Over thirty years ago, my dad was the pastor this church in Albemarle, NC.
It wasn’t big and it wasn’t fancy and there weren’t many people when he first arrived. In fact, one of the visitors who eventually became a part of the church recounted, “When I first walked through the front door of that church, I saw just six people--and four of them were on the platform!”
The four people on the platform would have been my two younger sisters and me (playing drums, bass and piano, respectively) and my dad, who led the singing and did the preaching. The two people in the pews would have been my mom and one other intrepid church attender. And at the very beginning that was it—the entire congregation.
It was most definitely not a day of big beginnings.
I was in my late teens when dad pastored there, and let me just say that when I was a teen and my view of the world was still shiny and unsullied, I didn’t tend to think about certain things.
I didn’t tend to think about the fact that it must have been discouraging sometimes to be in my dad’s shoes back then, to be in the prime of his life while pastoring just a handful of people.
I didn’t tend to think about how much fortitude and dedication it must have taken for my dad to go to that dreary, dilapidated church office day after day and labor diligently over sermons that only a couple of people would ever hear.
I didn’t tend to think about the fact that finances must have been very tight back in those days when Dad had a family to support that was—at the beginning, at least—bigger than the whole congregation.
There were a whole lot of things I didn’t think about back then.
Four days ago, when unexpected circumstances caused me to make a trip back to Albemarle to sing at a funeral, I made it a point to stop by the old church first. And when I pulled into the parking lot, I started to think about a whole lot of things because I suddenly saw that old church through different eyes.
I saw it through the eyes of a 49-year old woman whose dreams were no longer new and no longer shiny and I saw it through eyes that have seen disappointment and grief. I understood, in a fresh way, just what sort of gritty determination it must have taken my parents to stay in that place and faithfully pastor those few people.
And as I sat out in the parking lot and gazed at those long ago memories through older eyes, I wept.
I wept over old memories and new understanding and I wept because that building had encompassed the ministry of a father who is no longer on this earth. And for a few brief moments, I felt close to him, and I felt like I understood him better. I felt like a part of him was right there with me on that warm spring day—a day that was filled with the solemn quietude of long gone years.
I realized that even though my dad never pastored a large church, never lived in a nice house, and never had much money, he was still a success. My dad was faithful to what he was called to do and he did it with joy and with excellence.
My dad was also blessed to have a wife at his side who didn’t whine about not having extra money to go out clothes shopping. Instead, she cheerfully scrubbed church toilets with him, dusted pews while he vacuumed, typed his letters, and sat on the front pew and amened his sermons. And all along the way, she quietly invested her love and her life into her husband, into her children, and into those few parishioners who came through the doors of that humble building.
My dad was a flawed man in many ways. There is no doubt about that. But I sat in that parking lot and looked beyond his faults and I cried because he was no longer around to unlock that little white door and step inside the church to do the ministry he loved so much.
And throughout his long ministry, my dad always did so much more than just pastor a church. While we lived in Albemarle, my dad also opened a youth center and spent hundreds of hours reaching out to both troubled teens and “good kids” alike. He played pool with them, counseled them, listened to them and loved them unconditionally. My dad’s ministry has never been confined to a church’s four walls and for that, I am grateful.
But that’s not the end of the story.
After my dad had built that church up to about forty people, he left and another pastor came. In a few years, the church outgrew that old building and rented a theater to meet in. And then in 1986, a new building was constructed and a few years after that, another even larger building was built.
Today that little white church runs over six hundred people and continues to grow.
And this was the church that had invited me to come and sing at the funeral of one of its long time members, a woman who just happened to be one of the handful of people who had attended my dad’s church all those years ago.
After thirty-one years, I had the privilege of seeing her husband and her daughter and son once again. They told me how much my dad had meant to them and how they had never felt more loved than when they were attending his church. The son and daughter told me how my sisters and I had been their role models and how inspired they had been by our singing and playing in the services.
And then, one by one, other people (many of whom I no longer even recognized), came up to say that they had also known my dad, that they had been members of that small church, and that their lives had been greatly impacted by our family’s ministry.
In those brief, sweet moments following the funeral, I was reminded of the very thing that I had been grappling with earlier in the day while sitting in the dusty church parking lot. I was reminded that no act of kindness, no song, no sermon, no hug, no word of encouragement ever goes to waste, even though it may seem like such a very small thing at the time.
It might be five years later, it might be fifteen years later, it might even be thirty-one years later, but eventually, the good seed we sow into the lives of those around us will produce a harvest. Sometimes we never get to see that harvest, but other times? We do.
This past Monday night, standing in a thriving church in Albemarle, NC that was birthed out of my dad’s long ago ministry, I got to see a harvest. I got to experience a harvest. It was a harvest of hugs, a harvest of joy, a harvest of precious memories treasured.
And in the middle of the memories, and the stories, and the laughter, I caught a glimpse of my dad.
He was smiling. And I was glad.