I have been struck more by the things that are ending. I keep running into "final things": the last newsletter, the last calendar review... soon it will be last Thanksgiving service then last midweek Advent service and sooner or later, last service. I have been surprised by the grief. While I am excited about the new possibility I am moving through lots of little deaths. This congregation was my first call. It was where I was formed as a pastor at least as much as seminary formed me. This congregation is where my family was started. My oldest was six months old when I began. I now have three children, the youngest of which is almost 17 months.
But I reflected on the upcoming readings for the lectionary... Christ the King and Advent... all eschatological readings that put these in a new context for me. I wrote these reflections up as my final newsletter article...
Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
These last few weeks of 2011 are full of final things for me. They have come much more quickly than I thought they would have. I continue being surprised with final things I do as the pastor of this congregation. Today Barb and I sat down to go over the church calendar for the last time. Little by little final things will arise and will be taken care of and then, they will slip out of my hands, no longer under my control. I currently live in what feels like a divided existence. I have something new to look forward to but I must pass through plenty of little deaths in the meantime. The current time has to come to an end before the new begins.
Much of the grief from the little deaths of these final things comes from our shared existence. We have much to look back upon and celebrate. We have lived together and shared in the God’s mission for over eight years now. It is hard to imagine that not continuing. Maybe no pastor leaving his or her first call can ever imagine the end, but instead it must be lived through. If I had not actually lived through pastors leaving the congregation to which I belonged, maybe I would have no hope. The fear of final things and the little deaths associated with them might keep me from ever leaving a congregation.
But the liturgical year arises at the right time to feel my ears with of the truly final things. Here at the end of the liturgical year, with the new liturgical year about to begin in Advent, I read over and over the stories of the end God will bring about. Passages that can be scary and mysterious and so very often misunderstood abound in this time. We hear of the Son of Man coming on the clouds at the end. We hear of final judgment and wrath. And while many preachers might harness these strangeness to motivate using fear, I hear over and over words of hope.
No matter how great a loss of control we might feel, these passages that deal with the end of the world continue to proclaim one thing again and again. We are not in control, but God is. God has taken a world full of deaths, both great and small and is working to end it. God has begun this work with the creation of a covenant people, out of whom came Jesus the Messiah, the one anointed to save and redeem this fallen world. Jesus came and fully accepted an end that led to death so that the power of death might be ended forever. We now live in that time between the times, when the fallen world and the new world live in juxtaposition. We continue to see death and grief around us. Yet we also see the power of Jesus being made real as people are raised to new lives through the proclamation of the gospel. We begin to see the new world through the lens of faith as we step out and trust the promises that are made to us in the waters of baptism.
The realization that God has everything under control as this world moves through the deaths around us, is a help for me in many things. I am able to stand confidently by a grave and proclaim that this body will rise again even in the midst of my tears. I can sit with people who have been given a diagnosis of a terminal illness and still pray for healing and comfort. Right now, I can face all of these little deaths, all of these final things in my time as pastor here, and trust that God will be working through the midst of it all to bring about something new even now for us all. Most importantly, I know that this little death, this final leaving is not the end. One continued image we will hear again and again through the eschatological passages, these passages dealing with the end, is the gathering around the throne of all of God’s faithful people, people washed in the blood of the lamb. Once again, Jesus’ death ends the power of death so that we might be gathered even after death.
I cannot express in words how much I will cherish my time here at St. Paul. It was a definite challenge when I arrived. But even knowing now what I had to go through, if I could go back, I would still choose to serve this congregation again. St. Paul is a congregation full of special people in a special town with an incredibly special purpose. I have had a great time serving this congregation as we worked together proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. I am a better pastor because I have served here. I continue to trust God will be with this congregation through all things, because that’s the promise that we hear again and again in scripture.
Nothing is quite so final as God’s final things. Thanks be to God.