[Jesus] said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is... You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? Luke 12:54ff
"Planting a church isn't for wimps!" That is what I would always say. I still say it. Only now, when I do I kind of feel like one of those wimps to whom I once gave such flippant reference. Honestly, it stings to say it now. It stings like a venomous puncture from the tail of one of those wasps that used to nest in the junipers that lined the street in front of my childhood home. It stings because I sometimes wonder if I am talking about myself. So I say it less. But it's still true, so I do say it.
At the end of the second year of our church plant and more than a year before I would surrender to the imprisoning clouds of depression, we had a fantastic idea for a Good Friday worship gathering. It seemed that is was not just our idea, but it seemed to be inspired by God Himself. I was thrilled to see it coming. If darkness describes my emotions those painful mornings in bed, then brilliant specter had to define my mood that Friday afternoon. Albeit splendor punctuated with the panic of meeting our deadline and the anxiety of wondering if anyone would show up to the worship gathering to experience all that we were laboring to provide, our creative team was excited to both produce the event and participate. The sense that God would meet people there and gift them liberally with His ample love and grace both compelled us forward like a tractor beam in a science fiction movie, and inspired our hopes like beams of light that extend from a single candle's flame, slowly and gently revealing unexpected treasures of increasing brilliance and value. That titillating anticipation was a bloom sown in the soil of a lot of physical and mental effort.
Physical and mental effort are definitely not uncommon to anyone who is part of a newly planted church. Our church plant, like so many others, still does not have it's own facilities. We meet in a school. This situation is one that I love and one that I sometimes dread. There are a few moments in the life of this small town boy, turned big city scholar, turned home town pastor that bring incredible joy. Being with someone at the moment they are able to verbalize their faith in Christ, performing the marriage of two Christ-followers who have done all of the hard work to know and follow God's will in their relationship, offering up a child in prayerful dedication to God's purpose just to name a few. But there are a couple of other moments that bring another kind of delight. The kind of delight that my mother described to me once when she told me that she didn't experience any feeling better than the feeling of having all of her children sleeping under her roof: safe, close, together. There is an unparalleled delight to seeing God's people together. There are some moments when a gathering of Christ-followers seems to erupt into noisy and blissful friendship. I love those moments when everyone truly enjoys one another. And that same deep satisfaction comes when a group of Christ-followers join their efforts together in shared service and good ol' fashioned hard work; and they love the task for the blessing of sharing it. There are times on Sunday mornings, when we set up church from a trailer, that those last two moments of pastoral glee converge. And then, I LOVE being a church planter, meeting in a school.
As the Good Friday gathering began and people arrived, all appeared to be on track for a stunning fulfillment of all that we had anticipated. Then, as if I was looking through a tunnel-like void, similar to Hollywood's rendition of a black hole in space, I saw something that I did not expect. I saw a couple, new to our congregation. This was not part of the portrait that I had meticulously painted for the event. I had not overseen any strategy to make sure that new people were either welcomed properly or integrated into the collective experience. And sure enough, as I kept my eye on them through the evening to track their engagement in the event, the moments when our congregation reached out to welcome them escaped my scrutiny. I talked myself into calm for the sake of making it through the evening. And that's about as far as I made it... through the evening. By the time the event concluded and the gymnatorium was cleaned & reorganized for Sunday's Easter gathering, thoughts of failure attacked my brain like an infestation. Dread put it's strangle hold on my heart. And fear took my soul captive. I was in so much agony, because I was convinced that my observation was an indication of looming failure for this mission to which I had sold my self. After two years of life-hijacking focus on ministry, physical fatigue, mental strain, emotional exhaustion, and diminishing spiritual stamina had drained me of my defenses like a leach sucks blood. I didn't see it happening, but the vision that once brought me vitality and focus had become strain, drain, and pain. Clouds were engulfing me. And like cataracts steal vision from a healthy eye beneath, this perfect storm of emotion was robbing me of the joy I had always had in ministry. I should have seen the storm coming!
When the deepest part of night fell and I went to bed, sleep eluded me. The darkness of night covered the sky but the the full moon's brilliant glow seemed to have the lumens of a WWII air strike search light with all of its beams focused on me. My eyes wide-peeled, I succumbed to the multi-layered attack on my senses. I got up out of bed and went to the computer to try to organize my thoughts... OK, that's the white-washed version. I got up and went to the computer to get it out, to unload. And I dropped that load like a manifestation of the Manhattan Project. What had begun as fatigue from believing that the success of our church plant relied on my leadership ability, my organization, my pastoral skill, my spiritual prowess, my personal charisma, and endless hours of dedication to prove my worth, was swirling inside my soul like a vat of nuclear activity, churned by a cartoon super-villain and nearing the point of critical mass. An explosion was on the very cusp of the horizon. I sat down at the computer and typed out all my fears of failure and my anxiety. And, I was not careful enough to protect the innocent. Then, I did the most regrettable thing of my ministry life. I posted that rant on a now-deleted blog. The nuclear waste expelled, night came like a cozy comforter and wrapped me in wanton sleep. But morning was coming, and the explosion of that blog post was about to reap destruction in more places than just my inner-life.
While I had never bothered to notice the dark dread-filled clouds of fatigue mounting in my sky, there was no missing the radiation cloud that followed that blog post. It was the fallout that inevitably follows all such eruptions of nuclear poison. It was harm, dropping like nuclear rain in the lives of so many of the people who surrounded me as faithful friends. And it opened up the skies to an even greater storm that would eventually plunge me into depths of dark feelings I have never before known.