On Wednesday, November 4—the day after the 2020 election—my inbox filled up with emails from the congregation. I’m not sure if the confluence of correspondence was a coincidence, but on that particular day I heard of my failings as a minister from many voices in my church.
Maybe you’ve also heard charges like the ones I received: You are too cautious with masks and social distancing. You aren’t cautious enough with our in-person services. You talk too much about justice, and too much about human sexuality. You’re too politically liberal. You’re too conservative.
As I read through those messages, I didn’t disagree. Who is sufficient to navigate a congregation through an entirely novel global pandemic? Who is sufficient to navigate the tensions of race in a nation that has been mired in racism since before its formal inception, to understand our place in it, and to articulate how a Christian is to respond? Who is sufficient to proclaim a Christian view of sexuality in conflict with the catechism of Western secular sectors of power and influence?
As the pandemic progressed, I received regular, existential reminder of my inability. And I felt worn down to the point of despair.
Within those same months, my grandfather—my preaching professor and ministry example and lifelong mentor—went to glory. I preached his funeral and caught COVID from a relative who didn’t know of their infection. Months later, my wife conceived, and we rejoiced! But Zion Hope Buikema’s heartbeat ceased after eight weeks in the womb, and we buried her.
As pandemic-related challenges built and personal losses accumulated, I experienced a mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion unlike anything else I can recall. And in that context, I wondered if I could continue to pastor here—or if anyone even wanted me to. It felt like all I had to offer was failure.
I received a call from a church in another state, which promised me more rest and fewer demands. But I don’t believe God’s call for me here has expired. So I stayed.
The next Sunday after my decision to stay was Easter. We had a sunrise service, outdoors and without masks. I was able to see the faces of the people as I was preaching for the first time in more than a year. And I cried. My wife remarked, “I am so glad we’re not anywhere else.”
Last week I went running in the forest preserve across from my house. The weather was swampy, and I grew exhausted quickly. I ran to a bridge a little ways in and turned for home. On the return trip I slowed to a walk, letting out a pained sigh. Upon arriving home I was miserable, and laid in the back yard until I could gather enough energy to stand again.
The next day I took my children to the same bridge. When we arrived, I let them out of the stroller so they could pick wildflowers and weeds to make a rugged bouquet for their mom. As I looked down the path I was overwhelmed by the beauty—ordinary, yet glorious. My whole self was absorbed by the interplay of each part of the environment woven together by a good God to create a sublime masterpiece.
I wondered how I had missed it only a day earlier. How was the entirety of the splendor lost on me? The answer was obvious: I had been too focused on my pain and exhaustion to notice the glory of this ordinary beauty.
The same is true of the congregation I serve. We’re not a flashy congregation, but there’s an ordinary glory to Orland Park CRC. Our good and faithful God has woven our members into a sublime masterpiece. This congregation is loyal, faithful, and eager to help.
Our good and faithful God has woven our members into a sublime masterpiece.
Some years ago a member got the notion to fix cars up and give them away to people who are in need. That ministry has now given away more than a thousand cars. The church has a wealth of builders and tradesmen, and every year several groups get together and build a house to give away. Our church has given away 20 houses to families who need them.
Our members are willing to speak out on matters that require prophetic obedience; they delight to see the gospel proclaimed throughout the world; they’re generous; they enthusiastically study the Bible; they appreciate each other; they are willing to send a card to those who have lost a loved one or ended up in the hospital. When my grandfather died, I got a stack of them the size of a dictionary, and then a pile the same size when we lost Zion Hope.
The church I serve loves Jesus. And it is glorious. I was just too focused on my pain and fatigue to notice it.
There’s a mountain of pastors and church members who, after an unusually challenging year and a half, are feeling the same sort of exhaustion. They are feeling, like I often do, as though the only thing they’re giving their congregations is their failure.
If your fatigue or hurt is leaving you feeling as though you can’t possibly return to service or worship at your local church, I would humbly ask you to lift your eyes and try for a moment to look past your pain. The gathering of saints of which you are a part is radiant.