On a regular basis people come to our church, and on a regular basis people leave our church. For all sorts of reasons, they leave. This is the painful part of being a pastor. I am so very grateful that more people are coming than going these days, but every person who leaves is a loss not just to the church in an abstract way but a loss to me personally, and to our staff. As a pastor I hold people in my heart in a deep way, and I carry their stories with me. It is not a matter of “if” people will leave our church; it is rather a matter of “when.” After all, weather by God’s calling elsewhere, or entropy, or death – we are all on a journey. Each goodbye is painful, sometimes heart-wrenching. I think that just as it is in friendship, we will have our “communities of faith” for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Some friendships are for a reason, others a season, and some for a lifetime. Our churches are like that too. To be in a church for a lifetime is a rare and beautiful gift, and if you are given this gift, cherish it. Evelena is 94 years old and has been walking through the doors of our church building since she was 14. That is a rare and precious gift. She is a rare and precious gift whom we cherish.
When we decided to adopt a child from China, we imagined a child who was all alone, perhaps in a crib, with little attention or love. After we were “matched” with Lyla, we came to discover quite a different story! Lyla was in a home with the most fabulous and loving foster family. Hulu, her foster mom, immediately began video chatting with me daily so that Lyla could get to know her new mom even months before we met. We would send videos back and forth each day and I would sing to Lyla and read her stories and Hulu would play those videos for Lyla when we were still millions of miles apart. So when we finally met Lyla face-to-face, she already had been prepared in countless ways to be family.
The journey of a foster family is one of loving deeply and fully, and then letting go. Letting go is the final act of love. It is a picture of sacrificial love that is vulnerable, beautiful, and impossible to fully honor.
Hulu and her family gave Lyla (and us) a gift – the gift of loving Lyla and then letting her go. They will always love Lyla in their hearts, but they held her loosely in their hands, knowing one day she would no longer be in their home, though she will always be in their hearts. This is the excruciating work of love.
So here is how I am coming to cope with the dynamic of loving & loosing that is inherent to ministry. Sometimes as a church we are an adoptive family, and other times we are a foster family. We don’t always know which one we will get to be when someone walks through our doors. But, either way our job is the same: love people. Love people like family. Love people deeply, fully, and without fear. If the possibility of someone leaving tomorrow keeps me from loving them fully today, then fear wins. And scripture says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” 1 Jo. 4:18
Maybe someone will leave because their time with us was only for a reason or a season. I want to be Hulu in these moments of departure. Like Hulu I will cry, I will grieve, I may even wish it were different. And at the exact same time I will remember: this is what we are made to do. We are made to love, and sometimes loving means letting go. And so the door of my heart remains open towards the person who leaves so that they can go where God leads them with my love and blessing. And if they ever need this family again – we are here. We are here. We are always here. We will love you when you come, and we will love you as you go. We will love you when you fall away and flake out, and if you choose to return, we will love you then as well. After all, our job is to love one another as we have been loved by God.
Our weekly benediction says, “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm, may He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you, may He bring you home rejoicing – once again into our doors.”
Hulu and I still regularly exchange photos, and she continues to send Lyla the most amazing gifts. As Lyla’s mom, I am forever grateful that Lyla has so many people all around the world who love her so deeply. So for those of you who have left our flock, and for those of you who may, please know that you will always have a special place in my heart. I’m honored to be one of the pastors in this world who has played a small part in your journey.
Someday, Lyla and I will go visit Hulu again in China….”once again into her doors.”
At the dinner party, as she mingled with new acquaintances, they asked her, “What do you do for a living?” She replied, “Oh, I do several things….” and she launched into her list of various jobs.
“Wow, you’re amazing, I don’t know how you do so much!” several exclaimed.
Deep inside, she felt a twinge of sadness because she knew that what made her amazing in their eyes and in her own eyes was not who she was so much as what she did. The admiration, the definition, the wow-factor wasn’t about the more real and honest internal stuff; it was about the external stuff. It wasn’t about joyfulness, kindness and generosity; it was about juggling many responsibilities, keeping plates spinning, and never crying about it.
It wasn’t their fault for marveling. She had laid her own bed. She had pushed, hustled, worked hard, proven her worth, achieved countless life goals, and pleased others, all to avoid pain. Addiction does that. Addiction masks the pain. Her addiction to proving she could do it all was masking painful questions like: “Will I be invited, included and loved if I don’t prove myself? Will I be worthy of love and belonging if I don’t get a lot of stuff done?” Even tonight, she could feel those questions pulsing behind her smiles and charming conversations with other guests.
The woman in the story above sounds a lot like me not too long ago. Then I turned 40, and everything shifted – not so much from a schedule perspective, a time-management framework, or a huge vocational shift. But everything changed because of a new realization on the inside. The old way of living had only left me feeling exhausted, frantic, disconnected and lonely. I needed a new way that wasn’t about proving my worth. I started to delve into what “wholeness” could mean in my life. Wholeness meant mindful attentiveness rather than constant achieving. It meant being okay with letting people down at times. I have slowly, carefully stopped reporting to everyone who asks me for anything and have begun reporting to the still small voice within. When that voice says rest, I drive to the mountains and temporarily ignore email. When that voice says it is time for a family day, I leave my work undone and go home to the people I love. The shift isn’t easy, and it isn’t complete. The shape of it might look different for others in different circumstances, but for me, when I honor this invitation from God, it is freedom, and peace, and life. Some days are two steps forward and three steps back, but inside I sense a fundamental change to my internal value structure; my longings and motivations have shifted.
Before: Busyness and hard work were always the best way through. Now: Rest, quiet, and connection are usually the best way forward. Before: What I did defined who I was. Now: My worthiness and value are more rooted in my being a beloved child of God. I am learning to live like I cannot lose favor.
People called her amazing for what she juggled, and she kept juggling. But today she is creating something different and beautiful that cannot be seen but feels so much more grounded and true.