The Blessing in the Hurt


sadness

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

In the echoes of those words, I want you to hear the story of three individuals.   They are real people, and their stories have stuck with me.   In a way, their stories have become scars.

The first woman lived not far from me in Keene.   Although she has since passed, when she was with us she seemed one of the most crisply dressed and put together.    She looked like your average, next door, church going lady.

What made Emily different was what you experienced walking through her front door.   She lived in a little, one-story Cape not far from Cheshire Medical Center.   The lawn was always pristine and the flower gardens perfect.   The perfection ended at the front door.

Upon entering the house, you discovered that she was what the world commonly refers to as a hoarder.   Newspapers that likely stretched five decades were stacked by Emily from floor to ceiling.    There were dirty dishes, pans, and bags of garbage left everywhere.     There was a path to the couch, to the bathroom, and to her bedroom and beyond that, every last inch was overflowing with garbage.

The smell of must, trash and mold were overpowering.   It hit you when you walked in like a boxer’s sucker punch.    It stained your nostrils and lingered on your clothes for hours.

Emily struggled with mental illness.   In all likelihood, it resulted from the violent death of her husband decades ago.    For Emily, her loss, her grief, and her mourning were so dramatic, that opening herself up to the loss of even the most innocuous of items became more than she can handle.

As she refused to let go of the garbage, I am confident, and I pray that she realized it, that Jesus refused to let go of her.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

In Kentucky, I had the opportunity to cross paths with a young woman who used the Red Bird Mission to obtain clothes.   Although this is not out of the ordinary, because the Mission was the closest source of food, clothes, school, and medicine for miles upon miles.

Cindy’s story hit hard. Cindy first tried Crystal Meth in at the start of her freshman year in high school.   She had dropped out by the time spring arrived.

Meth is a drug can be smoked, snorted, and injected and for most people one use is enough to get you addicted. It was likely that way for Cindy too.  The chemistry behind Meth is just another part of Cindy’s story that makes it so exponentially heartbreaking.   Within a few hours of her first use, those areas of her brain that control all those feelings of worth, joy, and happiness started to decay.   After two or three uses, the damage was complete and irreversible.

The biology that provides the ability to feel confidence, joy, affection, hope, self-worth, and enthusiasm was chemically shut off.     Even after you clean yourself up, if you do, you will likely need some pharmaceutical for the rest of your life to even come close to feeling healthy again.

Although I only knew a small portion of Cindy’s story, even the untrained eye could see that things were shut off.   It is not hard to imagine that she doesn’t feel the goosebumps that you might feel when you hold the hand of someone you love.   She likely doesn’t get all sappy when a tear jerker comes on television.   That little voice inside her head that says your worth it, when the world tells you otherwise, is probably silent.    Her story is a story of heartbreak.   I am convinced that Cindy shared her pain with Jesus, who stood beside her with every hit, and with every attempted stop.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

The third is a man named Kyle.   When Kyle was in his twenties, he married his college sweetheart and together had a young girl.     He went to work with one of the engineering groups at a Fortune 500 company and slowly worked his way up to management.  It was not long before management tagged Kyle as an emerging leader in the organization.

Coming home from a dance lesson, a drunk driver struck them head on in 495 outside of Lowell Mass.   The drunk driver, his wife, and his child died on the scene.   At that moment, everything changed for Kyle.     Although he was successful at hiding it from his fellow colleagues, everything broke.

Kyle died eight years later alone in his home.   Although the medical pros would point to acute alcohol poisoning as the cause.  It is safe to assume that the driver took a fourth life that day.   He died as surely from a broken heart as he did from booze.

I am confident that Jesus wept beside him as his life left his body.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

We have all heard those words a thousand times.   From time to time we have heard the words tossed almost too casually from situation to situation.   Google them, and you will find them beautifully written out in calligraphy or aside kittens or baby ducks.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Some scholars point to the Sermon on the Mount as the most authentic words of Jesus in our entire scripture.   If that is true, then to say they are important is a colossal understatement.    There may be no more important words in our scripture.    At the same time, they are perhaps the most confusing and full of paradox.

What sense do the Blesseds make?     How can we look at the hungry, the hurting, and the grieving and see a blessed soul?    What comfort do Jesus’ words provide for Emily with her stacks of newspapers, Cindy with her meth scabs, and Kyle with his bottle of booze?  I have fought with this for some time.   Over time, I think I have come to grips with it. I have come to see this as two sermons; one for the hurting and one for the rest of us.

Perhaps Jesus was trying to show those who have the luxury of just sitting and listening to the sermon on the mountainside – people like me – that sitting there could never be the total of our faith.   Maybe while comforting the Kyles, Cindys, and Emilys of this world, he was nudging us towards realizing that there is a gift in sharing the hard moments of those around us.

You don’t need me to tell you that nothing feels good about heartbreak and loss.   Nothing feels right.   There had been a few moments (way too few of them) when I did not stay seated.   There have been times when I have been called at the oddest moments of the day, only to find myself in a situation clouded by intense grief.    When I was working towards my first church and first appointment, I often wondered how I would find the right words in those moments.   Over time, I recognized that we only need to show up and be silent.  Words just get in the way.

I have faced a small portion of the grief of others without words, and only presence.   I have felt their tears soak my shoulders.    I have witnessed some of their tears, pain, and heartache.    My heart has broken with them. When the time comes for me leave, it is inevitable that I feel completely depleted.   I sit in my car and feel sapped.     I recognize that it is the hardest thing I do.      I also appreciate the blessing.  I feel blessed because I  know that at that moment, there was a trio of people present;  the hurt, me, and most importantly Jesus.

So maybe it’s time to reimagine this scripture.   Maybe this is the Beatitudes from the version according to Scott;

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and blessed are those who make allow themselves to break alongside another.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted; and blessed are those that allow the tears of grief to stain their shoulders.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth; and blessed are those who are willing to let their guard down, risk being hurt, and open their lives for a brother or sister that hurts.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.   They will find their righteous in a kingdom unlike any other.   They will find their righteousness in an upside world were our King stands along side the hurting, the oppressed, the powerless, and those who stand with them.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy; and blessed are those who practice mercy for the screw ups, the addicts, the hurt, the heartbroken and the forgotten.   Blessed are those who put an arm around the Cindy’s, Kyle’s and Emily’s and tell them they can’t explain their issues away, but they will be there through them.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God; and blessed are those who are willing to purge themselves of all the garbage simply to find a spot closer to God. Blessed are those who recognize the noise of our world builds walls of stuff that separates us from being who and where we need to be, and once recognizes them tears them down.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God; blessed are those who are willing to stand face to face with ugliness, pain, violence, crack pipes, and pipe bombs… Or face to face with the aftermath of hurt, disease, drunk drivers, or mental illness.  

Blessed are those who say this is not the way it should be and works to make it better in those who shake.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   Blessed are those who get beat up, spent up, bruised and tattered along the way.

Blessed are you who are willing to stand up simply for the sake of that kingdom that wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

(The above was a sermon delivered during late 2014.  Some credit due to Rev. Fr. James Garrett for helping guide me down this pathway.  Pic Credits:   ‘As a Sadness Overdose’ by Rafa Puerta, 2008, flickr.com)

Living in the Rabbit Hole


AliceRabbitHole

Very early on in my ministry, I had the opportunity to attend a class on homiletics and preaching taught at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.   In that class, the professor, a well-worn and long since retired pastor, was asked how do you figure out each week what to preach on…How can you insure that you are relevant week in and week out.

His answer was straight forward.   Be authentic, and you will be relevant.  Talk about your own struggles.   Talk about your own fears.  Talk about your own life; with all its associated ugliness, bumps and bruises….and it will be enough.   He said you might never become the best preacher in the world… but people will recognize you as a great preacher, and that will be enough.

So with these paraphrased words running through my head…  I begin this posting.    Looking at the last update, I cannot believe It has been almost a full year since I last posted a sermon, a prayer, or anything on the site.  It never seemed that long.

It didn’t seem long, but the absence was deliberate and intentional.   Over the last 18 months my family and I travelled some pretty rocky roads.   During it I kept writing, but what came out of me, was solely for me.

Journaling has always been an activity of devotion for me.   Over the years writing has helped me put my thoughts, my fears, my worries, and my wants all in their right place.   When I write I struggle through my faith, work through my doubt, and in the end, have a conversation with God.   Over the last twelve months, those conversations have remained between God and me.

Slowly over the last few weeks, I started to get the ache again.   I wanted to return to this site.   It just seemed like the right time.   I became convinced of that last week as I found myself typing through a storm.

As many of you likely know, a week ago Wednesday, my mother in law passed.   Although the phrase mother in law is often used as a punch line to a joke, our family was blessed to have mine living with us for the past 17 years.  She was a constant part of our day, and an integral piece of our family.  Our heart broke when she unexpectedly left us last week.

At the same time, this moment was not entirely unexpected.  We expected this reality to be on our horizon in a year or year and half. On the night prior to her passing my wife and I had a discussion about what we were going to do as we moved into this next chapter of life.   We were not unaware.

We had reached the point where my mother in laws health was failing quicker and quicker.   It was clear that we were fast approaching a point we couldn’t do it alone.   Someone needed to be in the house virtually around the clock.    We were going to be alright with the girls’ home through the summer, but once school opened, we would need to talk about a new way of caring for her.

My mother in law had certainly spent many years struggling with her health.  Over the last few years, she fought a slew of medical challenges that made day to day hard.   We knew the time was fast approaching, but truly never expected it to be so soon.   She passed on – to a renewed and refreshed body – a week ago Wednesday.  Today we mourn and we celebrate.

This is certainly the normal order of life; this is how things happen.   We all will grow old, and people will leave us.   Both my wife and I are blessed that we have had our parents for so long…and even though all indicators have my Dad and Mom living another 50 years…  I know… we know… that this is not how life works.

I know, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easier.  As people of faith we are called to reminder that when our mortal bodies pass; we will receive a gift bigger and more beautiful than anything we can imagine…  Remember the words of 2nd Corinthians 5:6-8

“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord”

I get this, and I preach and celebrate this; fully, convinced, and unashamed.  Yet, with her passing it was yet another moment, when we felt like we were getting our feet under us, the world was finally not shaking as madly, and in an instant the rug was yanked.

Our family has had a very shaky 18 months.   We began last year with chemotherapy and struggling through my wife’s breast cancer diagnosis.    It was a period of seven or eight months that had us exchanging the nice, neat controlled order of our existence with hospital stays, doctor visits, and unordered chaos.

When we received the word that the cancer was gone and she we clean, we took a giant deep breath.   As we exhaled, we learned that Stacey’s best friend and big brother, both father figure to Stacey and patriarch for our entire family, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Three months ago, we said goodbye to Sal.  His passing has left a huge hole in our family’s life, and we are still trying to wrap our arms around it today.   Every day I find a new thing that I need to ask Sal about, and I miss him incredibly.

Although saying goodbye was incredibly hard, we were just finding ourselves back to a non-shaky world.   We took a deep breath.    It seems that just as we were exhaling, we find ourselves having to say goodbye again.   The third punch to the gut landed with cruel efficiency.

See, I have come to believe – that although we cannot control everything no matter how hard I would like – that life is exponentially easier when ordered.    Our family runs smoother, our family is happier, our choices are smarter when they are guided by order and structure rather than chaos.   I would imagine that none of you would disagree.

At the same time, we all know that life is often more chaotic than controlled for all of us.  Acknowledging that reality, I am also very comfortable in saying that I am tired of the chaos.   I am tired of forgetting to breathe.   I am tired of the floor shaking beneath us.  I know that many of you, are probably saying the same thing.

One of the coping mechanisms we have in my family is to clean.   When we find ourselves closing one chapter of life – whatever that chapter may be – we clean.  We don’t just clean; we complete renovate, we purge, and we trash.  Maybe it is our way of arresting control back from the chaos.

During one such purge – deep in the abyss that we call our basement – I recently found a worn, tattered copy of the book Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  The pages were warped with moisture and the spine was virtually nonexistent.  I held it for a moment before recognizing that the condition was too poor to keep. I realized in that moment that I wanted to read it again.     The book is psychedelic, and imaginative and worth a fresh read as an adult.

Today, I stand here considering how that story starts.   Alice in the controlled and ordered existence which is her life, catches a peculiar man-like rabbit race by her.   The rabbit is muttering that he is late for some special or important date.    Alice pursues the rabbit and before she knows it she is falling down a never ending rabbit hole.

The book details her story in Wonderland.   The story created incredible characters imprinted into our culture.    The Mad Hatter…   Flamingo croquet…  The Cheshire cat…    For me, I keep finding myself in the Rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole has become a metaphor of an entry into the unknown, the uncertain, and the chaotic.    It is a disorienting trip.  It doesn’t make sense.   It is full of anxiety, and uncertainty.     To be honest, there have been times over the last 18 months when I can’t help but believe we are living in the rabbit hole.

Having temporarily claimed this place as home…  I also find myself asking some serious questions.   I am asking them about myself and about God.

  • How do you find steady ground in moments that hurt?
  • How do you trust God when trusting is hard?
  • How do you trust God, when you find yourself screaming up to heaven that enough is enough?
  • What can I say – knowing that faith is strong in my life and self-imposed or not, that my life as a pastor is somehow supposed to model one way to take this crazy journey – What can I say to those of you who find yourself falling down that hole too?
  • What do I say to you when your life becomes shaky?    If I spend my own fair share of time yelling at God and demanding better answers, is there anything to say?

While the questions pop around like mad, I turn to scripture for although  I don’t always hear them, I know there are answers there.   The reading is one of the answers I have found of late.    Actually, the words found me at a point over the past 18 months when I needed to hear them most…in precisely the version that I needed to hear them from…     For me they are a reminder… they are the some of the last words from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 11.  Hear these words that found me via a random Facebook posting:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything too heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

I know and I trust that the answer to the Rabbit hole will always faith.   I am thankful for the reminder.   I am reminded that in the teachings of our faith, I will find the answer.   I will learn what it means to take a real rest.  I will discover and embrace – through his teaching – the real rhythms of grace.

The Gospel message has always been about finding the real rhythms of Grace.   Overtime, I have learned to believe that this place of Grace is found in a very simple but powerful formula;   show up, be present, open your heart (even if it breaks), and simply and completely trust God.

Throughout my life, and especially in moments of chaos, I am working on remembering to listen for and to embrace the signs that remind me that God is present, and the divine will break though.   I am working on becoming more deliberate in finding those points of renewal.

Some of those aforementioned signs of the divine breaking through are intensely personal, and some of them are visible for the whole world to see.   I think of the cardinal that takes up roost with me again and again for just a moment continually throughout my life when I need it the most.   I am thankful for those personal reminders.

I also think of those things that are clear enough for the whole world to see.  I think of the sun returning after a storm, the calming of the sea, or the mist of the morning.  These are all reminders that the storm, or the darkness never has the last word.  They are reminders that the walls between us and the divine are thin.

Maybe this time as my family inhales for a fourth time, we will have the opportunity to exhale.   I do hope so.   At the same time, I know it will just be for a moment.    Nonetheless, I pray for the deep breaths to come.

As I close this message, I would like to share a story.     It was one of those random messages that came some time ago just when I needed to hear it.

NPR – through a TEDx Radio hour – recently told the story of a woman who attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida unassisted.  NPR detailed how it is hard to find a harsher piece of ocean than what was found between Havana and Key West.

The water is filled with aggressive sharks, jellyfish with the world most deadly venom, and all types of meat eating fish.    She was attempting to cross it without the assistance of a cage.  She was heading straight into the nightmare.

She would swim nonstop for close to 55 hours.   She would have to figure out how to eat while swimming, how to avoid the predators, and how to ease the anxiety.    If she touched the boat she would forfeit the attempt.

It was not too far from her 30th birthday when she first stepped into the water.   Along the way she thought about giving up.  Her body agonized.  She was stung repeatedly by those jelly fishes and harassed by sharks that kept coming closer.

She even hallucinated.   At one point she thought she saw the yellow brick road below her in the water.   To her left were Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin man, and Coward lion.  To her right was Toto.   Through it all she kept swimming forward.

Finally after what seemed like an eternity,…she had had enough.  Her body and her mind gave up.  She stopped with her strokes.   Eventually after a few seconds she swam over and in the darkness and fog of the night, touched the side of the boat; marking the end of her journey.   Quickly she was out of the water, and huddled in a blanket on the bow of the boat.

Within five minutes of her sitting on the bow…the haze cleared.   It was then she saw the lights on the shore.   They were the lights of Key West.   When she had given up, she was less than an hour’s swim shore and completing her gargantuan task.

Her defeat and her heartbreak nearly crushed her.    She was so close, but couldn’t see it.   She didn’t know it.   She couldn’t see through the darkness and the mist to recognize that the coast was right there;  that relaxation, peace and rest, were just a short swim away.

We can too easily be just like her.

We can lose the fight against the temptation in believing that no rest is in sight.   We can forget the pure truth of our faith, and the truth of the cross that matters most;  that deep in the muck, mud, blood, and nastiness of Calvary, God breaks through.      It is in precisely when we find ourselves in those moments, moments of hurt, doubt, pain, breathlessness, doubt, question, and struggle, we need to remember that God will break through.

I am trying too.   ‘Trying to’ is just another name for our faith journey.  Learning to remember.  It is my prayer that you too can hold on to the promise as you learn to Trust God.

Oh and by the way….  She tried 4 more times failing to cross the ocean each time.    She eventually gave up.       Thirty years later, at 64 and after her mother died, she decided to try one last time.

This time when her body was raging, and her mind was convincing her to give up.  She kept swimming and eventually she made it.  She kept going by reminding herself that the darkness would break.   The mist would roll out.   She kept going by reminding herself that the light will be there.    To that, I say thanks be to good Amen.

(And to those who will come back to the JesseLeeProject,…I thank you.   At the same time, I acknowledge that both my proofreading and spelling prowess diminished immensely when I knew no one was looking.   I request your forgiveness in advance.)

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