People resonated with the story of how I closed my church plant a few years ago. Here is one final reflection about that difficult but formative time.

I doubt closing a church is easy in any situation. But the Riverside was not just any church. I had planted it myself, and its closure felt especially personal. The deepest experiences of my life were inextricably bound to that community, and so it was wrenching to see those ties severed. For two years, my life revolved around three themes: my family, my church, and my wife’s cancer. My family would survive my wife’s cancer, but sadly, my church would not. Perhaps this explains why the closure of my church affected me so profoundly and so negatively.

But I also think it has something to do with happy endings.

America loves happy endings where the good guy gets the girl and the bad guy his just deserts. Many a studio executive has discovered this when they are bold enough to produce a film with an ambivalent ending, one in which it is not manifestly clear that everyone is better off than when they began. Test audiences howl at the injustice of it all and demand their money back, even though they saw the movie for free. In fact, the endings of some famous films have been rewritten because of this fact.

But this goes far beyond our taste in movies. It is a reflection of American culture as a whole, specifically, the American dream. The American dream revolves around the belief that if a person works hard enough and generally treats others well, he will thrive in this country. And this is why we love happy endings. They are consistent with the American dream and serve to reinforce the rightness of that worldview. Without these conclusions, we experience uncomfortable levels of cognitive dissonance as we wrestle with the unfortunate reality that people often do not get what they deserve, in one respect or the other. In this way, happy endings are not a preference for us, but a necessity, essential in helping us make sense of life.

I had hoped for the same thing for our church. If it could survive, and even one day thrive, it would help make sense of everything that my family had endured for two years: my wife’s miscarriage and cancer diagnosis, the many break-ins at our home. The success of the church would be our sweet epilogue, our great moment of redemption. Safe in the bosom of our healthy and growing church, we would look back at our season of hardship and smile serenely. Everything would make sense as God's great plan and purposes would be revealed. Joyful memoirs could then be written and sold by the millions.

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But it was not to be. The church succumbed to the weight of all the burdens on its shoulders, like a running back being pulled to the ground by tacklers, inches away from the goal line. I had hoped that the success of the church would make sense of an otherwise inexplicable season; instead, I was given the terrible responsibility of laying that beloved community to rest.

I had hoped for a happy ending, an ending like Job received.

In the Bible, Job loses nearly everything, even his own physical health. He mourns his loss and questions why this happened to him while his wife and friends offer logical but flawed counsel. But it's all good because by the final chapter of Job, God has shown up and given him twice as much as he had before—more camels, more livestock, and more beautiful daughters! And now we can finally make sense of the circumstances of Job's life: he suffered so he could be even more richly blessed. Aha, success and blessing make sense of suffering! The moment of resolution in the Book of Job seems perfectly captured in this verse from the final chapter: "The Lord blessed the latter part of Job's life more than the first." A good ol' fashioned happy ending.

How I wanted that kind of epilogue too: And the Lord blessed the latter part of the Riverside's life more than the first.

But the epilogue of the Book of Job is not the true turning point. That actually occurs earlier in chapter 38, after Job and his friends stop philosophizing. The Lord answers Job from the storm and booms,

“Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?

And so begins a few remarkable chapters where God challenges Job from the center of a whirlwind, calling on Job to account for his presence in the most profound moments of Creation's history. And after this, in response to God's sublime presence and words, Job says:

“I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

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You see, Job did not come to have some measure of peace and understanding about his situation through success and victory and more camels and beautiful daughters. It happened when he was faced with the presence of God. He found peace when he met God, not when he got his stuff back. True redemption is not circumstantial, nor material—it is divine and personal. It is found not in our circumstance, but in Christ.

But we are so stubbornly entrenched in the American dream, where happy endings are mandatory, and all loose ends firmly knotted. It has to be that way, otherwise we do not feel settled, and our faith in God somehow shaken. But we must have forgotten our church history. There is no happy ending for Paul, Peter, James, and Stephen. The final chapter of their earthly life does not read, "But they all became rich and famous and married and lived long and healthy lives—praise God!" No, their final chapters read thusly: one was beheaded, the next crucified upside down, the third thrown from a building by a mob, and the last stoned to death.

As hard as it is to believe, these men had already had their happy ending. They had already discovered peace, redemption, resolution, purpose, and hope. They had already discovered these things years ago, not in circumstance, but in Christ. They did not need their earthly lives to continue on an upward trajectory because they knew they were on an eternal one instead. And how desperately I, and I suspect so many of us, need to reclaim this dynamic. We need to divorce our joy and peace from the ups and downs of our circumstances, the hectic EKG of success and failure, and plug them instead into the constant character of God.

Does this mean that I do not believe in hope, that better days are ahead? No. I do believe in both of those ideas very strongly, especially when Christ returns to make all things new. But my hope for the future is not based on my certainty that circumstances will improve, as much as it is in the certainty that God will be with my family and me, no matter our circumstances.

I realized this during one of the more sober moments of the past year. After yet another stinging job rejection letter, my wife and I were sitting together, pondering the decisions we would have to make, the uncertainty that was before us. We sat quietly, overwhelmed by it all. But we looked at each other and the photographs of our children covering the walls. "You know," I said, "We'll be fine no matter where we go. Just as long as we're together." And we both knew that was true.

And so it is with God—our faith is not in the consistent improvement of our circumstances, but in the faithful presence of God in all circumstances. It is this truth which allows us to say, "Jesus, no matter what happens, I'll be fine. As long you're with me."

Third Culture
Third Culture looks at matters of faith from the multicultural and minority perspective.
Peter Chin
Peter W. Chin is the pastor of Rainier Avenue Church and author of Blindsided By God. His advocacy work for racial reconciliation has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR, and the Washington Post.
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