Lots of people are saying 2016 was one of the worst years, and so they are looking at 2017 with hope, excitement and lots of plans to make big changes. I don’t know if 2016 was my worst year, but it was for sure my busiest. During overwhelming times like these, my dad says, “Life can feel like trying to drink out of fire hose. It all just comes at once and you feel like you may drown.” I was drowning this year! This year I was tasked with restarting a church that had experienced a huge decline and I published my first book where I was the primary author. The project included art, video and writing. So it was a crazy year where every other day I thought I was going under. Let alone feeling like I had a personal life.
But there’s this thing about drowning: it only takes one hand to reach for you and pull you to safety. Last year that life-giving hand came in the applause of a three year old named “Willow.” Before I share her story, let me first share how I got to this moment of drowning. It all started with a sign.
“Make what you wish existed.” That sign hangs in the coworking space, FLDWRK, that I currently share in Costa Mesa. I am working out of FLDWRK for several reasons, but my favorite reason is that I get to be surrounded by people making big changes in the world and as I have been tasked with building a church community that I actually want to go to - these are the people I want to be around. I have been working in this artistic and innovative space with lots of other startup pastors. Sometimes I overhear planning sessions of really creative worship services. As I hear the ideas pour forth, I get overwhelmed with trying to envision what my new church will look like. This feeling gets worse each time I pass the sign “Make what you wish existed”. I find myself doubting my ability to create anything anyone wishes existed. I have always dreamed of creating the church and worship services I wish for, but the excitement of that idea sure seems to fade in the face of daily community, building, financial and other resource issues.
These challenges show up in many ways. Our building is 100 years old and has no room for classrooms or fellowship other than worship itself, the existing congregation is in varying stages of being on board with anything new, and the surrounding community has great need but is hard to serve. When you add these obstacles on top of trying to work out a stream of income to keep the doors open, it gets difficult to imagine being creative enough to make anything, let alone something you wish existed.
The week of my rescue was a particularly hard week. That Monday I discovered that some contracts created before my appointment to the church were not working out as hoped – which was making the church’s financial situation, among many other things, much more challenging. Then on the same day, someone tried to break into the building…and a June bug flew in my car window. I am afraid of all bugs, but let’s just say I am never emotionally prepared for the ones that are the size of hummingbirds and fly.
Sitting in my car about to cry, I began to pray. Then I remembered a tiny incident – a moment of proof that something that I do wish existed is being created…already. Worship as it was at that time was awkward, especially in the music department because, among other things, we had no worship leader. Instead, our accompanist played the hymns while all of us tried to sing along. Our accompanist was very talented, but without a worship leader we often felt like we are just stumbling through the music. Sometimes, in the middle of a service, I just want to stand up and declare: “Just wait! I know this is awkward, but hold tight – something new and great is coming!”
The other awkward part of this whole “new church in an old church” setting is that is that although the church has a few rooms other than the sanctuary, they are currently full of pipe organ parts. One tiny office is too small to house a class. So when new families show up, we have no classroom space for their children and they sit and worship with their parents.
These two awkward components crashed into each other this week in a life-giving moment that saved me from drowning in my own doubt. It was Willow’s first week at our church. This little darling showed up excited for church in a beautiful dress and shiny shoes. Her parents seemed worried about her chattering mid-worship, but I loved it. During the time of the offering the accompanist played a beautiful piece. When she was done instead of the usual silence that fills that huge sanctuary, Willow was overcome and clapped, exclaiming “Good job!” Overwhelmed by her enthusiasm and the beauty of the song, everyone else joined in the applause.
As I sat in my car staring at my beautiful hot mess of a church, Willow’s joyous applause came flashing back to me. In that moment, I could see the beauty and joy of who we were becoming. We are an absolute mess, but we are also beautiful and joyful.
And with that tiny clap, Willow saved me from drowning. So I am pressing on with God, Willow and the rest of my congregation to “make something both Willow and I wish existed.” And I guess it is working because on Christmas Eve there were 80 people huddled together in this church to celebrate. It has been years since the church has seen these numbers. But the best part was, as I scanned the crowd, I saw the most diverse gathering of people I have seen and they are the type of people I want to spend time with. I have actually started to build the very thing I needed. So 2017, look out I am coming for you and together we are going to build something amazing!