I’m discovering that there is a second tier of loss in journeys like mine—things you lose as a result of the primary loss. I want to tell you about a wonderful church I said good-bye to this past Sunday.
First, the back story. I’ve been serving part-time as the lead pastor of Centerville Christian Fellowship (Centerville, Ohio) along with a full-time assistant Wes Duff. Wes is a good friend who was part of Dana’s and my college-age ministry many years ago. He and I have seamlessly morphed into mutually discipling each other over the past few years. Our ministry partnership with Centerville has been happening since January of 2008, covering most of the time that Dana and I had been battling her recurrence. Wes recently accepted a position at Salem Church of God in Dayton. While this obviously changed the dynamics of the situation, I had every intention to continue on with CCF. But as the mental mud has thickened, and has shown every sign of getting thicker, I made the difficult decision to step down as pastor. It just seems best for the church in the long run.
CCF is a special place with special people. After it was planted just over 15 years ago I became the “go to” fill in guy when their pastor was away. At the time I could teach Sunday school at my church in Middletown and high-tail it to the church in Centerville (but not without a little nervousness on the part of the sound guy). We enjoyed a special "fill in go to guy" relationship. Then I became their “go to” interim for two stints, the second morphing into the pastoral situation with Wes. Dana and I have loved these folks and I have certainly received more than I gave. During the hospital and hospice months this past fall they formed a literal food brigade. Believe it or not, the one component I was most nervous about duplicating from hospital to home was food---it was nice to simply call food service (you get to order your own meals at Atrium; very nice touch) and everything you need showed up on the tray. But between the church’s diligent food prep/delivery and Mama Sue’s food prep presentation, food was the least of my worries and actually became a positive force in the experience…for nearly three months! That’s long-term meal supply!
About the second week into the hospital stay I came home one night for some supplies and as I pulled into the driveway my headlights beamed over the nemesis of my yard: wild violets. I had a whole fall strategy to eradicate these things. But now, looking at them was another ripping reminder that life was turned upside down and the violets were just another of many tasks I won’t get to. Next scene: 15-ish folks from the church descending like commandos on my neighborhood-sized front yard and pulling every last violet. What a gift. For the remainder of the fall whenever my headlights scanned the front yard, I saw nothing but love. And along those lines, the church descended with the same force on my backyard to rake leaves throughout the fall.
And there’s more. They visited us in the hospital. They relayed rainbow reminders. They walked prayer laps (in the rain!) around the hospital. They sang Christmas carols to us on December 22, the last earthly music Dane would hear in that she was hearing angels the next morning (she laughed at Wes singing the words of one carol to the tune of another---sorry Wes, I had to out you).
They reminded me of the sunflower. And they served sushi.
First, the sunflower. There’s a sunflower patch I would pass on my route to the church. One week a couple years ago the flowers were in their brilliance. I noticed many people had pulled over to snap some pictures and I decided to get in on the action. We were in the middle of a series on fellowship (and launching a new small-group effort). In the series we looked at four things with which we have fellowship: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and each other. A recurring point in the series was that when these four elements overlap (picture four interlocking circles), a sweet spot of fellowship is created that is irresistible. As I watched people come and go to take pictures of this beautiful sunflower field, I was struck with a gripping analogy: this is what “sweet spot” fellowship looks like. It’s naturally attractive and irresistible. As I developed that point for a sermon I decided to see if I could find further information about the sunflower that might shed more light on comparing irresistible fellowship to beautiful sunflowers. After about two webpage clicks I was struck by the arrangement in the middle of a sunflower, where I saw the logo we had created for the series. The picture sequence below tells it all.
The first weekend Dana and I were in the hospital Jeff and Steve from the church’s leadership board (aptly named, Servant Board) stopped by…with a vase of sunflowers.
Now the sushi. When I shared in Dana’s celebration service I read one of her writings…the one that started all the deer God stamps. At one point in the writing Dana shared her frustration on how the church (in general, not CCF) so easily slides into the same ol’, same ol’ and exhorted the church to do better. As an example, rather than the same predictable missions banquet, why not have a missions salsa dance and serve sushi! Well, at the dinner following the celebration service, we had sushi. Our youth leaders Amy and Matt bought it between the service and the dinner. It’s a church that serves sushi…and I hope it will always be.
This wonderful group of people prayed for us, held us, fed us, ministered to us, cried with us. No matter how despairing and dark I felt in those hard days last fall and winter, I always felt supported and connected. They were patient and generous in giving me leave time to be a caregiver.
Stepping down from this position is another loss in this journey. For now, though, I am confident that God is with me and He is with the CCF congregation. I leave you with the Scripture prayer that we read together as we closed out our service this past Sunday; and it's a prayer I'll be praying every Sunday morning for a long time on behalf of a special group of people meeting at that time in Centerville, Ohio. (This passage was also the benediction that closed out my and Dane's wedding ceremony; for those who were there, you'll hear Don Finto's voice as you read. It ministers to me in SO many ways.)
Ephesians 3:16-21 (TNIV)
16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.