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 these: 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?
I am not.
The pandemic months brought a 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 being infected. Months later, my wife conceived, and we rejoiced! But Zion Hope Buikema’s heartbeat ceased after eight weeks, 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. I entertained a call from a church in another state, which promised me more rest and fewer demands.
But I was called here. So I stayed.
Easter morning 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. Miserable, I 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.
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.