Last year, on Epiphany, January 6th, our family’s life changed. In the year that’s passed, I have sat down to write about what happened, but each time, I felt a stop. I wasn’t ready. But now, a year later, I am. This is what happened, the lessons we learned, the challenges we faced and the blessings we’ve experienced.
Christmas of 2016 was a stressful time. Well, let’s face it: the Christmas holidays are stressful all the time if you’re in ministry, because it’s traditionally the time of the year when churches pull out all out the stops and DO ALL THE THINGS. Nativity plays. Concerts. Caroling. Cookie exchanges. Potlucks. Added services mean more bulletins, more email updates, more time on the job for the priests.
Since my husband entered parish ministry late in life, this was quite a jarring experience for our family initially. Yes, we always went to church on Christmas Eve, but we weren’t used to my husband having to be at the church, working feverishly and against the clock. We weren’t accustomed to him having to get up on Christmas morning and co-officiate at the Christmas morning service, because we never went to church on Christmas morning. My kids were not happy about that.
2016 was worse than usual, because there had been tension building in the ministry team. My husband, who was on the lowest-rung of assisting priest, bore the brunt of a lot of things. When he put together the bulletin every week, it had to go through a lengthy and complicated approval process, where often, one person would contradict what another suggested. As with much at this church, there was seldom a defined plan, so at the last minute, everyone would be scrambling to do something–even if no one really knew what they were doing.
I remember on that Christmas Eve, sitting in the front behind my husband and the rest of the priests. My oldest daughter and son-in-law and I were all serving on the altar at that service, so we had a front-row seat to the obvious tension there. My heart ached for my husband, who only wanted to do the right thing.
What no one else knew besides my husband and me was that as the situation at the church had been deteriorating over the past months, we’d quietly spent the final week of Advent–the week that led into Christmas–fasting and praying for God’s direction. We tried to listen to what He was saying to us. And together, along with another praying friend, we received a strong and clear message: I am doing a new thing.
We made it through Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years. Life began to calm a little as we moved into Epiphany, but at the church, things were getting worse. Since I always edited the bulletin, too, I was on the email loop and saw how my husband was being treated. It was hard to see that. It’s always hard to see a loved one being abused.
On Friday, January 6th, I went to church for our noon time Epiphany service. My husband’s week had been long and stressful, so he opted to sit with me during the service, since the other priests were officiating. After the service was over, we both spoke at length to people around us who we knew were suffering, going through difficult times. We spent time praying with some of these folks. I felt an ease that I hadn’t at church for a long time. Afterwards, I said good-bye to my husband and left.
Three hours later, he was home. Carrying a box of his stuff. With an expression of shock on his face, he told me that he’d been let go by the church.
People are fired from their jobs every day. It’s never something easy, and I already know that others have it much worse than we did. What made our situation painful was the immediate severing of a huge part of our life. We lost more than an income and health insurance; we lost our church. We’d attended that church since 2010. Our daughter had been married there. We’d made friends who were almost like family. We’d settled in. And now it was gone.
Was it our choice to leave the church? On one level, yes. No one told us we should. But we also knew that God was most definitely moving us from that time and place. Staying would have been painful for us and divisive for the church body.
The days and weeks and months that followed Epiphany were filled with anger, bitterness and hurt–for me. I was really mad at the church leadership, who had let us down as a family long before Epiphany–but I’d been trying to find the good, up until that January 6th. Now that sense of grace had evaporated, particularly when I learned that they’d known they were letting us go long before we were informed.
I was mad at the people who messaged me or emailed me and told me that I was being unreasonable about all of this–that I needed to display more humility, more grace and less anger. How dare they! These people, who still had their jobs, their comfortable lives and their church family. I was mad at the people who simply stopped talking to us–some of whom we’d been ministering to for years, giving of our time and energy and love.
I spent a lot of those days spewing vitriol at anyone who would listen. I’ve always been a relatively calm person who tends to give the benefit of the doubt. But that was gone. The gloves were off. On car rides when I was alone, I played angry music (The Dixie Chicks Not Ready to Make Nice was a favorite) and screamed along with it.
But there was, under it all, a quiet saving grace. First, I knew one truth right away. I knew that this was of God. The way it happened? No, I don’t think that was God’s idea. That was utterly and painfully human. But I do know for sure that He saved us from a bad situation. He rescued us from that church. He liberated us from being stuck in something that was not going to end well, no matter what.
And then there were the small miracles. First of all, I had a strong sense from the very start that my husband was not meant to seek another job in the church or return to hospice chaplaincy, which had been his job before the church. That was a big deal for me; giving up the ‘security’ of a regular, dependable salary, no matter how small it was, was something that could have only come from God. I felt very strongly that we were to rely solely on God for all of our needs.
If you think that’s easy in this day, think again. Even when we felt completely secure in God’s provision, there was always someone to question our sanity (“But what about retirement? What about a safety net?”). And when we explained that we were doing out best to rely on God, trusting that He has our interest at heart, is our best plan for the future and the very strongest safety net, we got either a pitying stare or a incredulous, skeptical sigh. From people who claim to be Christians, believers.
However, God HAS provided. He rarely uses conventional means–my book sales haven’t skyrocketed, though I’ve seen a nice steady rise that has helped to sustain us. And it’s not always in our timeframe, either; sometimes, bills have been late. Sometimes, we’ve had to change plans. Sometimes He uses other people, and sometimes He uses complete strangers.
Those are miracles, too.
We’ve seen doors open that we never would have expected. We’ve seen lives begin to transform, because of the work God is doing through my husband. We’ve seen relationships form. We’ve seen people seeking God in new ways.
We’ve had the greatest support from those who either have never been church-goers, or who once were and then stopped, along with a wonderful remnant from our church family who have been steadfast friends.
It’s not only a matter of trusting God for our sustenance, either. We have to trust that God is leading us in His path, and that’s not always easy. It means there are some days when it feels as though tumbleweeds are rolling through the kitchen . . . and others when it feels as though there aren’t enough hours in the day. Some days we feel forgotten, and some days, we feel overwhelmed.
And what’s also miraculous is that I’m not quite so angry anymore. Yes, there are still a bunch of unsent emails in my draft box, responses to those people who felt like they knew more than we did about the situation. Yes, there are times when we still run into people who cut us off once we were no longer a part of the church, and it’s awkward, if not downright unpleasant. But it no longer ruins my day. I can laugh, because I know that we’re smack in the middle of God’s will for our lives.
Do we veer off course now and then? Sure. We’re human and we’re imminently fallible. Are there frustrating situations? Do I still get anxious over money? Am I often worried? Uhhh . . .yeah. All of the above. Can I find peace in leaning on God? Yup. I can.
So happy Epiphany to all. You know, the word Epiphany means this: