Yes, it is officially still spring. Green everywhere is lush and deep, not just-emerging, though. Flowers are in full bloom. The temperature has risen until the sweaters of spring are mostly unnecessary. Though it feels like summer, and all the signs point to summer’s imminence, we are yet in the lagging, lingering, last days of the spring season.
This spring a new vision of myself sprang forth. I made the momentous decision to leave my church. Though some may make the decision to change churches with the ease that they decide to switch branches of the public library, or to visit a different WalMart, for me deciding to leave my church was like deciding on undergoing a surgical transplant. For me it meant time and planning, cutting away, attaching anew, and accompanying pain. So I determined that if God was leading me out, let Him lead. And so He did.
Sometime early in the year, before I went to my writer’s conference in California, Raquel, a friend and colleague who attends my old church, BT, asked if I would participate in organizing a legal symposium ministry at BT. I told her sure, I’d love to help. A meeting was scheduled for the new ministry.
In March, at the writer’s conference, I wore a name tag that listed my hometown in New York. Despite the fact that New York is a huge state and that you could fly for hours to get from one point in New York to another, I was consistently approached by non-New Yorkers who inquired, “Do you live near Brooklyn Tabernacle?” or “How far is your town from Pastor Jim Cymbala’s church?”, or “Have you ever visited the Brooklyn Tabernacle that’s in New York?” One pastor, the editor of a national denominational magazine, and a denominational leader told me, “Pastor Cymbala’s ministry has really changed our church. We revamped our prayer life. His book was so influential that we gave copies out at Christmas to leaders of other churches in our community.”
After almost a week of having strangers from all over the country telling me how much they love BT, my old church, I started to think, BT is a pretty good church, huh Lord? I pondered, during my drives through the mountains of Silicon Valley, if I’m going to be waiting to hear from God as to where my next church will be, why not wait to hear from God at BT? Why not stop my downward spiritual spiral and stabilize my soul spiritually at BT for a while? Maybe going back is the best alternative for me for now? What do you think Lord?
In the days following my return from California, my openness to returning to BT bloomed into resolve.
A few weeks after my return from California I was scheduled to go to BT on Sunday morning for a meeting about the legal symposium ministry I’d agreed to help with. The ministry team was to meet with Pastor Cymbala after service to discuss our plans. That Sunday in Brooklyn was to me a fleece. I prayed that the Lord would soak that one Sunday with the dew of Heaven, if going back was what I should do.
The service was exactly what I remembered and loved finding in worship at BT, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Besides which I was embraced and welcomed by familiar faces. This is my family, I was reminded. Big Willie, the keeper of most everything in the House, asked, as I waved past him with a smile, “Are you visiting or are you back?” I had no answer. I moved on to meet with Pastor Cymbala to discuss the new ministry. He had no questions about my participation on the team, even though I was no longer (officially) one of his sheep.
After the meeting I fellowshipped with friends. We talked about my church and my sense that it was time for me to move on. I shared, “I think of coming back here…but I don’t really want to. It feels like going backwards.” My friends, wise women, spoke to me words like:
“What you really want is to be where God wants you to be”; and
“Perhaps you are like Naomi, you went out, now you are coming back and God has a particular blessing waiting for you here”; and
“Maybe God is bringing you back because your assignment is finished there and He has another assignment for you”; and
“Missionaries routinely come back to their home church for periods of refreshment and respite before returning to the mission field.”
They spoke easily. They spoke as one, without contradiction. A few minutes of fellowship provided me with more insight about my church situation than I’d had in the previous six months. Maybe I really would go back to BT.
But, my anxious heart questioned, if I go back, Lord, what would I do at the church? Would you want me to sit and not serve? Would you want me to clean the church, start serving at the bottom and wait to see if I’m allowed back into leadership? Even if one wants to, how is it that one goes back?
Coincidentally, I returned to BT three days later for Raquel’s graduation from a 10-week Bible discovery group. She’d invited me to her graduation several weeks earlier. I knew the program she was graduating from. I used to be a leader/facilitator of this program. At the graduation, friends, facilitators, and my former participants (one now a facilitator!) showered me with love. The speaker, Keith Friday, encouraged us that God is a Good Father. He used examples from his own experience as a father to parallel God’s love for us. It took me a while, but by Keith’s third example of God’s particularized love for, and interest in, His children, my ears were opened and I Heard. God, I acknowledged silently, you really are taking a particular interest in my church situation, aren’t you? After the ceremony ended, I went to talk to my former leader, the head of the ministry. Carmen kissed me and asked, “You’re coming back?”
She surprised me by touching on this subject so immediately, so directly. I answered, “Actually, I think I am…”
She responded, “You’ll facilitate the fall semester starting in September.”
This surprised (and delighted) me. I laughingly questioned, “But I only, just one second ago, told you that I think I’m coming back. How can you give me an assignment already?”
Carmen then told me, “I’ve prayed that the Lord would send you back. Now you’re back, you’ve got work to do.”
Word that I was coming back buzzed around the room like a bee. Rhayna, once junior, now soon-to-be-married senior facilitator, took me aside and confided, “I’m so glad you’re coming back. I’ve been praying for God to send someone. The seasoned leaders are going off. While it’s great to train new people, we need experienced facilitators. This is perfect. You can step in and help Carmen without there being any adjustment period.”
At which my heart whispered, Father, I’m really coming back, huh?
The final factor was my own pastor. Would he be in sync with this transplant that I believed God was effectuating in my life? Would he release me? Lord, I thought, if he resists or opposes this move, then I don’t see how I can possibly go. I met with Pastor Banarsee a couple of weeks after speaking with Carmen. We discussed what I believed God was doing. He shared his experience of being called to move from one church to another. As he spoke, his words echoed words that I’d heard from the Lord about my leaving, though he did not know this. Then my pastor, with grace and wisdom and prayer, released me to return to BT. As I was leaving he handed me a folder that had been on his desk.
“I prepared this for you before we talked,” he said. “I had a feeling that we would be discussing your departure.”
The folder contained information about transitioning into a new ministry.
And so, with a bittersweetness like the ending of springtime, I’m going back to BT at the beginning of July.