Saturday, May 10, 2008

Praising in Times of Sorrow

This is a speech that I did this morning for Women's group at my church. This is what I wrote to say, but I probably added in places.

I have been asked to speak to you today about me and my work. I was told to catch you up on my life since the last time I spoke to you in 2005.

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a chaplain at St. Paul’s Hospital. I came here from Prince Edward Island, in November 2002.

At the last time that I addressed you, I was eagerly awaiting my ordination.

Since then I have been ordained, and then 10 months later, changed my name, which may be why my current name is “new” to some.

So the topic that I have chosen to speak about today is “Praising in Times of Sorrow”. This is actually the name of a worship service that I wrote during my residence year of training. I was a student intern in a residential care facility in Winnipeg. Part of my duties was to lead a group of seniors in worship. It was not a service, but was call “soul time”, an informal gathering. Most of these patients had dementia so it was a challenge at times to engage them. The service and title came out of my own struggle to worship while in the midst of sorrow. I was near burn out and stressed after spending nearly 8 years in various post-secondary schools while trying to figure out where God was calling me.

So let’s look at praise. When you think of praising what words come to mind?

Most of the time, praise is associated with positive feelings – joy, happiness, gladness. But as we can see from the definition, praise is defined “ to express a favorable judgment of : commend 2 : to glorify (a god or saint) especially by the attribution of perfections”. This definition connotes positive sentiments, but notice something here… it’s a verb. It is some thing we do, not some thing we “feel”. I feel joy, contentment, peace, or happiness and because of it I want to demonstrate it through an action, to praise God for what I have.

But what about when you don’t feel happy, or joy, or peace? What about when your life is chaos? What about when you are suffering? From illness, stress, grief from life’s losses? What about then? It’s not so easy to do, is it?

As some of you might remember the last time that I spoke to you, I told you about my year and the journey leading up to the ordination. When that day came, I was a mess. I started crying and my mother had to give me gravol to calm down. Why was I crying? This was a day I had worked for and anticipated with much joy. These were not tears of joys, nor were they tears of relief. I thought of it as the fulfillment of years of work. But I felt terrible. I was happy and praised God that I had made it, and that He had seen fit to choose me. To call me to service of His kingdom, but it was a hard day.

Remember the wedding photos? My wedding was another day that I had anticipated This was a day I had been waiting for .. well for my whole life. I had found my prince and I was going to start a new life, fulfill some of those dreams. This is a photo of me with my “new” family. We look happy, but you know. some thing is missing from this day. From this photo. This man. My father.

That was why I cried on the morning of my ordination and why I cried on the morning of my wedding. My father died April 4th, 2005. 3 weeks before I appeared before the ordination council, one month short of his 64th birthday, and 2 months short of his 41st wedding anniversary. And I walked around in a fog for months after his death and couldn’t figure out why. I was in the middle of my annual performance review and I started to cry. I did not think that I had been doing my job well, and started to cry. And when I start, it is hard to stop. And I had no idea why I was crying and then my boss reminded me.. this is grief.

It is a challenge to work in God’s Kingdom. It was hard to do it when I was in the midst of pain. How do you walk along side others who are in pain and suffering of their own, when you just wanted to lie down with them and not get up?

Psalm 137:

By the Rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept

when we remembered Zion.

2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,

3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?

This Psalm was written when Israel went into exile. The captors asked them to sing their songs for the road, but the answer was “how can we sing when we are in a foreign land?” you want us to sing songs of joy, that recall the life we left behind. How can I sing a song about joy when my heart is broken? How can I sing what I do not feel?

This is a hard part for us to deal with. In our society, when people are hurting or suffering, we feel for them, but many of us don’t know what to say or do. Often I don’t even know what to say to the people that I meet. They tell me their stories of heartbreak, health problems, family issues, suffering and immense pain. And I am at a loss to know what to say to some of them. It is hard to watch. But watch we must, for not to acknowledge their pain or suffering, is to deny their humanity and our own.

I wonder how good we are at doing this. To go down in the trench, to walk with them through the dark, searching for light, especially when we don’t know the road, where the journey is taking them and how long it will be. What if it never gets better? What if it remains dark? What if we get lost while we are there? When will it end? What if it never does, or worse it ends horribly, in death? Then what? What do we do with the people who are in the dark places? What about us? What do we do when we are the people in the dark places? And we go through the motions because we don’t know what else to do? We hope and pray that it will get better, but feel like it never will. What if we suffer in vain? These are the questions that suffering, illness, pain.. that life gives us. It’s what we do with these questions that count.

Our society has a hard time to deal with the negative aspects of living. We indulge in things that make us feel good. We read books that talk about spiritual enlightenment, yoga, “retail therapy”, buying things hoping that they will make us happy, meeting people, looking for community, hoping to find fulfillment through people or things. But when we’ve tried everything, and nothing works, and we are still in pain, still suffering, -- we are still in the dark place, we are alone, what do we do then? That dark place is scary and not easy to deal with. One word for the dark place or negative feeling is depression. Depression comes for various reasons; clinical, general malaise, and in my case, was one of many stages of grief.

What comes to mind when you think of depression or sorrow? The type that keeps you from praising God fully?

It is a natural part of life and for some reason we try to avoid is as much as possible. Thomas Moore in his book Care of the Soul has a chapter called “the Gifts of Depression”. Imagine that.

“the Soul presents itself in a variety of colors including all the shades of gray, blue, and black. To care for the soul, we must observe the full range of all its colorings, and resist the temptation to approve only of white, red, and orange – the brilliant colors. … darkness and bitterness. 137-138

Last year, I met a woman ( I will call Jane MacDonald) who had acute renal failure. This means that her kidneys forgot how to work, but it was only going to be temporary. But the “temporary” turned into weeks, then months. I had been away when she first was admitted and so I didn’t meet her until she had been there for 3 or 4 months. Our first meeting was interesting. Within 2 minutes, I learned that she was an ordained minister of a different denomination. We talked about her experience with her illness and events that led up to her hospitalization. Reminsiced about seminary. Upon my second visit, she “confessed” something to me that surprised me. She began by telling me how she enjoyed my visit. How I reminded her of herself at the “young age”. Then she said “To use a piano analogy, you tickled my ivories. You see, after my stroke and my experience with the church, I stopped talking to God. I was mad at Him you see.” Now I realize that this is different from being depressed or sad, but this being mad at God had put her in a place of darkness. She was not able to voice her pain to God. She told me that after my visits, she dusted off her Bible and started talking to God again. I don’t know where her conversations with God led her, but at least she was talking to him again.

I initially called this talk “praising in times of sorrow” but what I mainly want to address is those times when we are here to worship, or come to our time of prayer and we don’t know what to say, or we don’t feel like “going through the motions”. To praise when I don’t feel like it is hard. It feels hollow, like I’m not being true to the feelings of melancholy. But we can “praise” (not happy praise) God even when we are in this place of darkness, but it will look different. The energy will be different. It is important to keep talking to God even when we don’t feel like it, even when we don’t know what to say. Even if it is to say, “I’m mad at you.” From talking to people like Jane, and others, I have been saddened to hear that they stopped talking to God because He “abandoned” them when they were in need.

Two months ago, I met a man I will call Jim. He told me that he was not a religious man, but appreciated my coming. He seemed to convey respect for my position even though he didn’t really seem to want what I had to offer. His wife was there as well. Somehow, he felt comfortable enough to tell me why he was not “religious”. Years ago, God told him to do something. And he did it. But the church that he attended did not support him and criticized him for what he had done and how he had done it. He felt called to set up a revival tent meeting. He told me that he went to the congregation to ask for input and assistance. In the end, they said no, but he did it anyhow. Hundreds of people came, but only one 16 year old boy came forward that evening. The congregation reamed him for wasting the money on that one person. He wanted nothing to do with the church or God. I told him I was saddened by the reaction of the church, but that it seemed to me that he confusing religion with God. Just because of a horrible experience doesn’t mean that your faith needs to die. In the end of the conversation, he had a revelation. He realized that he had been mad at God for almost 20 years because of this incident. I hope that some healing came of this. But he needed to be in the dark place, but unfortunately it was a very long time.

Thomas Moore’s book says that depression is a gift. Everybody has those days when we just don’t feel like doing things. When we have the negative feelings, like we don’t want to go to work, don’t want to go to the activity that we had planned, we often wish it would go away. We do anything to distract ourselves – to ignore it, to get rid of it. It is not a nice feeling so why indulge? It does not feel like a gift. But it is important to remind our selves that in the midst of the suffering and turmoil that we are going through, that there is hope. Embracing the depression or sorrows, according to Moore, grants a gift of having lived through something . of being older or wiser. We are better for it. Our Faith will be stronger for facing the times of pain, sorrow and grief. Care of the soul doesn’t mean wallowing in the symptom, but it does mean trying to learn from depression what qualities the soul needs.

It is important to acknowledge that the pain, suffering and sorrow are there. It is important to acknowledge to ourselves and to acknowledge to God. People are often scared to tell God about the negative stuff. We aren’t supposed to be mad at God. In the words from the Cosby show, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out’. Some people have been taught that it is not right/okay to express anything negative to God. We might get him angry. Well you know what, God wants us to be our full self. To deny this aspect of our selves to Him, is to deny it to ourselves. Faith in God is about a relationship. If you can’t share this with Him, who can you share it with? David did it all the time!

The Psalms express every range of emotion from lament and sorrow, joy, peace, confusion and pain. David even said “Why have you forsaken me?”

How do we embrace that dark place? With honesty, with reverence, and sometimes, it helps to share this dark place with someone else. God does not want us to be alone in our pain. Sorrows come for many reasons. Suffering comes but we don’t understand why. Here in North America, we say suffering is a part of life, in the Eastern traditions, they say Life is suffering. Not to acknowledge this is unhealthy. To stay alone too long in the sorrow is unhealthy. It is important to hear the sorrow within us, and to acknowledge that it is there. It is also important to acknowledge the sorrow of others. We don’t have to fix it. That is not what its purpose is. We think that if something is broken we need to fix it, but there are some things that we can’t fix. Some illnesses what we can’t cure, but we can heal. Spiritual injury is the same. Some things can’t be cured, not while we are here in this body, but we can find healing. When someone tells you about their pain and sorrow, and we don’t know what to do to fix it, we don’t have to say anything. We have to hear what they are saying. Acknowledge that pain and say “I don’t know what I can do to help, but I am here.” This is what being a “good neighbor” is about. We recognize our own woundedness, we recognize our suffering and we see it in others. We hope that at some point we can offer some small glimpse of hope, healing. Sometimes, we don’t have to say anything. We just have to be there. To share our lives with them. Then we will see that our pain is not one that will isolate us. Then hopefully our sister or brother will see that they are not alone. It is hard. It seems like the dark will go on.

Have you ever been lost in the dark alone? It is a scary place. I am scared of the dark because I can’t hear things. But when someone is with me, I’m still scared, but I feel better because someone is there with me. A person that I can touch and feel. When we are in the dark places of our spiritual journey, we should turn to God. He is with us. It is still dark, but it won’t be so scary and hopefully the journey to light won’t seem so long and faraway. It takes a lot of strength and effort to go with someone in the dark. But we’ll be better for it when we acknowledge it in us and when we acknowledge the pain and sorrows of others.

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