Farewell and Godspeed

NB: I posted and sent this message to members of Messiah Lutheran Church

Dear friends,

On Saturday night, I preached my 230th and last sermon at Messiah to an empty sanctuary. I wanted to get a feel for how the words would sound in there, and how I might react looking out at all of you for one more time. Then I walked home in the cool dark, the last of who knows how many times I did that. It’s a moment I didn’t always enjoy, depending on the hour and the weather and what had kept me late. But it’s an experience I will always miss, along with so much else here.

Those of you who participated in Christian Basics over the last few years have heard me say that I came to Messiah because I was unemployed and needed a job. I’d been an unsuccessful candidate in four or five call processes and had just left a short-term part-time call. The day after my installation as your part-time interim associate pastor I got a call from the University of Chicago, offering me a stable, secure, nine-to-five job advising undergraduates. I could see my life branching out ahead of me: to one side, there was a reliable job with summers off and free classes at a great university; to the other, a few more months of employment in a field I hadn’t been able to get permanent employment in so far. I took a deep breath and chose the latter path, and haven’t regretted it for one minute since.

On Sunday you paid very moving tribute to my work here. For the last six weeks, in fact, you’ve been telling me what I’ve meant to you, in cards and conversations and kind messages on Facebook. It’s been overwhelming. So it’s only fair that I acknowledge what you have meant to me. Not just that you were gracious and kind and receptive, to me and to my family, but that you were, in fact, the difference between continuing to answer my vocation to ordained ministry and quite possibly washing out of that ministry altogether. I have struggled to express to many of you that I am grateful that you gave me the opportunity to be your pastor. By which I mean, you opened your homes and your hearts and your hospital rooms to me. You trusted me with your crises and your faith and your hopes and the sins you needed forgiven. You let me pray for you and anoint you and baptize you. You didn’t have to do any of that. I showed up not knowing whether I had any future in this work, and you ended up assuring me that I did. Thank you.

In the last month I’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about what I learned, what I could or should have done differently, what I tried to do but never succeeded at or finished, the ideas I had that didn’t work out quite as I had expected or hoped. There’s much that I would do differently if I had it all to do over again. That is part of this work. St. Augustine, my hero, wrote a big book of retractions late in his life, so at least I’m in good company. If I had the chance I would only have worked harder, if only to honor and validate the trust and commitment you showed me.

But as this date drew nearer, and as I had the chance to talk and pray with many of you one more time, I came to realize that none of that really mattered. What mattered was the Sundays, the visits, the day-after-day of it that we shared over eight years. It’s a special kind of bond. I’ve loved and served many churches, but I never had the chance to experience that before. It has changed me. It has shaped how I will approach my work in all the years to come.

Since I didn’t get the chance to do so on Sunday, I want to acknowledge the steadfast support and appreciation Pastor Dawn has shown me from the beginning of my time at Messiah to the end. She has been an invaluable colleague. She is a devoted servant of the church. It’s been an honor to serve with her.

And I need to acknowledge my wife, Kerry Dueholm, for her role in making my ministry here possible. She helped out in many visible ways–with PADS, leading a Pathway huddle group, and preaching. But her support and encouragement behind the scenes were essential. No one will be surprised to hear this, but I am exceedingly blessed in my family.

We’ve come to the end of our time of mutual obligation as pastor and people. It is customary and expected for a pastor to refrain from contact with a former church for the first year after the end of a call, to allow the new pastor an opportunity to be received and to make a clean start. So please do not take it personally if I am not in touch during that time. But do please know that you will always be more than welcome if your paths take you down to Dallas, as our paths will bring us back to the Chicago area from time to time. And there is no rule about pastors refraining from prayer for their last church. I meant what I said about continuing to pray for Messiah. I will.

Thank you, again and forever, for everything you have done and been for me and my family. I will always treasure these years, and all of you.

Now to him who—by the power at work within us—is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Ben

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