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I finished the opening prayer, walked off the chancel, and stood next to my daughter. As the opening song began, she reached up and slipped her hand into mine. Immediately, my eyes filled with tears. It was almost a year to the date since our family stood together in worship.
Prior to COVID-19, our family would stand together in the stage-left front row during worship. After the shutdown, Sunday mornings meant we worshipped separately. I would go to church and preach to an empty room. My family would be home, like every other family in church, gathered around a screen.
For one year I didn’t hold my children as we sang. For one year I was unable to hold my wife’s hand during a prayer at church. For one year I was not only physically separated from my worshipping family of God, but from my family in worship. So when my daughter slipped her hand into mine as we sang, the words got caught in my throat behind a barrage of emotions.
When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul
I’ve never been through a more difficult season of ministry. Navigating restrictions regarding meeting and masks as the pandemic persisted. Being present to the angst in our streets and pews as we, wanting or not, were asked yet again to reckon with a racialized America. Standing over the political divides. All were demanding.
But the cultural challenges of this year were only part of the stress. I’ve felt myself stretched as I navigated a tenuous pastoral and leadership situation—all while my daughter went in and out of the emergency room with an unknown illness; pulled as relational bonds dissolved during the pandemic, grief and loss became constant companions as I had conversation after conversation with people considering a new church; broken as the ever-present voice intensified the reminders that I’m not enough for pastoral work. Often I argued with the voice. In my best moments I didn’t disagree, but confidently responded with, “You’re right. I’m not.”
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come
Let this blest assurance control
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate
And has shed His own blood for my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
I’m goal-oriented, high capacity, and an optimist (I’m an enneagram 3 through and through). Armed with these attributes I feel that I can and should do everything. On the one hand, each trait is commendable and a strength I can lean into. More than that, they’re characteristics the world—and church—will reward me for utilizing.
But I’m learning they have a shadow side. Those strengths can be sins. Not weaknesses, but sin. They can pull me away from silence and prayer. They can tempt me to push aside attending to my soul for something that is “more productive.” They breed self-reliance and unhealthy self-assurance to the point that I forget my dependence on God and others (so much so that a friend had to point out to me that I left “others” out of my first draft). My drive and initiative not only place high demands on myself, but on others and my church. I can simultaneously call and lead us to something great, and call and lead us away from the only one who can build the church.
We can get so caught in what good we can and should do in the world. We, the church, can slip into thinking that we need to connect people to church as if that’s the place of their salvation. Or sometimes we spend so much time talking about all our triumphs and working to preserve the church’s image when what’s needed is honest confession about who we’ve been and how short we’ve fallen.
My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It is well, it is well with my soul
Lately, I’ve found myself longing for the faith of my youth. It was a simpler, more earnest faith. Through the romantic lens of time, I remember it as more vibrant. But while it’s a faith I find myself longing for, it’s not a faith I can have. Because that faith can’t stand up against ectopic pregnancies, friend’s marriages falling apart, betrayal, people far too young dying, coming to grips with how little control we have, and systemic injustices.
Perhaps I could have a shiny veneer of faith brought about by experiential emotional highs, but it wouldn’t serve me in this life. I need a faith for this world. A faith that has space for every facet of the human experience—right and wrong, laughter and tears, work and rest, friendship and isolation, joy and grief, life and death. So I find myself in a place where I can’t have the faith of my youth, and my present faith leaves me longing. Under the advice of a friend, I’ll welcome the longing and invite it to lead me. Who knows, maybe it’ll take me to the faith I need.
This longing could be lonely. But I’m not alone. The faith I need and the faith I can have is not mine alone. It’s our faith, given to us by the one who has gathered us into one body through one baptism. Our faith encompasses the whole human experience from birth to death and waits. We wait. Together. In our isolation. Through our tears. With our sin. While we long. We wait. And then, one day, we will see.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend
Even so, it is well with my soul!
Photo by Barth Bailey on Unsplash
As a fellow 3 in ministry, this resonated with me so much and was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.
A “3” here too. Every kind of leader has her shadow side, and you described ours well. The ability to spin everything to look good is one of the compulsions, and that gets so destructive when it leads to denial of the pain and problems. Therapy, spiritual direction, soul friends, supportive spouse, and Quiet Waters all helped me see myself and God more deeply, and got me through these last years of ministry. Thank you for taking the risks to write this for us to ponder and peer deeply into the darkness, and see God there.
So vulnerable, Nate. So transparent. Seeking “faith” as tempestuous winds and waves sweep over you and us. Thank you for sharing your search. Your seeking spirit. Your looking for a way forward: for yourself and family, and the family in Fishers, IND.
What we are going through leads us to cry out: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” Fortunately, there is a Peace-Bringer to our chaos. And with “no faith,” we are still in awe of Him. And we will reach our destination. Thank you again, Nate.
Thank you for this, Nate. A friend shared this with me, and you’ve got my password feelings right down to where I can feel your pain and hurt. I feel the same. I trusted as we pastors work in the Kingdom of Jesus, that our hearts might be set right with him and that we might trust him and him alone through his spirit. Be blessed as I know you are a blessing and enjoy holding your daughter’s hand, in the love of Jesus, Abram Blaal
Thank you, Nate.