"That you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13b).
On November 1, 2020, the church I planted in New York City ceased holding worship services. If I'm honest, I saw the writing on the wall for some time before the final decision was made. We were already a small church to begin with, but when Covid-19 restrictions came, it didn't take long to see many congregants flee the city (understandably). As weeks of lockdowns turned into months, people didn't move back and our funding began to dry up. Eventually we had no choice but to hoist the white flag.
Initially, lots of friends and associates reached out to see how I was handling it. My standard answer was to say, "I'm fine," and immediately point to the many positives that came out of the experience, and to say as few words as possible (a rarity for a blowhard preacher like me). But the truth is, my lack of words was simply a mask for a grief I was/am still wrestling through.
I grieved because I had poured myself into my church’s ministry like nothing I had ever done before. I grieved for the members of Epiphany I no longer got to see on a regular basis. I grieved because all the exciting dreams I had for this church ended with a sad whimper. According to the well-known author Elizabeth Kubler Ross, there are five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. So let's see if I can chart my experience:
March-April: Denial - I'm sure once we come out of this lockdown we can figure out some new creative way to get people to come back!
May-June: Anger - Why can't we meet yet!? The lockdowns are lasting forever! Why can't this damned virus just go away!?
July-August: Bargaining - Hold the line, we can make it, just a little bit longer. Please??? What on earth am I going to do?
September-October: Depression - There's nothing more to do. I've failed. I give up. I'm a loser. Can I go back to bed now?
October-November: Acceptance - We did all we could. The church is not mine. It is God's and always has been. Thy will be done, Lord.
Now, I'd like to tell you that the progression of stages was smooth and predictable, but the truth is grief doesn't really work like that. In fact, amid all these stages, it was easy to swing back and forth between them all. The path to acceptance is a road filled with many detours, ditches, potholes, and pits.
All that said, I have not grieved without hope. I saw the seed of God's word do too much over the last five and a half years to give into that sort of despair. Through his word, I saw God convert sinners and declare them to be saints. I saw people delivered from addictions and renewed in their marriages. I saw people gain assurance of their salvation for the first time. I saw God raise up gifted people to serve his church. I saw people that had once been strangers become the closest of friends. Yes, I grieve, but I've seen too much of God's word have its way to give in to hopelessness.
Over the last year, we have had many reasons to grieve. Jobs have been destroyed, schools have been shut, kids have been isolated, parties have been canceled, conferences have been postponed, and lives have been lost. What we all once took for granted (moving around freely and unencumbered) we now find ourselves longing for. And yet, in our grief, the reasons to hope are still there. Christ is still risen and ascended to the right hand of God interceding on our behalf. He is still forgiving sinners through the continued unveiling of his word to the world, and soon he is coming again to renew all things. It may seem somewhat hidden right now, but make no mistake, hope abides.
To that end, a brief story: On August 2nd, our little church plant got back together in-person to hold worship services for the first time in nearly six months. I couldn't wait to be together again with the people of Epiphany. As I nervously prepared myself in a back hallway to start the service, I was eager to see who would show up. To my great disappointment, I looked out on the sanctuary of this beautiful, historic church building and saw only a few scattered souls spread out across its pews. The silence in the room was painful. The reality that we probably couldn't make it much longer hit me hard and instantaneously. I debated for a split second whether to even start the service.
Nevertheless, we plunged ahead. We sang together and prayed together. I preached my sermon. And then, we gathered around the altar for communion. Amid that tiny group walking to the altar, there was a couple. The husband had been converted under our ministry well over a year prior and had faithfully attended just about every week since. However, his wife had only ever come once before (and at that, only out of obligation). Yet here she was, walking up to the altar. In the weeks and months of this dark lockdown, she started having discussions about the faith with her husband (and eventually me) and was led to the Light. Now, for the first time, she was coming to receive the very body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of her sins. In my grief over the realization that this church plant could not make it, God was shining a ray of hope by bringing new life and healing to yet another sinner gathered at His altar.
When I began planting this church, my image of the plant was something strong and mighty, like a Redwood tree. Oh sure, we'd start small, but undoubtedly we would grow into a large church able to do great things in the world. But over the course of time, I began to see things differently. I began to see our church more identified with the mustard seed Jesus refers to in Matthew 13:31-32. Most of the time, that little mustard seed grows unnoticed and unimpressively. It's fragile, and yet, from its initial planting, over time, it continues growing in ways that the naked eye wouldn't naturally expect.
It's true: Epiphany Church in New York City has closed its doors. But the seed that caused it to sprout at all, the seed that sprouted in the heart of that woman headed to the altar that night in August, still grows. And it won't stop growing.
So no, I will not grieve without hope. God’s word remains powerful.