It had been 15 years since I had set foot at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Nipigon, ON. It was the first congregation I served, having been ordained and installed there July 3, 1994. For many years we had tried to fit a visit to Nipigon inside our family vacation to Minnesota, but the 8 – 9 hour drive up the shore of Lake Superior was just never friendly to our schedule. Finally this year there was an opening for my daughter Hannah and I to make the trip. Hannah was born there and she was game for the quick trip up and back to see the place she can barely remember.
So the anxious question for me was always: “How will it be to go back?”
Some of the answer to that question was shaped by the fact that a good many years had elapsed and many of the saints in that place had moved on from Nipigon, or advanced to their heavenly home. But in the end the overwhelming feeling I had was one of incredible thankfulness for all the wonderful memories of God’s blessing in that place. It was such a joy to see how the young and old, whom I so loved, had continued in the faith, and how the Jesus I was so privileged to share still made a difference in their lives. The congregation had diminished substantially over the years, but those who gathered there seemed a happy bunch – even if they were small. It thrilled me that even though it is difficult to be a confessional Lutheran church in a shrinking rural Canadian town, the saints of God still persevered. I am SO thankful to God for their faith.
But… even though my heart sang with thankfulness, there WAS also a complaint to God. Yes, a deep complaint. A complaint about why I still wasn’t there. Since my daughter Hannah was blessed to be able to play the organ that morning (it just so happened that the regular organist was in Toronto), we arrived early so she could practice. The vacancy pastor had given me the key. I walked up to the door, inserted the key, opened the door, walked in… and it was JUST like old times. I was that kid just out of seminary… with all the energy, gusto, and full head of hair… This was God’s House! The song of Jesus would be raised again! There was much work to be done! God’s Word was powerful to bring repentance and salvation to the children of God! My mind and heart was filled with the anticipation of those ancient days: Preaching, Sacraments, Bible Study, Vacation Bible Schools, Youth Lock ins, Mission trips, Marriages and Funerals! But no… it was not for me any longer. It was a trick of the heart. Even as I surely know how God has blessed the ministry presently in Scranton, my heart still breaks that my work had to have an end in Nipigon among those dear people of God at Immanuel.
It is good to remember how each day of this life is fleeting. Our opportunities are few to make a difference for God’s Kingdom. Counting each opportunity precious, we are to call upon the name of the Lord, ask His forgiveness in all of our shortcomings, and commend unto Him any of the small and precious fruit of our ministry. You could say that is the sum of every Christian’s life, but perhaps it is especially the life of the pastor.
I left a portion of my heart in Nipigon. Someday I will leave a portion of my heart in Scranton. Heaven only knows if my heart will be divided again. Until I sing in heaven, my vocation of Pastor will be one which owns a bittersweet and divided heart.
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.” Phil. 1:7
To God be all the glory.