What Do You Say to a Broken World?

I once preached a sermon entitled, “What Do You Say to a Broken World?” In this week, after our nation’s Capitol was breached and defiled, I have wondered if ministers who will stand before congregations in two days are asking themselves a similar question: “What will I say on this day to a broken world?”

A friend of mine is preaching this week. I am praying that she will have an extra measure of wisdom, because standing before a congregation while the nation is in chaos is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. My first feeling as I thought about preaching for this Sunday was relief that I was no longer a pastor with such a heavy responsibility, that I did not have to summon the wisdom to speak to a people with heavy hearts who need to hear of healing grace and hope. But my most intense feeling was envy, not hostile envy, but heart envy about my deep desire to speak Gospel Good News to people who need to hear good news. Still I envied my friend and wished that, this Sunday, I could stand before a congregation with wisdom, open my spirit and invite God to speak through me. It is a heavy responsibility and a sacred calling.

Dr. Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, wrote an essay this week entitled “Preaching When It’s Broken.” In the essay he says this:

God bless you, preachers who will address congregations this Sunday . . . Here in the United States, things are broken, most people know they’re broken, and we all need healing and truth.

For many of us, the invasion of the Capitol and the response to it by people we know, love and admire, brings this brokenness to the foreground. Since that terrible, violent day, I have heard dozens of interviews that expressed anger, frustration, contempt, indignation and all manner of raw emotion. I have also heard wise leaders express their resoluteness to lead this nation into healing, unity and hope.

Indeed, the questions about this Sunday’s preaching call us to attention: How do our pastors, our priests, our rabbis, our imams, our bhikkhus and bhikkhunis stand before their congregations offering comfort when our nation is so broken, so angry, so mournful in the face of violent acts? What will they proclaim? What will they preach? What will they pray? What will they sing?

Minneapolis Pastor and Poet, Rev. Meta Herrick Carlson, has given us a grace-gift with this poem entitled, “A Blessing for Grieving Terrorism.”

A Blessing for Grieving Terrorism

There is sickness
with symptoms as old as humankind,
a rush of power born by inciting fear in others,
a wave of victoryin causing enemies pain.

There is a push to solve the mystery,
to isolate the suspect and
explain the evil simply
to a safe distance from the anomaly.

There is a temptation
to skip the part that feels
near the suffering
that shares the sadness,
that names our shared humanity.

There is a courage
in rejecting the numbing need for data
in favor of finding the helpers,
loving the neighbor,
resisting terror through random acts of connection.

There is a sickness
with symptoms as old as humankind,
but so is the remedy.

From Rev. Meta Herrick Carlson’s book “Ordinary Blessings: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Everyday Life.” Used with permission.

So much truth in her words, so much wisdom “for the living of these days.” In her words, I feel all over again the desire of my heart, the impossible dream of standing in a pulpit this Sunday, speaking to a congregation that needs strength in the midst of adversity. I will not stand behind a pulpit this week, but I will pray for those who will stand in that sacred space. I will pray for them, the proclaimers, and I will pray for their hearers across this nation. I will lean on this beautiful prayer written by Reverend Valerie Bridgeman:

May God Strengthen You for Adversity

A blessing for today: 

May God strengthen you for adversity
and companion you in joy.

May God give you the courage of your conviction
and the wisdom to know when to speak and act.

May you know peace.
May you be gifted with deep,true friendship and love. 

May every God-breathed thing
you put your hand to prosper and succeed.

May you have laughter to fortify you
against the disappointments.
May you be brave. 

© Valerie Bridgeman, December 18, 2013

When all is said and done, more important than what the “proclaimer in the pulpit” says is what the hearers hear. For in this time — when violence, riots, terrorism, pandemic and all manner of chaos is so much a part of life — those who listen need to hear a clear message of a God who dwells among us, a Christ who leads us, a Spirit who comforts us under the shadow of her wings. For hearts in these days are heavy, souls are wounded, spirits seek hope. And all the people want to believe that they do not walk alone through their present angst.

I pray that you know that you are not alone, that God’s grace-filled presence is with you and that “in God you live and move and have your being. As some of your poets have said, ‘We are God’s children.’” (Acts 17:28)

I pray that your heart will heal and be filled anew with hope. I pray that the wounds of your soul and spirit will heal and be filled anew with the peace of God. I pray that, when you listen in faith, you will hear the voice of God whispering in your ear, “You do not walk alone.”

I invite you to spend a few moments of meditation hearing the message of this music:

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.

May you always hear
even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.

When times are hard

May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

Holy Energy!

There is a very special call from God that lets you know that it is your call and that no one else can respond to it quite like you can. It brings with it a kind of holy, inexplicable energy.

Your call may be teaching or preaching, caring for others or working with children, tending the sick or lifting up those who live in poverty. Your call may take you down your street or halfway across the world. But when you hear your call and know it, you will also know the feeling of that holy energy. There’s really nothing quite like it. Its precisely the reason that no human has enough power to thwart your call for any reason — for being a woman, or being too old, too young, too inexperienced. No human can steal the holy energy of your call!

Preaching releases every kind of holy energy for me. Preaching creates in me a unique awareness of my body, mind and spirit. It is, above all, a soul exercise that brings me fresh new life. That’s the best way I can describe the event we call preaching, at least from my view. But it is so much more than just an event; it is a 20 minute pursuit of truth, inspiration and spirit movement. It is for the hearer and for the proclaimer, for both are in this place of spiritual replenishment in need of new awakening to the things of God.

Last fall, I preached at my church in Macon. It was a rare opportunity, a red-letter day really. It was the first time I had preached since my illness. It had been roughly five years since I stood in a pulpit to do what I have been called to do. Those who have a similar calling probably know the angst of not preaching when God has called you, for God’s call is a lifelong agreement. For me, there is something life-giving in the act of preaching a sermon. I experience a special connection to the congregation that feels as if it moves by the wind of the Spirit. 

So it would not be an exaggeration to say that I miss preaching deeply. I miss being a pastor. I miss creating worship experiences for a congregation. 

But back to the opportunity to preach at my church . . . 

I was looking forward to the holy energy, hoping it would come back to me after so long a time. And this was such an important life event for me that I had several conversations with “my village.” Most importantly, I had a conversation with my former pastor and colleague in ministry from the previous church I served in Little Rock. I think I needed some encouragement that I could still preach after so many years of illness. The words — the right words — came just in time from a person I will always consider to be my pastor. He is a person I greatly admire, and a male minister who knows how to serve a congregation in mutuality and communion with a woman. He is a minister who embodies that holy energy I’m talking about, and he inspires others to find or reclaim their holy energy.

How rare it is to enjoy the interrelationship and kinship of male and female in mission and ministry! I miss the time we served New Millennium Church together. I miss Wendell Griffen’s support, encouragement and respect. So when we exchanged messages that day, his words were the right words, the words I really needed to hear, so transformative for me in that moment that I copied them to my journal. This is what I wrote:

From Wendell, September 30, 2018:

“Praying for and with you, Kathy!  Preach like only you can!  New Millennium is praying with you, Reverend!”

It occurs to me that all of us need encouragement at times. We need persons who will cheer us on, persons who will believe in us when we don’t believe so much in ourselves. For me it was an illness that interrupted my life. For others a life interruption can be any sort of change — the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, dealing with an empty nest, moving to another home, leaving a church and searching for another church. For whatever reason, life interruptions do hold some measure of power that can break us down and assault our confidence.

It is no big news to know that life interruptions can throw us face-down in the dirt, and it is extremely important for us to have the fortitude and the will to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off. It’s not so easy to do that for so many reasons. With self confidence eroded, we can be motionless, bereft of spirit, with little energy left. 

So then, we must do two things to make sure that we can reposition ourselves — upright and moving forward after a life interruption. The first is to recall the Divine promises of a God who always holds us up. These are three of the promises that give me hope:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed . . .So we do not lose heart . . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.

— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9; 16,17 NRSV

And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.

— 1 Peter 5:10 NRSV

Thus says God, the Lord . . .

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

— Isaiah 42:5-7 NRSV

The second thing we must do is to surround ourselves with a community of care, love and grace — individuals who will listen, understand and always encourage. The book of Hebrews offers us good instruction to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24 RSV)

Each person has the opportunity to open up their hearts and spirits to the calling of God. Each person will hear the call to mission in their own way. Each person will decide whether or not to respond to God’s call on their life. But all of us — together in community — will be able to hear God’s call clearer and find in ourselves more courage to follow. Community, when it is genuine, is like that.

I hope that you will find your genuine community as you listen for God’s call to you, the call that no other person can fulfill. I hope that you will experience holy energy, that fire in your bones that no human can extinguish. There’s really nothing quite like it!

 

 

“Feeling the Spray of Jordan”

 

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Crossing the Jordan River. Photo by Siiri Bigalke/ICSD.

As a hospital chaplain, I kept vigil at the bedside of many persons who were preparing themselves to die. For me, being present with a person who is approaching death is, without equal, the most sacred and holy privilege of a minister’s life. Yet, I found it difficult at times to keep myself emotionally and spiritually healthy. During my darkest times, one phrase of the beloved hymn, “Softly and Tenderly” washed over me: “Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming.” With those words, the hymn text gives us a striking image of death.

Each of us has images of death. Every person has uniquely personal ideas about death. Some meet death with fear. Others who come near to death, whether their own or someone else’s, feel anger. Some have a sense of doom, while others are filled with a comforting calm. Always through the years, I heard the phrase, “crossing the Jordan,” most definitely a preacher’s expression meant to celebrate a life well-lived while standing at the end of life, the edge of the Jordan.

Rev. Gardner Taylor was one of those preachers who proclaimed death as a celebration of life and a joyous passing into eternity. An American preacher noted for his eloquence, Taylor was known as “the dean of American preaching.” Today my professor/preacher brother, who is always sending me something to read or listen to, sent me a stunning piece of Gardner Taylor’s preaching. The sermon was from the 1976 Lyman Beecher Lectures.

Gardner Taylor shared about one of his beloved deacons who was on his deathbed. The deacon expressed the wish that he could hear Taylor preach one more time. Reflecting on that experience, Taylor inspired those attending the lecture with the following message of eternal Christian hope. As my brother wrote, “It may be the most poetically beautiful thirty seconds of preaching I have ever encountered.”

Indeed, it is . . . so full of abiding Christian hope. This is what he preached:

Now, no preacher has of himself or herself anything of real significance to say to anyone who is within the view of the swelling of Jordan. But there is a Gospel, and you are privileged to be summoned to declare it. It can stand people on their feet for the living of their days. And, also – what a privilege almost too precious to be mentioned – it may be that the gospel which you preach will then steady some poor pilgrims as they come to where the bridgeless river is and some of them, feeling the spray of Jordan misting in the face, might thank God, as they cross the river, that he made you a preacher.

As for me, I do expect to feel “the spray of Jordan,” and as I cross the river for the last time, I will most humbly thank God that he made me a preacher.

That is the secret of greeting death for us all, I think, being able to stand — with a steady heart and a calm spirit — and give thanks to God for what he made you. You might very well feel “the spray of Jordan” as a mist on your face.

Thanks be to God.