I have the honor of being called to be the interim pastor in a local church in NY beginning January 2022, after some six months preaching twice a month prior. I have learnt so much the hands of God in my life and calling through this church, and it’s been God’s answer to my prayer to restart preaching and ministering in some local congregation with all the great reformed theology I have learnt with my pastoral and church plant ministry.
What’s the most intriguing emotional, spiritual , and pastoral lesson I learnt, still learning it, is what transpired within the first three months of the year. Little did I know that within the first three months of this year or after I started interim pastoring the congregation, two dear members of the church died, and a third member’s dear young son died. Two of them due to Covid, and one due to cancer.
Encouragement from our dear friend John Barilla
To make the matter more exasperating, one strong reason God led me to apply to pastor this church was due to a very pastorally warm brother, John. While I was invited to preach there last May 2021, before my arrival to preach my first sermon there, he wrote me an email and he said a very heart warming and Spirit led email to me even before meeting me.
John wrote: “This week I spent some time reading your blog posts and listening to some of your You Tube videos and I found myself very much in agreement with the emphases of your ministry. In reviewing your posts, I noticed that you have a vision for combining the strengths of Reformed doctrine with the charismatic openness to the work of the Holy Spirit. I agree that they actually complement one another and I affirm the importance of preaching the “full gospel”. So I just want to encourage you and let you know that you have a kindred spirit in the congregation, and I am looking forward sitting under your ministry of the word on Sunday.” May 2021
This is a guy with a MDiv with previous church planting and pastoring experience in Long Island. To me, that’s such a providential work of God as I sought His leading.
During the last few months of last year, I started sharing my blogs, mainly my reflections of theology I learnt, and also my YouTube inspiration devotional sharing’s of my devotional reading. He would, often give me feedback either he liked it much for inspirational teaching or at times also critiqued it saying it’s not for ordinary church folks. He would also gave me feedback, together with another brother Charlie, on his analysis of the church dynamics, and the challenges I would face to pastor it. I have been so encouraged by his weekly feedback and exchange of views and thoughts on church pastoral and theology.
John ’s Unexpected and Untimely Death
That brother passed away in January 2022 due to Covid very unexpectedly, and leaving suddenly a big vacuum in my friendship, ministry in the church, of which it made me seek the Lord more. In his funeral, I fought for a burial for him. However due to financial reason with no family’s help at all, it ended up that the church being his only real big family, picked up the tab for cremation with offerings from the congregation. In his funeral, I gave an emotionally strong message that we lost a dear brother which we could never understand, but we know that he’s in the good hands of our Lord Jesus, and we must all move on in life in the calling of our Lord. We must not be stuck in this mourning mode. I felt the Lord was with me as I spoke that. (Truly I spoke more to myself at that point).
My wife’s Anointed Input to me
I am thankful to the Lord for my wife, Doreen’s sensitivity to the Lord. Literally two days before John passed away on Sunday, we got news that he got covid and was resting and recovering. Some of our church folks including me emailed him, texted him, to see if we can help him in food and urged to him to take good rest. On Saturday my wife urged me to contact John to check on him, and let him know that we will buy some food and groceries for him and would just leave him by the door. I emailed him on Saturday and let him know that we would be dropping by the next day Sunday after preaching in the church. To which, him being the type of never bother anyone type, as I expected, emailed me on Saturday that he was doing fine and recovering, and he didn’t need any food or groceries and he thanked me for our kindness and thought. The next day, Sunday afternoon, I got a text from Charli that he passed away. I wept hearing that. That’s almost too much out of unexpectedness and the fact we were still emailing the day before and he was dear to me. Recalling back, I am so thankful I listened to Doreen to reach out to him on Saturday even though I knew he would not bother anyone. And that was the last we heard from him. The day before he passed away to be with the Lord.
Pauline’s struggle and death
And a month into the beginning of March, we suddenly got news that a dear sister, who had been battling with cancer for months, passed away. My wife and I had joined our weekly prayer meeting on zoom, and that sister, Pauline, had also been a faithful passionate prayer warrior. The little prayer group I was in, prayed weekly for more than 6 months for her healing. Every time I heard an update of any of her chemo treatment, the pain she went through, my heart sank, and grieved within. I would pray with all my heart together with some seven others weekly for her and of course the church and America that the Lord put in our hearts. I took over leading the prayer beginning of this year with my pastoral. By March, we got news she passed away. It was a hard moment to swallow, with questions why didn’t God heal her? As much as the question that loomed in my mind for John, why didn’t God heal him over Covid? Even though we prayed with our faith and belief, and certainly seeing these as the will of God to heal, they both died. That was what it was like the first two months of my pastoral calling there. We all trusted the Lord and that she was in a better place with the Lord. We comforted ourselves. I was then asked by the family members to conduct the funeral planned for her as the English church pastor. I have never conducted a funeral all my life, and hardly been to funerals except my dad and grandparents. By then, thankful to God, I just done my church polity, with the Book of Church Order, I picked myself up with the liturgy prayers listed in the book to conduct it. I had to seek the Lord hard to find a message to bring the clear gospel and the comfort for her husband and children and indeed for the whole church community. I guess all eyes were on me. I finally picked a sermon on Abraham and others:
Hebrews 11:13 13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
They waited for their promises to be fulfilled, from afar, like Abraham didn’t see the promised land, only saw from afar and acknowledged them to be strangers and exiles on earth, as a reflection for Pauline’s family and the church wondering why didn’t God answer our united prayers of over half a year. And frankly, I needed that sermon myself. It was an emotional process of seeking God and to preach. I like to reiterate what I heard from Dr Ligon Duncan on his lecture on Funeral:
Reformed doctrines of God’s love and sovereignty is a towering strength for funeral.
Charli’s twenty one year old son’s death
Then literally a month later, a dear brother in church, Charli’s twenty one year old son suddenly died out of the blue, and when he texted me, my heart sank one more time, and that groan “Why Lord?” Its three persons death within four months in a small church since I took over leadership. It’s like the most crazy thing ever happened in my ministry. His son did not come to our church, and he lived with his mum, Charli’s ex-wife, who is a Catholic. The memorial service was called to be conducted by a Catholic priest, and it was to be on the middle of the week at 7 pm. I had a decision to make, as the following day is a workday, and that service parlor place is about 1.5 hours’ drive one way in the evening from my house. I was debating whether we should go or can just offer prayers for my member. Just at that time, my wife (again!) full of the Spirit told me that we must go to show support to our dear friend in church, and to that I immediately said yes as I sensed in my heart. I had initially reasoned that young man does not come to our church, and it’s under a Catholic church pastoral from his mum and I don’t know him either. But to comfort and stand with Charlie, it was important that I, the pastor turned up. And we did turn up that night and prayed for Charli and consoled him together with some other members from church. The next day, Charlie emailed us all how much he thanked the Lord for our showing up as he felt all alone in the service with his ex-wife’s Catholic group. How much it meant to him when we showed up. I thought to myself, “Thank you Lord .” I was so glad that we went. Just to strengthen and encourage Charli, who is also dear to us, was an important moment pastorally. It dawned on me how important pastoral presence with our member in times of grieving is, and what it means to them!
The Lord is our God and I thank Him for His sovereignty over our lives for His providence and love. Amen.
Psalm 85:10–13 (ESV)
10 Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. 11 Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky. 12 Yes, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. 13 Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.