Well… This is it.
What begin on Sunday, April 2nd, 2017 with our very first church service, came to a close this past Sunday, November 1st, 2020. What started with much vigor and enthusiasm even well before that April church service, ends solemnly and with just a little sadness. I always knew my time as treasurer, usher, set up guy, part-time preacher, and all-around right-hand man would be a temporary position, but the assumption always was that I’d eventually, and very happily, hand over the reins of those various church-duties to someone, or even better, several someones as we blossomed into something more than the tiny church that we were. It’s disappointing to me to know that isn’t happening.
I must wrestle to beat back the disappointment because I know with a deep conviction, that God’s economics are not ours. What can feel like a failure right now as the doors of this church-plant close, doesn’t actually mean it was a failure.
How do I know?
That’s how I know.
Week after week, The Gospel was preached. The Word of God went forth. Whether through the imperfect lips of Pastor Erick, myself, or any one of our guest speakers over the past three and a half years, we can be sure that it happened with great conviction, and much enthusiasm. We know it went out in carefully chosen hymns and other songs. We know it went out in the words of absolution spoken. And we know it went out in people’s hands through Christ’s very own Body and Blood. As the Scripture reference states above, we know that when this Word goes out in, including in all the different forms mentioned, it never goes out without power, or without it being able to do what it was intended to do.
It is the all-encompassing multi-tool of God that unplugs the ear canals, so we might hear the good news of God. It is the tool that cuts away the veil of darkness that blinds the eyes, and it cleanses our palate from the foul taste of sin left on our tongues so that we might taste and see the goodness of God. It combines with water to makes us clean and presentable before God. It is the tool that scraps off the hard exterior of old rocky hearts to reveal a new soft exterior capable of absorbing the Gospel of Grace poured out on it through faith.
It does all these things and more.
Tangibly experiencing the lights going dim, and doors being locked one last time as these services come to a close, it does feel a little like failure to me. It feels like falling flat on your face just three feet from the finish line after training to complete that once in a lifetime marathon.
As I think on it, I suppose for me, it feels like the prodigal father pouring lessons of life and love into his two sons, only to have both not quite understand the meaning of his words just yet. I could imagine him in moments of solitude, crying out in exasperation, tearing his clothes in frustration, wondering how it could go so wrong. There isn’t a parent alive that does bear the weight of those feelings. In reality, the father knows the journey for either son is not yet complete. So, he waits and prays for the one son who left with an early inheritance, but also left with years of that spoken wisdom implanted within. Meanwhile, he engages the son that remained, heart now calloused over by his brother’s selfish actions. The father preparing him with further words of wisdom for the hopeful and eventual return of his wayward sibling.
Most parents live in that middle area of praying and hoping that the wisdom and grace conveyed through their own imperfect and faulty lips will click in their memory quickly enough to avoid the worst pitfalls, because we as an older generation understand how unfortunately we sometimes learned those hard lessons.
I’m probably overstating it, but keep in mind this is more about the father in the parable than the sons. God does call us to move and work on his behalf, and we are all called to various places and stations in life, Whether in the secular world or the religious. Erick was called to pastor this new formation of God’s people called Epiphany. I was called to be his right-hand. We were called to encourage this new formation of people and see them grasp God, or rather, see God grasp them. We were in a sense, like parents trying to pour as much grace and wisdom as possible into them for the time they were there.
We have seen people come and go because of the transient nature of living in NYC, and most recently because of the coronavirus epidemic. We have done the work of pushing out the words of grace to all who have come through, whether they stayed for a cup of coffee, a meal, or for the entire time. No, these are not outright prodigals like in the parable. They are not thumbing their nose up at God for a time, but they have gone out from these doors, planted with much wisdom and faith within. Despite their standing found under grace, they will have prodigal moments like anyone else. Christians can, and will have moments where they turn their back to God on occasions, wanting what they want more than wanting what’s right or good.
Like the prodigal returning home to be embraced by the Father, we know we have given people the means to return home from all their own prodigal moments, to come back in an instant to the fold of God that frankly, never cast them out, but just waited for wisdom to take root again. We know those that have passed through our doors over the years, have heard the Gospel. They were constantly reminded of the finished work of Christ. It will take root, because that’s what God’s Word does. It takes root in our often prodigal-like lives, and brings us home to the cross, by reminding us of something much better, infinitely better that the pig-slop of sin we feed on in those moments.
Knowing the word to the prodigal doesn’t return void, gives us hope for ones that don’t leave. Because the ones that don’t leave, sometimes pat themselves on the back because of their steadfastness and dedication. Pride is our first worst sin, and it can easily make us think we’re doing it right, we’re good Christians. They need that Word implanted as well. God’s Word will change hearts right there in the church, inches from the altar. The Word goes forth miles, and it lands in the first pew as well.
My sinful nature wants to hang my hat on the statistics, the physical body count, the baptisms and the offering plate. That’s another wrestling match for me. I’m sure pastors deal with this much better than us lay-people, right? I have to remember God takes his Word, and interjects it’s living self into the crevices of life. The kind of life that might take some time to stand before a pastor again. The kind of life that “smells” burning wood if they walk too close to a church door. I have to keep telling myself, “Let God be God in this. He takes my “help”, but he doesn’t need it.” A life-long continuous affirmation, I’m sure.
I know this Pastor well. I’ve confessed my failures to Erick, even as I’ve worked alongside him as a friend. I know he feels the weight of this last service even more than I do. He also knows that the truth lies in the Word preached, and the gospel proclaimed. He knows that we may not ever see or know the result of some of those seeds planted, but he is sure it will take root in ground made fertile by God and grow.
Despite my melancholy attitude, the future is bright. The doors are only closed, FOR NOW. Pastor Erick and I have moved on to whatever else we are called to do, but God stays put. He is there in the heart of this city; whose buildings scrape the skies with their silver spires. And even as one part of the body of Christ pulls back, another part begins the process of stretching it’s arm out and opening it’s welcoming hand.
This is the city that never sleeps with millions of broken prodigals roaming it’s grid like corridors. He has not turned his back on them. He is still calling them and though Epiphany is closed, we have left not just seeds, but a small group of gardeners, looking to continue the process.
That effort will never return void.
I am grateful for my time at Epiphany, for my Pastor, for her members and for all the people who encouraged me in the work here, especially my treasurer predecessor and friend, Kathy Heggland.
Thank you for reading all my Church Plant ramblings, I hope you were able to get both a sense of hope and difficulty found in this rewarding but necessary duty.
If you would like to read all of my Church Plant Memoirs, Click Here
If you are interested in the ongoing forward movement still happening in NYC through the Church of Lutheran Brethren, shoot Ryan Nilsen, The Associate Director of North American Mission, an email HERE and ask him how you can help support the effort.