Have we wasted our lives? That’s the question that recently wandered through my pre-coffee morning mind. Upon waking, I was caught in the churchy sludge of discouragement that can occasionally befall anyone in ministry—or someone who is married to a minister.
There are more years behind us in church ministry than ahead. This I do not grieve, yet. Sadness will probably arrive later when my husband, Brent, steps away from the pulpit and tugs off his collar. That morning, though, I questioned what we had to show for the 30 years so far, the 11 churches we’ve been a part of in some way or another, and all the fresh starts with their associated goodbyes and hellos?
There is plenty that is good and right about this life and this church; we have been moved by the love of Jesus and how his people warm each other and the world with the particular kind of love that is a miracle of the church, beautiful across the whole world. Through the years, we’ve been part of congregations serving up this warmth through free home renovation projects, parenting talks, youth group laser tag lock-ins, plays and concerts, sales and symphonies, refugee sponsorship, Friday night dinners, soup lunches, hot turkey on platters on Christmas Day, the Alpha program in all its possible forms, traditional services and contemporary music and this and that and the other, all dreamed up for the sake of the specific communities in which we found ourselves.
Most of the time (I think), church offered its love with no churchy strings attached. Hands were full and opened wide, eager to be emptied. But sometimes beneath the layer of love—at least for me—was a barely concealed desire to reach people so that our churches can be bigger and therefore better, and better and therefore bigger. To be that church. To be a success in creativity and numbers and volume and impact. To puff up and spread ourselves out.
Of this I repent. This, I set down. Any honest evaluation of why we do what we do will almost always lead us to some kind of repentance. I look around this altar and see that I am not alone here on my knees. Of this we can surely repent, not of growth itself, but of growth for growth’s sake.
At a recent church breakfast, I admired the necklace of a fellow church lady, strung from wooden beads with tiny carved elephants. It looked like it had been carefully chosen at a market stall full of carvings and batiks, as a remembrance of a wonderful trip. “I love it,” I told her. “Thank you,” she said, touching the jewelery. As she opened her mouth to continue the conversation, my friend, who is growing a little more fragile with age, found herself at a loss.
“I can’t think of the word,” she said, tapping the head of one little elephant.
“Would you like me to help you?” I offered.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I’d rather come up with it myself.” With a tiny elephant between her fingers, my friend rummaged through the drawers and looked behind the doors of her mind for her lost word. We waited. It might have made sense to change the subject, but that felt disrespectful to the work in which she was engaged. Moments passed. We still stood in silence. Eventually, we were called to eat. We smiled at each other, shrugged, and went off to get in line.
Our conversation was not productive. We didn’t solve a single thing. We parted and I went to find the croissants and the crabapple jam. Technically, and counting by the clock, it was not a success. But at church, a waste of time can be a work of love.
A few weeks later I stood at the back of the sanctuary during communion and watched people come and go, as I like to do. People walk down the side aisles to receive, and then return to their seats via the middle aisle with its residues of taped x marks on the red carpet from the spacing restrictions of former days.
And there was that same parishioner, making her way back to her seat up the middle aisle, holding a wafer in her cupped hands to consume when she was seated again, one of the few COVID-y rules we still had back then. Behind her were dozens of parishioners who had slowed their pace to match hers, so as not to overtake her. She was not rushed. She smiled, likely oblivious to the small crowd swelling up behind her. This was a very slow parade. The congregation was gentle behind her, as a holy accompaniment. I warmed and smiled to just watch it.
In that scene before me, I witnessed the church successful in one of its best and holy ways. There was the church beautiful in its slower, patient gait for love’s sake alone. The church can offer this rare gift to its own beloved and beleaguered people, but also to whomever we meet and have the privilege of walking beside and behind for Jesus’ sake.
Every year, the dawn of Easter reminds us that what the world might see as a waste can actually be a wonder. What looked to everyone else like a messiah failing was the Messiah fulfilling the most holy journey. Death is life, and a tomb emptied of its body is full of a promise that will turn everything inside out and right side up. Easter is the most flamboyant and subversive of hopes, a peacock wandering past our window during the last gasps of a Canadian winter. Success looks different from the world’s version, here where we stand in the Church humble and magnificent.
Easter proves once and forever that Jesus is with us on this long, slow, certain walk that may not ever look successful, but is so very faithful, and is, yes, a holy accompaniment.
Karen Stiller is the author of The Minister’s Wife: a memoir of faith, doubt, friendship, loneliness, forgiveness and more, and editor of Faith Today magazine.
This article is part of New Life Rising which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at http://orderct.com/lent.
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