This week on Monday and Tuesday, I gathered at a retreat for Baptist pastors in the Northern Virginia and DC region on the topic of narrative leadership. The center point of this retreat was stories and the idea that we only know who we are as leaders and as congregations is when we tell and understand our stories. So, over the course of three days, this small group of 15, shared a series of personal narratives with one another hoping to figure out how these stories spoke to the larger themes of our lives and ministry.
One of the pastors in my storytelling group was Rev. Kendrick Curry, the pastor of Pennsylvania Ave Baptist Church in DC, a colleague I have much respect for. When we were asked to share a story about an ordaining moment in ministry-- a time in our lives when we knew that we were in the right place and that God was using us for something greater than ourselves-- this is the story that Kendrick told and gave me permission to share with you this morning:
Several years ago, the Curry family was preparing anxiously for the birth of their second child. Finding out that they were having a son, after already welcoming a baby girl in their home two years prior, he said they elated with joy. A name for his soon-to-be born son was already chosen: Kendrick, Jr. The only thing left was for the son to make his grand appearance in the world.
However, around 35 weeks of the pregnancy, Kendrick's wife faced birth complications and was admitted to the hospital. The bed rest prescribed seemed to make everything better and Kendrick along with the rest of the family hoped that everything would be ok soon.
And the day came finally: the day when the hospital scheduled the birth. The doctors induced labor and the cries of his newborn rang out throughout the delivery room. But, Kendrick, Jr's preemie size meant that he had to go straight to the NICU for observation and tests. Meanwhile, the post-delivery condition of the mother soon worsened. Rushed to ICU with internal hemmoriging, things weren't looking good for Mrs. Curry. Running back and forth from the NICU to the ICU, in his despair, Kendrick felt his heart torn between the bedside of his wife and his son. It just so happened that in between these two places, there sat a chapel. Kendrick would stop each time to pray.
During those moments in the chapel he cried in anger to God, "Why are you doing this to MY family?" He prayed as hard as could ever remembering praying in his life for the health of these two dear ones in his life. But, as he prayed, it became apparent to him through the still small voice of the Spirit that one of his beloved would not make it. And though he didn't know with one-- he still prayed for the health of both, hoping that this word he felt in his spirit was not true.
And in dramatic fashion that only a story that tells like this could offer, Kendrick relayed that hours later his wife died. Instantly he became a single father to a 2 year old girl and a newborn son.
Such a huge loss could have set Kendrick running to the hills for days-- locking himself up in his house, taking care of his own, not coming out for nothing and no one would have blamed him. I know I wouldn't have.
But, Kendrick relayed, that the following Sunday he was slated to preach at a special church service that he'd said yes to participate in months prior. As much as he could have said no, "I don't feel like preaching this week," Kendrick told us something in his spirit said to him again, "You need to preach. You need to preach" even though everyone in his life encouraged him to stay at home.
During that Sunday's sermon, as Kendrick ascended to the pulpit, as he had done on countless occasions, he did so on different terms. Everything about his life had changed in those moments running between the NICU, the ICU and the chapel. His beloved was gone.
But, there was something huge that had not changed. God was with him. He felt God's Spirit raping loving arms around him and his family. God still called him to bear witness to the good news, even in this dark, dark hour of his own story.
And, so there was a word he had to preach. This word was, "I believe what I preach. I believe what I preach." He needed his congregation to know that he believed what he preached. The faith of the Jesus story was his own, even at this juncture of sorrow.
There are a couple of things that you are taught in seminary about preaching that could go against the preaching plan of Kendrick did that day. First of all, in times of great personal crisis, we were encouraged to find someone else to fill the pulpit. "You don't have to be superman or woman," we heard over and over. Furthermore, I can remember clearly the lecture when my preaching professor warned us not to bring too much of ourselves into the pulpit. "The sermon is not story time with the pastor," my classmates and I were told, "Each sermon you give is the proclamation of the word of God. So, leave your cute stories at home. The word of God will be better for it."
While in later reflection, I agreed with this, (as I have been in situations as listener of sermons, probably like you have too, where you feel abused by the preacher simply vomiting for you their stories on you about nothing helpful or anything found in the Biblical text), I also know there is something powerful about the connection between the preaching moment and personal testimony.
Because at heart, sermons that we feature prominently in the order of worship each week, are a product of the proclaimer wrestling with God in such a way through personal reflection and study so that the listeners are too encouraged to wrestle with the texts too.
When people ask me-- often who are not familiar with all things church as to what I do on a weekly basis-- I say I write and preach sermons that are product of my own spiritual journey with a word for the greater congregation in mind.
Though there are some pastors who do the alternative, I just don't know any other way to preach than to have it overflow out of my own relationship with God as I seek to make sense of the joys, failures, and disappointments in my own life. I do this all in the hope that you'll see me model this publically and then be encouraged to enter in a similar process too.
One of my preaching mentors, though we've never met, is Lillian Daniel. Lillian is the pastor of First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn in Illinois. In response to her own experiences of pastoring, encouraging her people to have real experiences of God and then do the crazy thing called "share them" with the community Lillian writes the book, Tell it Like it Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony.
And this is her basic challenge to pastors: make sure your people know that you wrestle with God, just as you ask them to do every Sunday.
Lillian hypotheses that while pastors are often eager to talk about themselves-- which my seminary professors warned against-- they are not so eager to talk about their own relationship with God. Why?
Because she writes, many either don't have one that they've touched on in years (sobering truth) or our fear and/or lack of practice gets the best of us.
So, here we arrive at the reason for this different kind of sermon for this morning. Though I assume that you know about your pastor, just as Kendrick's story illustrated, that I "believe what I preach" this morning I feel called to make it explicit for you. That I too believe what preach and never bring you any less than something that I have wrestled within, struggled through, shouted to God about-- because this is what the gospel is all about. And, though I had a sermon all outlined for our lectionary readings for today on the topic of "God Calls Us to Be Well" I just couldn't preach it. I felt the tug on my heart to preach to you my own story of "God Calls me to Be Well."
And, this is my journey of being made well:
There is a misconception, I believe, that if you go into ministry as a pastoral leader, you like being a professional Christian. That getting paid to pastor means that you always are eager to read your Bible every morning, that you are always eager to pray when people ask, and that living a life guided by the spiritual disciplines is what you just adore.
But, while, yes, most pastor types, myself included are wired to be more spiritually sensitive than most, it doesn't mean that we aren't human. It doesn't mean that we don't go through our own spiritually high and spiritual low moments. It doesn't mean that we don't struggle to care for our peeps when the burdens of our own hearts seek to keep us paralyzed in a space of "it's all about me." It doesn't mean that pastors never feel abandoned by God when our prayers for ourselves and on behalf of our congregation just aren't answered in the way we like.
Furthermore, there are times in every pastor's life when reading the Bible is really the last thing we want to do. And, though I heard in an interview recently that Joel Osteen, the famed tv preacher, said he never doubted his faith-- I'd be worried to be part of any congregation where the pastor hasn't doubted his or her faith from time to time because I think doubt is just a part of what it means to believe.
And, so what is it that I believe about God as I seek to live out my Christian journey and calling in such a public way in front of you all?
I believe that resurrection is real. Yes, resurrection, the concept, the action and the moment in Jesus' life that our Christian faith is based upon-- is real. Why? Because I've experienced it in my own life. And in particular, I received a fresh experience of it this week.
The past two weeks for me have been a time of lots of personal reflection. It's been a time that a set of outside circumstances orchestrated outside of any control has caused me to pause and put some puzzle pieces in my own life story back into different places. It's been a time when I've come to realize that as dark and as lonely as certain seasons in my life felt, I was not as alone or unseen as I thought. And, most of all, I've experienced a work in me I know could have only come from God.
And this is what is important for you to know: there was a desire, a hope and a characteristic in me that I thought was long dead, that I thought was long past, that I thought I had moved on from and was simply over only to have God's presence through tangible examples show this:, "No it is not dead. No, you don't have to settle for less. No, you don't have to be afraid of seeking out more. Yes, ask for more."
This movement has left me surprised, amazed and thankful. What an adventure it is to be on your journey of faith, going along, all is going just fine, only to realize that there's this whole other beautiful horizon just waiting for you to jump into. This horizon called abundant living, even as the trials of daily life come and go and seek to knock us down. In Christ, there's really more! This is what resurrection is all about.
Such a breathe of resurrection for me has meant I can't help but throw my hands up in gratitude to God and say thank you to the Lord like I've never said before. It's a joy that I know that could not come from any other place than the Lord because many to an unspiritual outsider it really doesn't look like much if anything has changed. But, it has. It really has. Resurrection found me.
This, my friends, is part of what I wanted to exhort you to if I spent the whole time with our gospel lection this morning-- that when the leper, the outsider, the one who didn't believe that anything about his community repelling skin condition was ever going to change-- Jesus shows up and chooses to do a new work in his life. And, resurrection came to him to-- in the most untame of ways.
And, such a journey of discipleship is waiting for you and me too-- a calling if we choose as well to accept it.
So while we all walk through seasons of deep loss, of deep pain, of the bewilderment of having the most joyous days of our lives then morph into our worst, as happened to my colleague Kendrick, I believe we are never a people without hope. We are not without hope because we are a people of resurrection. We are a people where no story is ever finished, no dream is ever dead and gone, and no horror story is ever without redemption.
This is what I believe and it is what I try hard to believe during my most defeated moments too. This is what I believe about God's calling for us to be well. This is what I believe is happening in my life right now. And this is what I believe God wants to do in your life too-- whatever your fill in the blank circumstances might be too.
I believe that it is so sweet to trust in Jesus and just to take him at his word and just to rest upon God's promises and just to know thus saith the Lord. Sure, there are moments of doubt of this promise for all of us-- but thank goodness, we worship a God who is always in a relentless pursuit of us: a God who loves us so much that he wants us to be well.
What about you? Do you believe what you are about to sing? If not, don't sing it. And, I pray, one day you will. But, if you do, sing out my friends, sing loud, for we have some praising of our Lord to get to. This is what I believe.