one of the good things I experience through social media. ↩