In the summer of 1995, I was playing my first year of professional football. As a proud member of the Hamilton Ti-Cats of the Canadian Football League, I was living a dream. Playing a sport and getting paid for it is something most young, athletic boys wish for at some point in their childhood; I was no different.
I did not become a starter until my second year. Thus, as is often the case, my rookie season had me pegged as a backup. As a backup, I was only going to get playing time one of two ways. The first way for me to get on the field was if we got way ahead in a game. This would be a great thing on every front. The second way I could find myself on the field was if one of the starting lineman was injured. In 1995, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were not likely to be ahead in any game, much less way ahead. So, for the most part, I was often biding my time on the sidelines, waiting for someone to get hurt. For clarity, I did not want any of my teammates to get hurt, but I desperately desired to get in the game and play.
And play I did. I started 6 games that year despite never really being a regular starter. And every one of my starts was due to one of my fellow offensive linemen getting knocked out of the starting lineup with an injury. Playing in games was thrilling. But as I relive those days of seeing actually playing time for Hamilton’s football team, the best word I can come up with to describe the totality of my feelings is bittersweet.
Bittersweet is a word to describe something that is both pleasant and painful, both wonderful and woeful. And seeing action in a real, live professional football game was sweet. I can still taste the sweetness as I reminisce about the games I played. But I also remember the bitter taste that came from the knowledge that one of my fellow lineman, all of whom mentored me in those early years, had experienced great disappointment and possibly great pain in getting bumped from their position. My feast was the result of a friend’s famine. My rise was precipitated by a buddy’s fall. Those thrilling days of 1995 which saw this young, inexperienced gridiron greenhorn take the field were days of mixed emotions; sweet as a result of the sweat induced in playing the game I loved, bitter from the brutal reality that someone else’s disappointment led to my opportunity.
Here it is, 2015. It could be almost 20 years later to the day of my first professional football start. And as I consider what I am about to experience, I find myself contemplating an all too similar sense of bittersweetness.
I am becoming the interim lead pastor of a wonderful, Christian congregation in London, Ontario that gather under the name of West London Alliance Church. The road that brought me to this juncture is filled with many weird, wild, and wonderful stories…stories that can wait for another day. For today, I’d simply like to explain what makes this event so bittersweet.
Before I expand on the pleasantness of becoming a regular preaching pastor, and the pain that brought these changes about, let the reader know that the gravity of this situation makes the bitterness far more stringent.
The bitterness that is so thoroughly mixed in with the sweetness of recent events comes, once again, from the pain of a friend and mentor, in fact, a teammate in the race of faith. Pastor Mike Wilkins has pastored this congregation for over 30 years; I was just becoming a teenager when he started. Pastor Mike has been the “starter” behind the pulpit for many, many years. And just like those men that I backed up on the football field, Pastor Mike’s health has forced him to step aside. His ongoing battle with cancer has brought about, as it were, a change in the lineup. Unlike the trial that injured footballers face, this is a life and death battle. And so, there is a great deal of pain, sadness, and disappointment mixed in with this exciting opportunity that I’m facing. The bitterness is a result of the trial of a valiant, resilient, and faithful man of God. It is his difficult situation which has precipitated my move behind the pulpit that he has dutifully and fruitfully filled for so many years.
But it’s not all bitter. There is sweetness too. There is great excitement. The opportunity to preach the Word of God is an honour far beyond what I deserve. The thrilling challenge of loving, serving, and leading the bride of Christ, even in an interim position, is a turn of events so wonderful I can barely articulate it. And there is sweetness because the man who is stepping aside to make room for me wouldn’t have it any other way.
Despite the sadness in the situation, Pastor Mike continues to preach and proclaim the sweetness of a sovereign God who works all things for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). Pastor Mike continues to exult in the beautiful peace of God which is ours in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). And Pastor Mike continues to point to the One who drank the most bitter cup, a cup brimming with God’s wrath, on behalf of those who deserved to be punished (Romans 5:9) so that their cups would no longer be bitter but rather brimming with living water (John 4:10-14). Pastor Mike fearlessly and faithfully points to the cross of Christ, and the empty tomb of Christ, which brings eternal sweetness into our dark, painful, and bitter world (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). We would do well to harken to Pastor Mike’s preaching even as he steps away from the pulpit.
One day all bitterness will be removed; only sweetness will remain. For now, this really, really amazing honour of becoming West London Alliance Church’s interim lead pastor will be, for me, bittersweet.