NOTE: Like many pastors, every week I send out a "prayers and programs" email to the congregation. It is both an update re: weekend events and a chance to share thoughts and concerns in a timely way. Here is a portion of this week's epistle...
PRAYERS AND PROGRAMS: June 13, 2013
The practice of ministry in the local church is "an emotional roller coaster." That's how my mentor from seminary, the Rev. Dr. Ray Swartzback, used to describe it when I worked with him in Jamaica, NY. One minute you are soaring in the stars as you share someone's joys and the next you are grieving in the valley of the shadow of death with others. Often these extremes take place in the same day - and sometimes even in the same hour. The poet, Christian Wiman, writing in his memoir, My Bright Abyss, a personal meditation on how he came to trust God during a life-threatening illness, notes that:
Christ comes alive in the communion between people. When we are alone, even joy is, in a way, sorrow's flower: lovely, necessary, sustaining, but blooming in loneliness, rooted in grief. I'm not sure you can have communion with other people without these moments in which sorrow has opened in you, and for you; and I am pretty certain that without shared social devotion one's solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of self.
That certainly rings true for me - and it has been true in spades over the past two weeks at First Church. Two weeks ago, in addition to the joys of celebrating the Lord's Day with you on Sunday, we also hosted a vital church leaders retreat, a home concert for Miche Fambro as well as a public show to support the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. As these joyful events were taking place, others in the community were laying to rest a beloved father who had passed from life to life everlasting. This past weekend, after celebrating the Lord in worship, 25 of us trekked to Westport, CT to join in the ordination ceremony of the Reverend Rebecca Megan Floyd. What a sacred and hope-filled time that was for all involved. I returned the next day to host one of my oldest friends, the Sunday School teacher who led our high school class for three years, who has been a dear and trusted loved one for over 45 years. And during this sweet visit we received a phone call that one of the members of our church had been hospitalized. (A diagnoses of MS has emerged and a treatment plan is being developed.)
And as I was closing my prayers last night, I received an email note from my former church administrator - a beloved friend and colleague - telling me that her husband continues to slip away as his cancer advances - and another dear friend, a member of the search committee that called me to Tucson and a former Marine colonel, had been claimed by the demon dementia. I found myself weeping for like Jesus the only prayer I could offer in that moment was my tears. But as I have thought about this after a good night's sleep I realized that they were simultaneously tears of grief and gratitude, weariness and joy, impotence and trust. I ached for my new friend in the hospital and was blessed by participating in Rebecca's ordination. I was lifted into God's gentle grace when my predecessor, Rick Floyd, preached his daughter's ordination service and brought low by news of cancer and Alzheimer's disease. I was exhilarated with worship and our musical events and worn out by the fullness of the emotional roller coaster, too.
On days when I can pause long enough to be reflective, my mind often makes sense out of the ups and downs of ministry by recalling two of the passages of Scripture I memorized from the insights of St. Paul:
Romans 5: Since we are justified by faith, we* have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,2through whom we have obtained access* to this grace in which we stand; and we* boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.3And not only that, but we* also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
II Corinthians 4: Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.2We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.3And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.6For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
Ministry - and being nourished by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ - requires community. That is, it is essential that you show up and do not take our connections at church for granted. I know that summer in the Berkshires is a rich time, filled with opportunities to play and enjoy the beauty of life, and I trust you will take full advantage of these gifts.
I also ask that you make time to be present in worship as these summer days ripen, too. None of us can nourish our faith alone. None of us are strong or wise enough to discern the fullness of God's love in our lives in isolation. And, truth be told, even when we don't realize it, we are often the blessing someone else needs to encounter. So, as vacations unfold, cottages are opened, concerts, theatre and soccer matches fill your schedules, please don't forget the deeper ties that bind...
In closing, let me share one more Biblical text with you for your prayerful reflection: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,* and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of* the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners,* so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
Today I continue to hold our loved ones in Turkey close in prayer and solidarity. I hold my daughter Jesse and her husband, Michael, in prayer as she moves through the second trimester of her pregnancy. I send love and prayers to Dianne as she gets ready for tomorrow's "sleep testing." And Omar and Eva, too. I ask God's guidance in the work we will do in planning for my sabbatical even as we rejoice in our personal plans for renewal and vacation in Montreal.