Like A Lobster Looming Large

During the latter part of my sabbatical (August), I read The New Parish, a book that resonated deeply with me. The temptation for pastors returning from sabbatical is to either resign, or the opposite extreme, to hit the ground running with all kinds of ideas and dreams. Reading The New Parish provided me with an important counter-measure to this temptation. It was one of the most nurturing integrations of spirituality and ecclesiology (theology of the church) that I have ever read. The authors applied Benedictine, Franciscan, and Ignatian practices corporately for churches to cultivate a sense of place in their neighbourhoods by listening and discerning together so that they could respond appropriately in love and service. 

It was during my reading of The New Parish, that I came across the story of the lobster. A lobster never stops growing and it can live as old as 50 years! This means that a lobster frequently has to shed its protective shell and grow a new one. If it doesn’t, it will die. When it begins to outgrow its shell, it starts drinking large volumes of water until its shell separates from its body. Its eyes pop out and for a period of a few days, it is extremely vulnerable and defenseless – blind, weak, and unable to walk more than a few steps without falling over! Yet, remarkably, this is when it is the most fertile and the only time it can mate. Its external flesh contains the substance that forms its new shell which begins to grow after a few days.

I felt that the story of the lobster was a wonderful analogy of this present season for our church. The “shell” on the lobster represents systems, structures, and programs that have become our identity and security. We find comfort in them. They were good and right for a season, but God is preparing us for a season of new growth, and these old systems can now hinder that growth and even bring death! Therefore, we must be willing to shed them. In light of this, I came back with a strong conviction that we were to continue to the end of the calendar year in the “spirit of the sabbatical.” I desired to come back in a posture of listening. It was to be a season to slow down, to become vulnerable, and to be willing to let go of anything that God was asking of us. 

As I returned to work, the church seemed at peace with very few fires to tend to; again, such a wonderful credit to our leadership team and whole church community, for which I will be forever grateful. I also felt supreme gratitude for our extended Vineyard family and church connections that offered themselves to provide worship and teaching relief during my sabbatical months.

But, then the surprises began. My first official day back at work was a Tuesday, September 1. I eagerly anticipated my first staff meeting and catchup with our dear assistant pastor, Joanna. Almost immediately, she informed me that due to health issues, she was going to need to take a medical leave which would result in her resignation by mid-fall. Next, two other oversight team couples went on leave which also included the resignation of our primary kids leader. In addition, due to a move, we no longer had a pre-teens leader. Furthermore, our video personnel had all resigned along with our worship team point person. Please understand that all of these departures and leaves were completely legitimate, but the timing was unbelievable. I was returning to VEV and for the first time in all of my 20 years of pastoral ministry, I had no support staff and there were huge gaping holes in our leadership team and Sunday programs. I mean huge holes!  

Of course, all this news was hard, and I limped through my first few days back disoriented, confused, and uncertain about my future here, struggling with feelings of loneliness and abandonment. 

My first Sunday back on the job was Labour Day weekend. We had Brent and Bonnie Bylsma from the Kamloops Vineyard as guest worship leaders and teachers, so my load was relatively light that day. Yet, with the leave of three oversight team couples along with all the holes, I was feeling vulnerable. That soon melted when I arrived at church. There was just so much joy. Before I began to lead the service, Kirsten opened and “introduced me,” blessing me back into leading the church. There was a remarkable peace, and the sweetest presence of God that was tangible throughout the whole service and throughout that whole day. Indeed, this sense of peace has extended throughout the whole fall season. Of course there have been bad days, and I have grieved the season change for Joanna, but I have also had a sense of new joy. For the first time in 20 years, I have been free to be home and to be present without having to tend to responsibilities, regionally and nationally. God has been with us and his grace has more than compensated for the holes. This grace has come in the form of so many in our congregation, who in response to the Spirit’s call, are stepping up and filling some of these holes! We've had fresh troops added to provide strength and encouragement to those who are weary. The fact of the matter is that some holes will always be with us. Rather than trying to plug all the holes, we’re just “buckets full of holes” that are dipped in the infinite ocean of God’s mercy and grace. The holes actually provide an opportunity for his grace to shown.
Ok, what are the chances...? Our son-in-law, Markus was looking
at google maps on his mac and came across this... 

It was then that I remembered the lobster again. Ah, yes, the lobster. We were that lobster. We had lost our shell and maybe our eyes had popped out but it was not because we were shrinking. Rather, it was because we were growing. We were corporately vulnerable, and it sometimes felt uncomfortable, but it was giving room for growth - growth God’s way, not through imported techniques, nor methods, nor formulas. It was simply being who we are, no more and no less, vulnerable, waiting, with God, together, like a lobster looming large.