And Then We Were Three

By Graham Chipps

We were sitting together around the table. Good coffee, of course. Old friends, good friends, telling the life-stories since last we’d been face-to-face. We were all pastors of international churches. All the stories were hard to tell.

I was listening with ears very much attuned to loss. My mother had died a few months earlier: I had come from a family of six and now we were three. One loss never seems to fail to remind the soul of others because life cannot be lived without the accumulation of loss memories.

The stories were varied. Burn-out and the loss of self and confidence. A new country, and feeling far from being at home, and the grief of the old where life was good and blessed. A foolish error that brought devastation to a loved one and excessive over-reaction from the judgmental. A relentless targeted attack on competence and integrity that was unfair and invalid.

Loss was there in all these stories. Loss of innocence and confidence. Loss of dreams; loss of place; loss of the naivety and energy of youthfulness; loss of self-respect; loss of hope; loss of the love of another.

International churches are communities of people who live each day with loss. Perhaps most are not enslaved by it and so have the freedom to find joy and fulfilment. But loss there is. Leaving behind familiarity and predictability, loved ones and a sense of belonging, and discovering a new world where things work so differently and achievement so much harder to reach. Loss of simplicity; everything now is so much more complicated. Loss of dreams; seems like changing the world is not really God’s plan for me. Loss of friends in the high-turnover parade of people into and out of the country. Death, failure, conflict, we could all add much to the list.

Our faith speaks of joy! Christ’s work in us and through us brings expectations of fulfillment! But “Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?” [1] For good reason older people often sit quietly for long periods – remembering.

I have just finished reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir of pastoral ministry.[2] Caring for the souls of others is a deeply significant vocation, he writes. Nothing else like it. We pastors are called to love those who travel with accumulating losses; and who thereby carry a woundedness that can either debilitate or generate new maturity and strength. How so?

Not all, of course, are without their own resources to move through grief to hope and joy. Some need greater support than others as we all know from observing the transitions from one culture to another that are totally different. However, some do need the care of a gentle pastor and for those of us who serve in international contexts, may I suggest three valuable pastoral practices.

  1. Listen to the stories or at least be there in silence. One of the hurtful things about loss is bearing it alone. I know many who handle loss by withdrawing in one way or another. International churches have many like this. ‘He retreated into a solitude that grew in weight day by day. The solitude became a habit, the habit became the man, and it crushed him into a shadow. His loneliness had found fertile soil.’ [3]  Alternatively, friendship, pastoral or otherwise, is a powerful devise in the hand of God.

Shakespeare in his Sonnet on the remembrance of things past, and all the sadness of a life, concludes,

“But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restored and sorrows end.”

  1. Hold onto the truth that church is life lived as participants in the body of Christ, in community. Be passionate about searching out the ways for people to love and serve one another as good friends. A rich, authentic, Spirit-empowered, earthy, warts-and-all community life heals and liberates. Loss finds it hard to rule when the each one has no doubt that they belong – and can feel it. For all the talk of postmodernity and community, in fact real community is less and less a reality for so many people and international churches are not necessarily all they could be in joining people together.
  1. Resist the temptation to see church as a therapy centre. It isn’t and shouldn’t be. Church is so much more than this. Mission shaped church, mission oriented church, is church with a far greater capacity to keep things in perspective; to see as God sees. Church with a vision for the whole of God’s creation and Kingdom is church with feet on the ground and minds free to see. Keeping things in perspective is an essential ingredient in finding freedom from the weight of loss; finding freedom to remember the losses and their sadness while finding freedom to serve Christ with joy.

MICN at its best brings all three of these: faithful friends who listen or who simply keep on being friends no matter what; a community of fellow travellers in that ‘weird, whacky, wonderful world of the international church’[4]; a stimulating reminder of the missional challenge that our glorious God has fleshed out for us in Jesus.

Beyond all that – the excellent world of eschatology and the new heaven/earth! “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

[1]   Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss, Penguin: 2006, p. 2.

[2]   Eugene Peterson, The Pastor; A Memoir, Harper One: 2011.

[3]   Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss, Penguin: 2006, p. 39.

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