What I Will Miss, What I Hope For

Last Sunday was my last sermon and my last Sunday as lead pastor at my church–such a wonderful day filled with worship, laughter, tears, thoughtfulness, creativity, artistry, love, and beautiful surprises. My husband and I are both so grateful for such an amazing farewell Sunday!

By request, here is my message from that day, “Looking Back, Looking Forward, In Thanksgiving and Hope” in audio followed by the written version.

Many of you know that I never intended to become a pastor. But somehow the Spirit of God blew me into ministry. Somehow God took me from not at all thinking about pastoral ministry to being called by the church, took me from outright laughing when someone asked me how would you like to be the pastor of this church? to meeting rather tentatively with the search committee, to becoming more curious, and then excited to serve for what everyone thought would be a short time from Easter to the end of December.

But to my surprise–and maybe to everyone’s surprise at the time–that initial call to a short-term assignment grew into an on-going call to pastoral ministry, to ordination, to–as of last Easter–25 years together. The same God who blew me into ministry in the first place, sustained me and sustained us over the years.

Now I sense a new wind of the Spirit blowing in my life: to complete my pastoral ministry at Emmanuel, to invest more deeply in my writing and speaking, to remain open to ministry in another setting. My first inkling of this change came over a year ago, in the midst of this ministry that I loved and still love today. But at that time, with no thought at all of leaving, I was talking with someone at church, when I had a sudden thought: I’m really going to miss you when I’m gone.

Then CSS Publishing that I’ve worked with twice before, invited me to write another book for them–but full-time pastoral ministry is actually full-time. And my limited writing time was already committed, so I had to say no. A few months later, they asked again about another book project. They would even push their deadline later than usual. And when I said yes, I knew that would mean completing my ministry here. I wasn’t quite ready to admit that even to myself. But over time, that sudden thought, and the pull of more writing and speaking opportunities seemed to signal a change. A new wind was blowing.

Not long after I shared this growing conviction with the church, Charlotte Siemens gave me a card with a chocolate bar. In the card she wrote, “the winds of change….no doubt the next few months will be times of deep reflection, both looking back and looking forward. As you enjoy the chocolate, for half the pieces think of something specific for which you are grateful (in the last 25 years), and for the other half of the pieces, something that you are looking forward to.” And then she added in brackets “(I know the chocolate bar should be much bigger.)”

I actually managed to stretch out that chocolate bar over several Sunday afternoons. I thought about what I was thankful for in the life of the church as a kind of gratitude list, and in my mind that question quickly morphed into what I will miss.

I will miss Sunday mornings: walking into the sanctuary as the music team rehearses–and feeling my spirit rise with their music. And later in the service, singing with my eyes closed, and when the song is over and I open my eyes, I’m almost surprised that you’re all still here, and I’m preaching next.

I will miss testimonies from youth and young adults and adults, and drama and art in worship that can speak as clearly as any sermon or maybe even more. I will miss greeting church members and newcomers in the church foyer. I will miss sharing candy and raisins with the children after worship, hearing about soccer practices and sleep overs and birthday parties and what books they’re reading, and even when I ask dumb adult questions, they don’t seem to mind.

I will miss the sacred moments of dedications and baptisms and leading communion. I will miss week days in my church office surrounded by walls the colour of sky, where study and prayer and Scripture come alive for me and I long to pour all of that into a sermon, yet can’t quite do it. I will miss visiting and praying with people, the intimacy and intensity of life and death moments.

I will miss pancake breakfasts and guess who’s coming to lunch, summer coffee and church potlucks and Christmas banquets—which always meant great food and hospitality and bringing people together around a common table. I will miss Bible studies and small groups that share and care for one another. I will miss meeting with our church council and deacons, staff meetings, committee meetings—for to me those were never just business and budgets, but sacred moments of sharing life together.

I will miss my pastoral colleagues in the wider church of Mennonite Church B.C. and Mennonite Church Canada. I will miss my role representing our congregation to our church agencies and partners. I will miss creative and collaborative celebrations like today, with so many people involved that I’d love to name and thank each one, but then we’d all miss lunch. And besides today was planned as a surprise, so I’m not even sure who all is doing what. I only know that if that chocolate bar had been bigger, I’d still be listing all of your names.

As I reflect on what I look forward to–well the road ahead is never as clear as the road we’ve already travelled. You know that if you’ve ever quit one job to look for another, or moved or retired or gotten married or had a child or lost a spouse or had a difficult diagnosis or whatever transition you’ve faced in the past or are facing today. We never fully know what God has in store for us whether we’re younger or older, 9 or 90, whatever our background or walk of life.

Yet I see some signposts on the road ahead for me. I look forward to finishing my book at the end of February, even though it doesn’t yet have a title and I haven’t yet written a single word. At least I know it’s to be a book of sixteen sermons all on gospel texts for the Lent and Easter season in 2020. Also due in February, I look forward to completing lectionary worship resources for the Christian Century and a week’s worth of devotionals for Rejoice! Before the end of this year, I look forward to the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meetings. I look forward to speaking at Ambrose University in Calgary, and writing a column for Asian American Women on Leadership. In the new year, I look forward to serving as a guest speaker for a retreat in Alberta, and speaking in Ontario for the Mennonite Church Eastern Canada annual meeting. Other sections of the road ahead I know are still in process, waiting for more clarity and confirmation.

I know I couldn’t do all these things and still pastor at Emmanuel, that I need to let go here to travel the road ahead. But I also know that in large part, these things are made possible because of you. As a church you’ve supported me as a pastor and been able to see me as a whole person, and Gary and I both appreciate your support for us as a couple. You’ve supported the writing I’ve been able to do throughout the years. You’ve made me a better speaker. You’ve made me a better writer. So while this is a farewell service, in many ways I will carry you with me. Because of you, I look back in thanksgiving and look forward in hope.

I have many favourite portions of Scripture, but I chose the text for today because it also looks back and looks forward, in thanksgiving and hope just as we are doing today.  The book of Lamentations is just like it sounds—a long mournful lament, written in a time of great distress and change. The temple had been destroyed. The city of Jerusalem had been destroyed. And yet in the midst of destruction, Lamentations 3:22-25 offers this stunning affirmation of faith:

It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning: great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion, says my soul; therefore I will hope in him.
The Lord is good to those that wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

I love this translation from the King James Version: “we are not consumed” – meaning we are not chewed up and eaten up by life. The word literally means “cut off.” We’re never cut off from God because his mercies and compassions never fail.

In the book of Lamentations, the people might have felt cut off from God. They might have been consumed by despair over the destruction of their city. They might have been consumed by hatred and anger toward those who had done them such harm. They might have been consumed by doubt and disbelief toward God.

Today there are many things that might threaten to consume us too. In times of change, we might be consumed by uncertainty or worry. In the midst of life, we might be consumed by responsibility, overwork, and burnout. We might be consumed by competing demands pulling us in different directions. We might be consumed by loss and grief. We might be consumed by politics or social concerns or personal agendas. We might be consumed by consumerism, by getting ahead, or by just surviving. Like the people of Lamentations, we might be consumed by despair or hatred or anger or doubt or disbelief.

But we are not consumed and eaten up by life, Lamentations reminds us.  And it’s not because we are so good or smart or faithful in ourselves.  It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because God’s compassions never fail. I love the plural words here—not mercy, but mercies, not compassion but compassions. For God’s mercies and compassions are never just one thing for one time—they are many and various and forever. So whatever challenges we might face today and tomorrow, we can look back in thanks for all that God has done in carrying us this far—for mercy upon mercy upon mercy, for compassion upon compassion upon compassion.

At the same time, Lamentations looks forward in hope. God’s mercies and compassions are not only for the past. They are new every morning. They are for today and for the future.

In his sermon on the mount, Jesus said to his followers:

Do not worry about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will worry about itself.
Each day has enough trouble of its own.

But Jesus kept trusting God all the way through his ministry, all the way to the cross, all the way to new life and victory. Because while each day has enough trouble of its own, God’s mercies are also new every morning. For the people of Lamentations. For Jesus. And for us today.

The text says, “the Lord is my portion”—a reference back to the Hebrew people entering the Promised Land, where instead of land, Aaron as the priest received the Lord as his “portion.” Only God wasn’t a portion—without land of his own, Aaron would depend on the Lord for everything.

In a similar way, Lamentations says, “the Lord is my portion”—in other words the Lord is my everything. Therefore I will hope in him. The Lord is good to those that wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

On a practical level, we might seek different things at different times in our lives. Some of you are seeking answers to big questions about vocation, life, and faith. Our transitional pastor search committee is seeking a transitional pastor for the church. And at a deeper level, as Gary and I seek a new way forward, as the church seeks a new way forward, we can all seek after God, knowing that God is good to those who wait for them. As the book of James puts it, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

As a writer, I’m constantly revising, so my first working title for today was Looking Back, Looking Forward with Thanksgiving and Hope. But later I thought no, that word “with” sounds too much like an optional side. Like do you want fries with that. So I changed my title to Looking Back, Looking Forward IN Thanksgiving and Hope. These aren’t afterthoughts or add ons, but thanksgiving and hope are the way to look back and look forward, they ground us and root us in God’s goodness.

Gary and I are so grateful for all of you and the life we’ve shared together. I will still be making some visits and finishing up some things this coming week, then technically on vacation until the end of November which is my official completion date. At least in the short term, we plan to leave our official church membership and some of our giving at Emmanuel. And although we will no longer be present here, we look back and look forward in thanksgiving and great hope as members of the same body of Christ with you.

So I offer these words as a blessing for all of us this morning:

It is of the Lord’s mercies that you and I and all of us are not consumed
by the changes and challenges that face us in this life.
Because God’s compassions never fail.
They are new every morning: great is God’s faithfulness.
The Lord is our portion, our everything; therefore we will hope in him.
The Lord is good to those that wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

Look back, look forward, in thanksgiving and great hope.
Look around at God’s presence here with us today and always.
Amen.

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Lead Pastor of a mid-size, multi-staff church and the author of Four Gifts, Christ is For Us, Sacred Pauses, and other books on spiritual growth and Christian living. Blogging on Writing and Other Acts of Faith (aprilyamasaki.com) and When You Work for the Church: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how we can all do better (whenyouworkforthechurch.com).

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