I ’VE BEEN ANXIOUS about returning. The sabbatical didn’t go as planned. The plan (and thank you again for building a sabbatical into the pastor’s contract) included three “re” words: refresh, renew, and recalibrate.
I was going to rest. Sleep in. Get lost in the yard work I so much enjoy. Ride my bike to support the Children’s Home. Have my soul restored through prayer and contemplation and worship. Plan for the future, our future. Where are we going? How do we get there? What are we missing? What adjustments must I make, must we make as a congregation, to be God’s people to this community?
That was the plan. But it didn’t turn out that way. As I wrote early on in my journal, “This sabbatical has gone off the rails.”
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SO, I AM BACK. Not refreshed. Not reinvigorated. And not recalibrated.
It’s not that I didn’t experience these things. I did. I got to visit with longtime friends from Illinois. There was wonderful family time — with local family and Michigan family. Cooking out. Swimming. Enjoying the grandkids. I binge-watched Netflix. I did a lot of reading — casual and well as professional reading. Those portions of the sabbatical were wonderful.
But I returned to the office beaten up physically, emotionally and spiritually. Some of you here today feel much the same way.
So refresh, renew, and recalibrate went out the window. Replaced by different “re” words. Re-examine. Reaffirm. Restore. Those became the dominating words.
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WORDS SPOKEN in times of grief are to be supportive, comforting, accepting. “God’s will,” “everything happens for a reason” and all that. It’s simple to proclaim that her death was God’s will. I know that’s the prayer of Jesus as he tries to talk God out of the crucifixion.
But I struggle with those words regarding my sister. I know pancreatic cancer is a painful death and she was spared that. But couldn’t that have been months or even years down the road. Alex Trebek has stage-4 pancreatic cancer and he still hosts “Jeopardy.”
We hear “everything happens for a reason.” What reason would God want my 64-year-old sister to die? I know the medical reason. But tell me God’s reason. Why didn’t God want my sister to live long enough to sell her business and enjoy retirement? (That’s what she was in the process of doing when she became ill.) Tell me why that for the first time in a long time she had a promising life in front of her that she was looking forward to but didn’t get to live it. If God has a reason, why doesn’t God tell us so we can learn or grow from it?
Forgive me for any time I’ve spoken such drivel to you. Instead of God sitting smugly on the throne of heaven basking in a reason known only to God, God cried along with my family. God cried along with Jan’s friends. God cried just as Jesus cried at the tomb of Lazarus. I had to re-examine my own clichéd words of comfort that are not comforting at all. My own coming to grips with the frailness of humanity.
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I KNOW SOME PEOPLE distance themselves from God when crisis strikes. After all, if God, for some mysterious reason, killed your friend or family member, why worship such a God? I was drawn closer to God.
Jan died on a Thursday. Lisa and I made the five-hour drive that night to be with my mom and Jan’s partner, Denise.
When Sunday came around I needed to be in worship. I wanted to be surrounded by people of God singing and praying. I desired to hear the word of God read and proclaimed. I longed to come to the table and remember Jesus in his death and his promise of life. Lisa and I attended St. Simon Peter Episcopal Church, my mom and sister’s church.
Surrounded by the saints present and the saints who have gone before us, now including my sister, we sang and prayed and grieved and heard the Word of God for us and gathered at the table to receive the gift of bread of life and cup of salvation. And God was there, giving life and hope.
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WORSHIP OF OUR LORD WAS, for me, the “balm in Gilead.” Jeremiah writes about it. (Pate talked about it with the children.) Balm of Gilead was a rare medicinal perfume produced in the region of Gilead. The phrase has become to signify a cure, a healing.
On June 18th [Tuesday of the Montreat Worship and Music Conference], I wrote in my journal:
That turn of phrase really hit me. The compassion of presence. Love shown simply by being present. God’s compassion revealed as God walked with us through dark valleys. God’s compassion spoken by Christ, “I am with you always.” God’s compassionate love present through the people of God singing and praying and listening and responding to the Word. God’s compassionate love evidenced in you. Your kind and comforting words. Your prayers. Your cards and texts and emails.
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I’M SO GLAD I’m part of the family of God. It is the Church of Jesus Christ lived and breathed through the folks at St. Simon Peter’s and Montreat Worship and Music Conference. It is Christ’s compassionate presence, confirmed through you.
If restoration means “to return to a former condition,” then I will never be restored. Without my sister I will not be who I was with my sister. If restore is to “repair,” then restoration will come. The Good Shepherd of Psalm 23, the Lord whom we worship; the one who’s compassion is present, will restore my soul.
Jeremiah questions, “Is there a balm in Gilead?” The spiritual hymn we’re going to sing answers “yes.” Yes, there is a balm in Gilead. Yes, there is a spiritual medicine that heals the soul.
Jesus Christ is the balm of Gilead. In worship we hear and see and taste the good news! Jesus Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us. Christ restores our souls. Thanks be to God.
— Keith Cardwell