This coming January, I’ll be recognising the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. I’m thankful to God for the opportunity that has been mine to serve in one parish for the whole of that time.
Did I imagine that I’d be in the same place throughout those years? Not for a minute!! I reckoned myself to be someone who would quickly need new challenges and, therefore, a succession of ministries. And yet, by God’s grace here I am.
I think back on those years with much joy. Can it be any different when you’ve had a strong sense of God being at work through you?
And yet there have been hard times and challenging situations along the way. As the seasons of the year turn, so do seasons within the life of a congregation – and for every spring and summer there’s an autumn and winter.
As I returned to the congregation following my time serving as Moderator of the General Assembly, perhaps the first emotion that I had to deal with was deep sadness – theirs and mine. First and foremost that was because in my time away, we had lost a considerable number of our very best people, some to covid, others not. Though it was inevitable, it still bothers me that I wasn’t there for them and their families.
But on top of that, my sadness flowed out of a sense that the congregation had taken a real battering. It was immediately obvious that the pandemic had been hard for them. Several key leaders and office bearers had given up their roles or intimated to me that they would be doing so at the first opportunity. They were, they told me, simply done in. It was as if they felt they had to let me know that it hadn’t all been plain sailing and that maintaining things in my absence had been particularly demanding.
And I listened to that, again I felt that I wish I had been there for them. Thirty years as their pastor but not during this year of all years. Of course a part of me wanted to say, ‘Well I didn’t have the easiest of years either!’ But there are times when it’s better just to listen, and this was one such time.
Even now, as we build back, I’m saddened by the loss of some of our folk who are still with us but seem lost to the congregation; those who just haven’t come back, those who seem simply to have got out of the habit and those who seem to have succumbed to the ‘worries of this life.’ (Matthew 13:22.)
All in all, ‘what is’ is much different to ‘what was.’
None of this comes easily to me because, by nature, I’m a cheerleader – someone who sees the positive, who rallies the troops, who points to the way ahead with conviction and enthusiasm. If Dickens was right that there are both ‘best of times and worst of times’ then I operate more readily in the former and am much of less sure of myself in the latter.
Perhaps that’s why we have so much of ‘lament’ in scripture; to provide us with a language to use when we struggle to articulate our feelings and experiences? For my own part, the Psalms in particular are my ‘go to’ in such times.
There will come again a time for dancing and rejoicing in the Lord but perhaps such times are appreciated all the more if we allow ourselves to linger long enough in those more difficult places.
Perhaps this ‘back end of the year’ time, before Advent and with All Saints and Remembrance uppermost in our minds, is exactly the time for that lingering?