Monday, July 28, 2008

Silencing the Heart

As I approach the day I was supposed to get married, I am working very hard on the healing process. It may sound unhealthy, but I am learning to silence the heart. No, this is not the same as hardening my heart, but it is working to calm the love I had built over the last 18 months. It is the process of letting go.

I don't think my heart will ever be truly separated from him. There is no way one can feel such strong emotions towards another and then have them end completely. I will always pray for and find myself concerned for him and how he is doing. I will still feel anger and frustration over what occurred, though hopefully that will calm soon. I have abused my anger a few times too many in the process of this relationship ending.

In one way or another, I think all our significant relationships will impact us for a lifetime.

I struggle to understand why I feel the need to share these thoughts with you, my readers. Part of me thinks it is because so many of you can probably relate to this process. I have never gone through a difficult break-up before, so this is very new to me. Through this blog, I guess I hope to find some wisdom, relation, and more importantly, prayer.

My dear friend (more like sister) comes into town this week to help me through this weekend, which was meant to be the wedding. We will have fun, we will explore the East coast, we will talk about these things only the way a best friend could. God has been and will continue to use Heather and others to minister to me as I heal. I feel blessed to have such a tremendous support system.

So that is where I am at. I am broken but am healing. Sermons are beginning to come easier, which is a sign to me that my faith is finding its grip again. I am talking to God more openly than I have since this began. Rather than my silence, words are forming.

Please keep up those prayers. They are felt and so very appreciated.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Romans 8:26-39 Sermon

A persons hands can tell a thousand stories. They tell of pain with their scars, cracks, and aging. They can tell of celebrations through their manicures and delicately painted nails. Some hands are soft, speaking at times to a calmer, more sedate life. Others are callused, bruised, and scarred speaking to years of hard labor. Hands can tell stories.

Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, recalls the scene when he first laid eyes on his granddaughter. It was after his fourteenth year in prison, when he was granted permission for a short visit from his daughter. Upon her arrival, his daughter ran across the room to embrace him. Mandela had not held his daughter since she was a young girl, and it was both poignant and dizzying to hug this fully grown woman, his child.

It was after this embrace that she then handed over her own newborn baby, Nelsons granddaughter, into his callused, leathery hands. He recalls, “To hold a newborn baby, so vulnerable and soft in my rough hands, hands that for too long had held only picks and shovels, was a profound joy. I don’t think a man was ever happier to hold a baby than I was that day”.

Hands tell a story. They can tell of how we, who begin like that newborn child with smooth, soft skin, age from the wear and tear of this journey we call life. Our hands, like our hearts, can become callused and scarred by the years of suffering, distress, and peril we face. They are permanent markers which will ultimately always remind us of the journey we have faced.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he is writing to a group of Christians who are faced day in and day out with suffering. They have faced conflicts within the Church itself, struggling between a Jewish and Gentile understanding of what is the Christian church. As with any Christian body during that time, they have also suffered persecution, exile, and other forms of distress. Their life was filled with turmoil; I can only imagine what kind of marks the pain and suffering experienced left on their hands.

It is in those times, the times that leave marks forever engrained within us, that often we may not feel like praying. We, those who are known as “people of faith” may feel spiritually empty. They are the times when the sorrows of this world have become too much. Like Mandela, we may feel as though we have been imprisoned by years spent in a bad marriage, depression, grief over the loss of a loved one, or suffering years of poverty or abuse. While we may not be encaged within the walls of a prison cell, the pain we are living in has trapped us from living our lives and experiencing the joys found within a strong faith.

Suffering can take its toll on our relationships, including our relationship to God. While some may teach us that doubting, questioning, and being angry towards God is bad and unfaithful, it is a natural part of the relationship. Like the relationship we have with our spouse, parent, friend, or child, we will get angry, we will doubt, we will question. It is what it means to be in relationship. When we have suffered pain, turmoil, and conflict, often times it will impact how we relate to God. We may yell, we may write letters, we may become silent. Sometimes there just aren’t the words necessary to adequately talk to God. And sometimes, we just don’t want to communicate.

It is in the times where the ability to communicate with God come up short, when we are just too angry, too sad, too confused to find the words, prayer seems impossible. It is in those moments where we feel we must lean on others to have faith for us, as ours comes up short. We may believe in God, yet our emotions overrun our ability to speak and relate.

In those moments, we can trust that the Spirit will intercede for us. Paul states “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” We can know, we can trust, that even when our hearts are too callused, when the death of our child shuts us down completely, the Spirit will do the work for us.

The Spirit is the Spirit which will intercede, speaking on our behalf. It is the Spirit that will overwhelm us like the wind, bringing us comfort and peace in the midst of chaos. It is the Spirit that when we feel most abandoned and alone is indwelling within each of us. It is the Spirit that has been with us since the beginning and will never leave.

When those times of complete weakness, physically, emotionally, spiritually, come around, the Spirit will breath those sighs. They are the sighs that can speak beyond our mere vocabulary to communicate our deepest pangs of grief. They are the sighs that will communicate all our suffering, all our grief, all our anger. The sighs are the ones that will echo the truth of every bruise, scar, calluse, and crack that are engrained on our hands and on our heart. They are the sighs that will communicate our hope and are longing for healing.

I read once that “a record of God’s faithfulness in the past combines with hope in a better future for one end: to equip us for the present.” Paul’s message to the Romans was a message speaking to a future. It is the promise that even though they were suffering, God did and still does have a great plan for the future. A plan where all suffering will end and the dead will be resurrected, offering a new Heaven and a New Earth. It is a message speaking of hope in the midst of suffering.

What Paul may or may not have realized is that his message of hope for the future brings us hope for the present. We have the past which speaks to God’s faithfulness. God’s faithfulness recorded in scripture and God’s faithfulness recorded in our personal history. God is and will continue to remain faithful. We are also given hope for the future. It is the knowledge that sin and evil will ultimately be destroyed and that God has given us the gift of grace; we have the hope of the resurrection.

These promises and the evidence of God’s faithfulness in the past is what equips us for present suffering. It is what gives us comfort in despair, hope in times that feel so hopeless. These promises are what give us the knowledge to realize that when times are too difficult and painful to use words, the Spirit will intercede and sigh on our behalf. When we are too weak to do the work, God will continue to do the work for us.

We are all faced with the marks of suffering. We can look at our hands and sometimes see the physical evidence. We can also look internally and see how are hearts have been scarred over many times throughout this life. And yet, with each day that we continue on, hope will reappear in the soft, unscarred skin of a baby, a reminder of our future. God does promise us that hope, and God does promise us a Spirit that will intercede when we struggle to recognize that hope and the words just will not come. While the Spirit does not prevent the scarring that will ultimately occur, the Spirit will indeed sigh on our behalf and will always be present with us, offering comfort, peace, and continued hope for the future. Amen.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fur Covered Healing

It amazes me how powerful the love cats, dogs, and other furry friends can be in the healing process. Whether it is healing from an illness or the healing of ones heart, God certainly uses them to offer us comfort and strength.

A couple weeks ago, a friend gave me the initiative to look into adopting a dog. This is something I have always wanted to do but have put off due to my small living quarters and finances. Now that I have both a real, paying job and a new house, those can no longer be used as excuses.

Upon receiving her email, I decided just to peruse the petfinder site. This is where I also happened to find Melanchthon back in the Fall of 2003. I immediately fell in love with a cute, older black lab. I emailed the adoption agency (Pets Come First in State College) only to find out she had already been adopted. They then proceeded to send me the pictures of several other dogs, one being sweet little Caroline.

She is a 5 year old hound/lab mix and she arrived at my house yesterday. She has suffered multiple homes, heartworm, lyme disease, and neglect but seems to be adjusting quite well to our home. The cats are even doing wonderfully with her calm personality. It is such a joy.

The moment I decided to adopt Caroline, I felt a strong change happen in me. I was really not doing well and was falling into a deep depression. The break up of my relationship has really taken a toll. While I am not even close to completely "recovered" from this, Caroline has given me something to look forward to. I have moved out of the crisis state and into the healing process.

While work continues and I move forward with the necessary tasks each day, I can't seem to get myself out of this funk. Many have said to me what a great learning experience it has been to see that things like this even happen to pastors. For them, it has made pastors seem more "real", that they really are human. Hearing this is a great blessing and I am glad to know that others have learned something from this. However, it has not made it any easier to walk through.

This experience has taught me a great deal. Honestly, I wish beyond anything that none of this ever happened, especially at this point in my life. It is difficult to understand the "why's" regarding the break up and the timing. I'm finding myself questioning things more personally and theologically.

One of the many hard lessons I have learned is regarding the difficulties surrounding being a pastoral leader when you are in a spiritual crisis. Writing sermons, answering questions, and the like are not easy when you feel so empty. It makes me wish I was in my 20th year of ministry so that I had a file folder full of old sermons I could reuse. I have found myself drawing up blanks when reflecting on scripture. Truly, if it wasn't the Holy's Spirit's work, there would be nothing to preach on Sunday.

And yet, with all of this internal struggle, each day that goes by I do find myself doing better. It is not as difficult to get out of bed, I don't have to fake every smile, i'm surrounded by a constant source of love amongst the congregations. And, I have three wonderful fur-children who offer unconditional love.

Please continue to keep me in your prayers. Like all times of trial, this is a journey which will hopefully end having grown stronger from the heartache.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Long Overdue Update

Hello Everyone,

I pray you are all doing well. Since my last update, there have been many highs and many lows. Settling in to my first 6 weeks of ministry has been wonderful. The congregations have both been so warm, open, and understanding when I make newby mistakes. I have now presided at Holy Communion four times and still get chills. At the "little church", we have started our first Bible Study. When I arrived there was no Sunday school/Bible study of any kind. We had a great turn out and everyone loved it! It was only supposed to be an hour long, but everyone wanted to stay. We ended up staying for just under two hours!

At the "big church" I have been doing a lot of program planning. I will soon attend my first youth committee meeting followed later by an informational meeting on the ELCA national youth gathering. It seems everyone in the congregation is excited to try out new and fun ideas for youth and intergenerational ministries. One of the first events I have on my calendar will be an intergenerational reformation party; should be fun!

Outside of that, I have had a very rough few weeks. My relationship with my fiance took a dramatic turn in June when he broke into a deep depression. I will not share many of the details, but it has been difficult. After really trying to "save" the relationship, which included outside help, prayer, and discernment, I made the decision just last evening to end the relationship completely. While it broke my heart to do so, I knew it had to be done for the health of both of us. Please keep us both in your prayers as we work through the pain of this experience and move forward on our individual journeys. Even though I am hurting now, I have learned a great deal and will grow from this experience. There is so much to look forward to in the future, I know we will both be just fine.

The beginning of my time in ordained ministry has already had so many twists and turns both professionally and personally. While some of it has been hard, there are many good things happening. I have vacation time scheduled for when the wedding was going to be and plan to still take that time. Today my friend Heather is hopefully going to be able to make reservations to come out for a visit. This would be great as she has never been out here and I could show her around Pennsylvania, Maryland, and DC. If this does not occur, I will head out to Oklahoma to spend time with her family that week (which would mean seeing Asher!). I think this time of rest will be very good for me and will help in regaining some of my energy and focus. I pray you are all doing well. Thank you, as always, for the prayers and support you offer. I hope my next update will bring good news and joyous experiences to share with you!