I’ve been a part of Four Oaks Church in Tallahassee for 20 years, pastoring for 9 of those years. In that span, I’ve been privileged to walk alongside many members through their darkest days. Children taken before and just after birth. Spouses called home decades earlier than expected. Cancer diagnoses, adultery, wayward children. As a faith family, we have wept together countless times for every imaginable reason, and every wave of grief that crashes down on our church brings a fresh reminder that this world we inhabit is broken, troubled, and groaning for redemption. And yet, every time the wave comes, together we have found the Savior close at hand, ready to minister grace through the comfort of the Holy Spirit, his promises, and the fellowship of His saints.
I’ve wept at the bedsides, spoken and sung at the funerals, and sat helplessly in the dimly-lit hospital rooms, grasping for something, anything to say that can offer comfort as the story my friends thought was being written is seemingly dashed against the rocks. And standing in front of the church week after week to minister in word, song, or sacrament, their stories break open for me again as I get to watch them fight for faith in the midst of the sorrow. It’s a beautiful and holy thing to behold.
Last Sunday, because it was Easter and the Gaithers are awesome, I led the church in singing “Because He Lives”. As we sang, “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow,” I scanned the faces of those gathered, and my eyes came to rest on two widows singing with congregation. One lost her husband to cancer a decade ago. She has not remarried and has faithfully and courageously raised her two sons through adolescence and toward manhood without their daddy. The other lost her husband to a sudden, unforeseen cardiac incident just a couple of years ago and is still in the early stages of grasping her new normal, all the while heroically loving and caring for her teenage daughter.
As we sang, both of these women had their hands and voices raised. Raised, in my mind, in protest against the grief, hopelessness, and bitterness of loss, as they confessed the hope that’s theirs because of the resurrection. Because Jesus lives, they can face tomorrow. Because He lives, they can take up their cross again, knowing the end of their story has already been written, and it is beautiful, however hard the middle of the story might be. Because Jesus lives, their husbands will live again, and though these women will one day resign their failing bodies, they will live again as well.
Their hope gives me hope. That’s the beauty of the Church, the dearest place on earth. We are better together, by God’s grace and God’s design. These saints need the rest of the church around them to bear their burdens, to serve, and comfort them. The rest of the church needs these saints to show them how to suffer well, how to battle unbelief, and how to testify to the Savior who holds them in the mist of pain and piercing grief.
I get that the Church is messy, complex, and often just plain hard. Sinners sin; this is true. But in spite of it all, I believe today as much as I ever have that it is beautiful and it is worth it.