(Warning: My next two posts are not light-hearted, but they are honest. I think it would be strange to be blindly cheerful during such a sober time. But I hope that you will read these posts and be both challenged and encouraged, as I have been over the past three years.)
I find myself in the unenviable position of having to close down a church, not an easy thing to do in any situation. But even more unfortunately, this is the church that I planted myself, and tried to pastor through the most difficult moments of my entire life. The deepest experiences of my entire life are inextricably tied to this community, and so it is an especially heart-wrenching thing to see those ties severed. For better or worse, the story of the past three years of my life have involved two major things: cancer, and Riverside. My family survived my wife’s cancer, but unfortunately, our church did not.
I think in some way, I was hoping that the survival of our church would be a form of redemption for everything that our people had suffered together. If we could make it as a church, and eventually flourish, that would make all of our struggles worth it: cancer, miscarriages, loss, depression… it would be the sweet epilogue of our church’s story, our moment of great redemption. We could look back at our hardships and see that God had actually accomplished something good and important through that season. Things would make sense. God’s great plan and purposes would be revealed. Joyful memoirs would be written, and sold by the millions.
But it was not to be. The continuation of our church could help us make sense of our past struggles, for it would succumb to the weight of all the burdens on its shoulders, like a running back being pulled to the ground by tacklers, inches away from the goal line. And that has been a terribly difficult realization for me. I prayed and hoped that our survival would help it all make sense, for the sake of all of my friends who have suffered so deeply, and for my own sake as well.
But in no way is this dynamic limited to my own situation, or to church. Many dating couples make countless mistakes together, hurting themselves and others for years. But their hope is that once they get married, and all of this heartache and struggle will be worth it. Our marriage will redeem the mistakes we made, make everything better! And then…they break up, never to get back together again. Or they get married and their poisonous past catches up with them. But whatever the case, marriage was not the panacea that they hoped it would be.
We do the same with our careers. We work countless hours trying to climb this ladder or another, to attain this position or the other, knowing full well that we do so at the expense of other priorities in life: God, spouse, children, self. But we do it because our hope is that when we make it, when we become associates, or chiefs, or superintendents, it will make it all worth it. Our families will understand why we spent so much time away from them, as will God. But they don’t. Or else we realize that those things were not waiting for us to realize that they were there, and important. Or else we realize that the ladder continues to extend upwards, far beyond what we had ever planned for ourselves. But we had hoped that our success would make the sacrifices all worthwhile.
In these situations, we hope for an ending like Job’s.
In the Bible, the focus of a divine debate, Job loses nearly everything in life, and becomes terribly afflicted himself. He mourns his loss and questions why this happened to him, given logical but flawed advice by his friends. But it’s okay! Because by the final chapter of Job, God has shown up and given him TWICE as much as he had before, more camels, more livestock, and more beautiful daughters! (Not kidding) And now, we can make sense of the circumstances of Job’s life more easily, that he suffered so that he could be even more richly blessed. Ah ha! Blessing makes sense of suffering! The moment of resolution in the book of Job seems to come in the final chapter where it says this: “The LORD blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first.” Good ol’ fashioned happy ending.
(I wanted that kind of epilogue too – “And the LORD blessed the latter part of the Riverside’s life more than the first.”)
But actually, the epilogue of Job is truly not the turning point of the book, the moment at which Job gains insight into his situation. That actually occurs in chapter 38, where after all of Job and his friends’ philosophizing, it says this:
1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:
2 “Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
And so begins a few remarkable chapters of God’s challenge to Job from the center of a whirlwind, where He calls Job to account for his presence in the most profound moments of Creation’s history. And it is after this, in response to God’s presence and His words, that Job says this in reply:
2 “I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
You see, redemption for Job did not come in the epilogue – it comes before then. He did not come to have peace and understanding regarding his situation through success and victory and more camels and beautiful daughters, but when he is faced with the identity and presence of God. He found peace when he met God, not when he got his stuff back and more besides. True redemption is not circumstantial, nor is it material – it is divine, and personal. Our redemption is not in our circumstance, but in Christ.
But we are so deeply rooted in the American way of life, where happy endings are mandatory, where loose ends are tied, the good guy gets the girl, and everyone is better off than where they started. It HAS to be that way, otherwise something is just not right, and we do not feel settled, our faith in God shaken. But we must have forgotten our church history. There is no happy ending for Paul, or Peter, or James, or Stephen. The final chapter of their earthly life does not read, “But they all became rich and famous and married and lived long and healthy lives – praise God!” No, their final chapter reads thusly, that one was beheaded, the next crucified upside down, the third thrown from a building by a mob, and the last stoned to death.
But as hard as it is to believe, they had already had their happy ending. They had already discovered peace, redemption, resolution, purpose, and hope. They had already discovered these things years ago, not in circumstance, but in Christ. They did not need their life to continue on an upwards trajectory, because they knew they were on an eternal one instead. And how desperately I, and I suspect so many of us, need to reclaim this dynamic in our lives. We need to divorce our joy and peace from the ups and downs of our circumstances, the hectic EKG of success and failure, and plug them instead into the constant character of God.
Does this mean that I do not believe in hope, that better days are ahead? No, I do believe in both of those ideas very strongly. But my hope for the future is not really based on my certainty that circumstances will improve, as it is the fact that God will be with me and my family, no matter the circumstances. I realized this during one of the more sober moments of the past few weeks, where Carol and I were sitting together, pondering the decisions we would have to make, the uncertainty that was before us. We sat quietly, a little overwhelmed by it all. But we looked at each other, and the pictures of our children, and I said, “You know, we’ll be fine no matter where we go, as long as we’re together.” And we both knew that was true. And so it is with God – our faith is not in the consistent improvement of our circumstances, but in the faithful presence of God in all circumstances.