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Monday, June 19, 2017

To Love and Leave

***From something I wrote two months ago…  Although there was blog silence, I kept writing:

(Start) Illinois state line.  Iowa state line.  There might be something completely inappropriate or downright crazy about the fact that even after thirteen years, it never gets easier to cross that line, knowing that I will just have to cross it again without the hope of returning for who knows how long.   

I can remember being really young, a little bit stupid, and completely sure that this was the place I would like to live for the rest of my life.  In a flea infested rental house, I declared that it would be OK with me if we never moved anywhere else (please note, I meant the town, not the house), if we dug our heels in and stayed here forever, loving these people, ministering in this community.  You’d think after all this time I could drive by the house we eventually bought without tearing up.  You’d think I could grab a cherry 7-Up at the gas station without feeling like I might have a complete emotional breakdown.  You’d think.  And yet…

It’s like playing a very emotionally expensive game of ‘The Life We Could Have Lived.’  I just made up the name, but it is a very real thing we do.  And by we, I mean me.  I mean you.  I mean all of humanity.  You probably have no idea the lengths to which I would go to call this place home again, but, interestingly, I do.  I would almost sell my soul.  But just… almost.

And so we scooped the loop… admired the third Casey’s store in this 5,000 person strong place… and I’ll soon join the rest of my family for a few hours of sleep.  Tomorrow we’ll travel to another town that both once was and might have been, but I anticipate crying less (read this, not at all), because some missed possibilities matter more than others.  (End)

It’s long, but I needed context:

I Thessalonians 2:17-3:5, “But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?  Indeed, you are our glory and joy. So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain” (NIV).

Almost twenty years of ministry has taught me many things, but perhaps none is so profound as this: you will often have to love and leave.

I can remember having a conversation with my youth pastor’s wife, before I committed to accepting this call, at all.  “What is it like?” I asked.

I wish I could remember more of what she said, but it is indelibly ingrained in my memory that (at the time) a hard and fast rule was, “Don’t continue to communicate with members of a congregation once you have left.” 

It seemed harsh.

“How will I ever make (and keep) friends?”

“How will I know if they are OK?”

“Why do we do this?”

Well… it was a different world, of course, because we were merely on the brink of wide-spread use of email (although, from what I can discern the very first email was sent in 1971… long… long… long… before I was born… so it’s sort of funny that it took a couple of decades to become commonplace), we were just approaching the days of Internet in every home (Remember those dial up cards?  No?  Never mind…), and social media was in its fledgling stages.  All of this does not begin to take into account the farfetched aspiration of holding a cordless telephone in your hand in order to have a face-to-face encounter with someone halfway across the globe (We have outdone the Jetsons, friends…  where’s my food-o-matic?).

I learned many… many… many—OK, there are not enough ‘manys’—things from this dear friend of mine, but there was just no way she could have known how the world of communication was going to explode!

I know, now, that this ‘rule of ministry’ was intended to protect incoming pastors from the inability to assimilate and to protect church members from looking through rose colored glasses and wishing for ‘better days’ (which may, or may not, have actually been better).  It was intended to foster new relationships and bring people together.  I think it might even have been intended to protect outgoing pastors from the same type of grief that comes from loss of circumstance.  None of us were supposed to look at any of this as loss.  It was all just part of God’s plan to move us along, to connect us with another part of the body.  Maybe there was a time in history when it even worked.  But… based on Paul’s words… I seriously doubt it.

Because some of us get very deeply attached, and cutting off all communication is like ripping flesh from our own bodies.  That sounds hyperbolic, but I have actually experienced real, physical pain over the loss of people, so don’t count it out as a possibility.

Now, I try to keep it real, so I’m going to be brutally honest in admitting that there are some churches… and some people… whom I do not miss.  My family and I have served in six physical locations (encompassing probably seven or eight different communities of people), and although I have certainly loved people in every one of those communities; there is only one that makes me feel quite like Paul with Thessalonica. 

There have been a few times in my life when I have known, beyond the shadow of any reasonable doubt, that I am doing exactly what I was created to do… exactly how I was created to do it… exactly where I was created to do it… and I could go on doing it forever and be very happy.  There have also been a couple of times when I have known this was a possibility, but something (or someone) stood in my way, so such a plan was thwarted by the free will of another (I’m not going to go quite as far as Paul, attributing that to Satan.  Sometimes, it’s just people.).        

I recently had the great privilege of travelling across the country and stopping in many of the towns where we have served the church.  You can’t rely on feelings to determine how right a decision was or might be—read that again, you can’t—but taking a drive down this ‘memory lane’ was pretty telling for me.  There were so many moments when I stopped to connect with a friend… or share a story with the kids… or just still myself and take in a breath laced with history and life.  These moments held sentiments such as, “Wow, that was fun!” or, “I loved that!” or “Remember when…” and they came with smiles and deep-rooted peace about the ways in which God has used us throughout this life.  But there were some ‘ugly’ moments, too.  If returning to the scene of your life some thirteen years later, for example, results in indefatigable tears… for hours… across state lines… something isn’t right (says the woman who hates crying in front of other people and mostly only does it when she’s furious).

Ah… my Thessalonica…

Paul’s words, “I could stand it no longer…” just slice through my heart (which is a little vulnerable, right now).  And there are moments when… even after all these years… I have to check in on them.  I have to know about their faith.  I have to know they are OK.

And so, in this world of connectivity, where I can know what they ate for breakfast last Tuesday; I break all the rules.  Because once you are one of my people; there’s no getting out of it.  It’s not you: It’s me.  I love you.

Interestingly, in this current swirling world of life and ministry, I am standing on the precipice of what happens next, waiting (not very patiently) for the direction that tells me which way to jump.  And I am praying that, even though the potential for heart-wrenching pain is high, I will land in my next Thessalonica; because I would rather feel that deeply again than anything else.

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