These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
This recording is intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given.
As you know, just over a month ago, our family got the news that would change our lives and begin a journey we had not asked for. We got the news that Anna had a mass on her lung… was facing lymphoma… and we experienced what so many of you have experienced- the long wait for the specific diagnosis… the wilderness journey of uncertainty and pain… wondering “how bad?” and “if” she would be okay. We are now on that “adventure” as a friend calls it. I call it a whitewater adventure with all of the unexpected turns and rocks along the way.
This morning I want to share some reflections about the adventure because some of you are on a similar, unwelcomed journey… with cancer or illness or other crisis.
Over the 27 years in ministry I’ve watched members go through all sorts of unwelcomed journeys:
– job loss-sometimes for two in one family at thesame time
– marriages falling apart…
– couples dealing with the damage done by adultery
– several members have gone to jail for everything from embezzling- to capital crimes-and seen the
painful chaos it causes in a family
– I’ve been with a family whose child was born dead after months of
preparing for that baby to arrive
– I’ve watched a family reel when the father of the bride died of a heart
attack on the night of a wedding rehearsal
I also think of the unwelcomed journeys of people who I’ve met on mission trips. From Mwandi, Zambia to Reynosa, Mexico. I’ve met many people who did not ask to be born into a circumstance of dire poverty. No one asked to have a journey of life lived in shacks made of scrap metal where every day was a struggle to survive and to provide for your hungry children.
I’ve watched people live through some of the hardest experiences life can hand you. And so have you.
Today, I’d like to reflect upon such unwelcomed adventures in conversation with biblical texts that have spoken to me during these times and with spiritual insights from wise people. We read some of these this morning.
One thing I’ve learned is that if we are on a whitewater rafting ride on this journey… we are not alone in the boat. Amidst the many fears people face on these journeys is the fear of being alone. Well, we are not alone. This is true for our family. The church-meaning individuals at the Kirk and from our former churches and from churches in the Presbytery and from churches we have never known… have been praying for us and expressing care for us. I hope that is true for those of you on your own adventure. Knowing we are not alone is a great source of comfort and strength God has provided.
On this journey, we have listened with new ears to the voices of those who have been living with this kind of experience. We have been listening to learn from voices of faith.
Today, one voice I hear speaking to us is the voice of Job.
Talk about pain. Talk about loss. Talk about suffering. Job is the poster person for everyone who undergoes loss or pain or illness. He lost everything. I mean everything. Wealth, health and family. He lost it all.
Job is an interesting book to me because the book asks lots of questions but offers few answers. The answers and common wisdom that are given by his friends are insufficient, to put it nicely. If anything they only increase his pain and suffering. Word to the wise: be very careful when you offer someone advice or an easy answer to someone who is suffering.
At the end, the book leaves us with questions like-“Where then does wisdom come from? Where is the place of understanding? (Where are all the answers to my ‘why” – why is this happening?, why me? questions). It is hidden form the eyes of all living…. God (not mortals) understands the way to it, and he knows its place… ”
There is wisdom in Job for me. For years as a pastor, I’ve asked the why questions and struggled… but often ended up with Job… mortals do not know … and as Paul even said, “now we see in a mirror, dimly.”
All I know is that God knows something of the pain and suffering we live through… that none of us-even God gets through this life without some measure of pain-God even took it upon himself on the Cross… with even Jesus saying in his greatest moment of pain, “My God, my God…” (quoting Psalm 22).
By the way, did you know there is a difference between pain and suffering? Barbara Brown Taylor who wrote about the spiritual practice of pain helped me here. 1. She says “Pain is something that happens in your body. Suffering, on the other hand, happens in the mind. The mind decides what pain means and whether it is deserved. The mind notices who comes to visit and who does not. The mind remembers how good things used to be and are not likely to be again. The mind makes judgments, measures loss, takes blame and assigns guilt…. ”
She makes me think, While we may not be able to do much to take away the pain for someone, there is a lot we can do to either ease suffering or add to the suffering. Ask Job.
Barbara, who as a pastor like me has sat by deathbeds and sickbeds.. and listened… has found a couple of things to help face the pain and ease suffering. She says:
Generosity seems to help.
I find that to be true. When Anna was diagnosed one family brought us food… we were given the gift of letters and cards… some of you shared books and one who has gone through cancer even shared a T shirt that read: One more Pet Scan and I’ll Glow in the Dark. Don’t underestimate the value of a kind word or a generous and understanding spirit. Or a meal or taking up the slack for someone. Or signing the caringbridge site with a word of loving concern. Each eases the suffering. It all helps.
Barbara says, Rituals seem to help.
For some it is singing the hymns-or finding power in old prayers and scriptures like Psalm 23. Things you learned in Sunday School. The Bible you read, all the sudden has power you did not know it contained.
I remember when my Mom died I was surprised about how the ritual of the service spoke to me. I had led funerals for others many times. I knew the memorial service by heart. But somehow, when I was the one in the pew, the one grieving… the words spoke in new and powerful ways.
One thing I’ve learned is how important it is to teach rituals to our kids. To them it may sound like doing math or learning grammar. What you know is that you are preparing them for life, for the future. When we share faith with our children, what we are doing is building a foundation or a reservoir for when their crisis hits. Which it will. None of us get out of life unscathed. One gift you can give your children is to raise them up in the way that will prepare them for life… for real life.
I thought about this when I was attending the memorial service for my friend Ken who died after discovering a brain tumor just over a year ago. His brother had died of cancer and now Ken. Ken’s father, Dick, is a Methodist minister an
d a good friend of mine. He helped lead the service. One thing Dick shared really struck me. Ken had told him a few months ago that he was not afraid to die. He said, “Dad, you raised me in the church and I learned it from our faith.” That faith gave him peace.
Rituals help. Education helps.
I would add prayer helps.
Your prayers help tremendously. During the darkest days when we’d receive word from lots of people that they were praying for us, an image came to my mind. It was that Eagle from Isaiah… “those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” The image that came to me was of an eagle soaring in the sky… and just as it was beginning to fall or descend… prayers…many prayers were like an updraft to the wings allowing it to fly. Your prayers lifted us up. Thank you.
But I would also add our own personal prayers are helpful. The prayers of those who are living through it. Real prayer. Honest prayer. Prayers of thanksgiving… prayers for help… even prayers of questioning or absence… in other words… all those prayers you read in the Psalms. Every one helps. They remind us where wisdom is found… or at least who to turn to- our Lord. Even when we don’t know the answers… it is a good thing to turn to our God.
Before all of this happened to Anna and our family, I attended a conference on John Calvin at Montreat. 2.
One of the most stunning presentations came from Randal Zachman who spoke on Creation, providence and suffering. I didn’t know at the time, that I’d be hearing his words for our own situation.
Randal described his own dark night of the soul. He had lost his job for over a year… and he knew the fear that comes along with that. He said that when someone tells you that God doesn’t shut one door but opens two more… … he said, “that’s crap.” God doesn’t shut one door, God deadbolts, locks and puts a police bolt on 10 others. He says, That’s life… when all of your options close down one by one.
He said Calvin knows this is true… and he knew the spiritual pain that comes with that. Calvin knows and feels that pain. Do you remember all of those illnesses that afflicted him? How he suffered?
For Calvin, says Randal, the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the key to the whole thing. For Calvin, all of the godly experience the same thing daily. (not just Jesus on the cross) So for Calvin, this is David speaking on behalf of the church… and David is telling us how to pray every day of our lives…every one of the godly feels that God has forsaken them… feels that God has abandoned us… is far from us… distant… BUT he calls “MY GOD, MY GOD”… two lines often forgotten in the Psalm… He calls the God who has forsaken him, his God. “THIS” says Zachman- the one who lost his job and did the spiritual work of understanding pain-THIS… is Christianity. If you can’t do this, work on it. Because you don’t know what faith is. You don’t have a clue.
Faith calls God, “my God” when (you feel) God abandons me, God assaults me or troubles me for absolutely no reason at all. No reason! No sin. No error. No crime. And I say to that God, “You are my God. You are my God you have to hear me.” “You are my God”… that is Calvin’s understanding of Christianity and providence. That is genuine humanity. When you can call on God when you are overwhelmed with pain and suffering.
Calvin wanted us to be able pray to God at the moments we felt most abandoned to save us from despair. There are times when God’s care is not at all evident… but you never stop calling on God. You never stop praying because the minute you stop praying, evil wins and you lose your life.
So you keep praying… trusting and hoping that God might hear us… You keep praying… in the pain and through the pain and suffering… And if you are blessed, the journey through the wilderness of prayer and pain will lead you to something you had not asked for but were glad to receive in the end.
I think of the song, a prayer, Anna posted on her caringbridge site by Ginny Owens. She had heard the song at a Montreat Youth Conference years ago. I had not heard the song or her story. But it is powerful. Ginny is a beautiful singer who knows her own pain. She is blind. She sings a song that is a powerful witness for all who are on the unwelcomed wilderness journey – holding out a hope that the journey may lead us closer to God.
“The pathway is broken and the signs are unclear.
And I don’t know the reason you brought me here.
But just because You love me the way that You do
I’m gonna walk through the valley if You want me to
Cause I’m not who I was when I took my first step
And I’m clinging to the promise You’re not through with me yet.
So if all of these trials being me closer to you
Then I will walk through the fire if you want me to.
It may not be the way I would have chosen
When you lead me through a world that’s not my home
But you never said it would be easy
You only said “I’d never go alone”
So when the whole world turns against me
And I’m all by myself
And I can’t hear You answer my cries for help.
I’ll remember the suffering that Your love put You through
And I will walk through the darkness
If You want me to.
Cuz when I cross over Jordan
Gonna sing, gonna shout,
Gonna look into Your eyes and see You never let me down.
So take me on the pathway that leads me home to You
And I will walk through the valley if you want me to.
Yes I will walk through the valley if you want me to.
1. From her book, An Altar in the World
2. 500th Anniversary Celebration, July 2009