I learned this past Sunday that my friend Dave Miller passed away after a brief illness. Dave was a long-time member of First Baptist Church of Weaverville where I served as Minister with Youth and Children before accepting the call to pastor Ecclesia Baptist in Asheville. The incident I've described in the original blogpost (below) happened four years ago.
Wait--that can't be right . . . It was in February. 2015. So that's only . . . oh. So, yeah, four years.
The interesting thing about the story below is that it's actually the first of at least two similar occurrences when Dave had some sort of minor episode while I was preaching. This odd coincidence led to a running joke.
"I see you're preaching Sunday, Aileen," Dave would say on a Wednesday night at Bible study. (He was never just a Sunday morning church goer.) Eyes sparkling, grin hiding just behind his straight face, he'd quip, "I believe I'll play it safe and just stay home."
Or, "Hey Dave, how are you feeling today? I'm preaching so I just thought I'd check!"
"Well, I'm a little tired, but I'll get a nap during your sermon."
The last time I saw Dave Miller was my last Sunday at First Baptist Weaverville. "You be careful preaching every Sunday! Don't put them to sleep, you hear?" He laughed at his joke and I laughed at him laughing. Then, getting serious, he added, "We're going to miss you honey. We're really going to miss you."
I miss you too Dave. Give my love to Glory, and I'll see you in the sweet by and by.
February 5, 2015, Weaverville, NC
I've only been in the vocational ministry for five years, but if you count my nearly 50 years as a preacher's kid, that's a good bit of ministry--or at least church--experience. So I know of what I speak when I tell you that on Sunday, February 1, I came as close to speaking in tongues as I ever have.
I was in the middle of my sermon when an older member of the church who was sitting down to my right, slumped over in the pew. (I told him later that if he didn't want to hear me preach he could just say so and not cause such a stir.) As it turns out, he had a spell related to heart troubles and once the EMT's got things straightened out he was fine.
Anyway, there I was preaching on the weekly lectionary text like a good little girl when Dave keels over. It took me a minute to clue into what was happening but when I did, I turned back to the choir and asked a member who is a nurse to attend to Dave. She got up immediately as did another member in the congregation who is a medical professional. Our pastor, who by God's providence was seated one pew over, went to comfort Dave and his sweet wife of about 60 years.
That left me, mid-sermon, standing at the pulpit in front of a congregation of confusion, fear, and anxiety. I had absolutely no idea what to do.
But the Spirit did. It's a good thing that "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." (Romans 8:26) In truth, I remember very little of what I said or did. All of it was Spirit led.
Now, it's true, I was raised in the church and have experienced tense situations before this. I've seen my Preacher Daddy deal with emergencies from the pulpit a time or two and have been in other situations where difficulties arose in unfortunate surroundings.
I've also had classes on crisis management and read books on the same topic. I've studied group dynamics and crowd behavior.
But I'ma tell you right now. The Holy Spirit scooped up all that life experience and book learning and molded it into something far greater than anything I could have accomplished. In the midst of that human crisis, the Spirit interceded and brought Peace to the turmoil.
Hallelujah and to God be the Glory!
I preach from time to time at First Baptist Church of Weaverville. Here are my most recent sermons.
December 6, 2015, "Let There Be Peace," Luke 3:1-6, Psalm 126.
October 11, 2015, "From Affliction to Proclamation," Hebrews 4:12-16, Psalm 22:1-15.
Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Have you felt as if when you cried out to God, you heard only an echo of your own voice in response? Maybe, during those times, you did what the Psalmist did and reminded yourself of who you knew God to be. Today, the conversation might sound like this:
“God? Pick up the phone! I’ve called your home, your office, your mobile. I’ve texted you. I’ve emailed and IM’d you. Have you blocked me? What is the deal? Are you just ignoring my messages? I know you check your voice mail. You keep your cell phone on and with you at all times. You check your emails hourly and everybody talks about how great you are at taking care of their needs right away. You always listen to other people and respond.”
I’ve felt like this, have you? It’s a horrible, desperate feeling. But I’m not alone in having felt this way. In fact, this cry, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” should sound familiar to the New Testament church. We heard it from the voice of Jesus at his crucifixion. We hear it again at our Good Friday services. And we Baptists may only faintly remember that part of the story as historically we rush past the cross straight to the resurrection. It’s important, though, to hear Jesus cry out, lonely and abandoned. Jesus was, after all, not only fully divine. He was fully human, just like the psalmist. Just like you. Just like me.
Our psalmist quickly turned his fussing inward. I do that too. Do you? Do you ever think, “Wait, maybe it’s me. Since God is so good, and I feel so forsaken, it must be me. Maybe it’s not God, maybe it’s me.”
Of course, that’s partly true: certainly God has not forsaken us, and indeed, it is our own humanness that makes us feel forsaken. But God made us human, so we can’t be all bad. Rather, I think it is our focus on our humanness that creates the problem. I’ve been there. Some mornings, my husband greets me with, “Good morning. How are you feeling this morning?” Too often I respond, “UGGH! I’m consumed with self-loathing, how about you?” My response is my attempt at humor to deal with the difficulty I have of coping with my humanness. Sometimes, I feel like a worm. And all I can think about is my worminess.
The psalmist felt like that too. Take a look at verses 6 and 7: But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;” The Hebrew word for “worm” here means the same as our English word “maggot.” And look, the psalmist’s maggot-like feeling is only reinforced by his not-so-loving acquaintances. What an animated picture of a taunting crowd: snarling, angry, face-contorting busy-bodies. Poor psalmist—he already feels abandoned; then his neighbors go and make it worse for him.
But the passers-by did not just make faces at our guy, and they didn’t just hurl empty insults. They insulted the psalmist’s religion. And it’s like when some know-it-all tells you something you already know—but you have been trying not to think about it or even admit it. “Commit your cause to the Lord,” they sneer, probably high-fiving each other like a gang of adolescent bullies, “let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” Can’t you almost hear the psalmist shouting back, “I tried that, okay? I tried that. And here I squirm, a maggot in rotten flesh, undelivered. My God has forsaken me, okay? Back off.” But that’s not what the psalmist records. Instead, he says something like:
“You know me God. You’ve loved me since before I was born. Remember me? I trust you, I do. I know I can’t do this alone, God. You are my only hope.”
I think he’s right: I know I can’t live this life alone. I can’t do it alone because there are too many difficult circumstances in my life that divert me from my true purpose of glorifying God. Plus, the minute I mention that I can’t do it alone, I find myself distracted by me again. And then all the things that worry me fill my mind, and I somehow lose sight of God as I try to figure out how to manage all my problems.
What would be on your list of worries? Your boss and her lack of integrity or your co-workers cheating on their expense accounts and the pressure they put on you to do the same? Your career that’s going nowhere or your career that has not yet begun? The fear that you’ll lose your job or the fear that you are stuck in this one forever? Would you think about how much you want another cigarette, drink, or piece of cheesecake—because that always makes it better, always. Maybe you struggle with depression. Maybe you’re lonely--in a new town or neighborhood, in your marriage, or maybe you’re lonely and for the life of you—you don’t know why. Or perhaps you are battling a life altering or even life threatening illness. Maybe someone you love is. Maybe you have lost loved ones and you can’t imagine facing another day without them. Our parents are getting older, our siblings don’t get along, gas prices are going up and the commute just keeps getting longer. Our kids get sick, get in trouble, get behind and get confused. Sometimes it feels as if we are being pulled apart by troubles. Don’t you just want to scream?
The psalmist did. He cried out to God. I think it sounded something like this.
“Help! Quick! I’ve locked all my doors, but I’m still not safe. I’ve turned on my home alarm, but it’s not working. God! You’ve got to come immediately! My life is on the line!”
And in that moment, when the psalmist cried out, naked with need, aware that nothing in his power could save him, everything changed. The psalmist stopped focusing on circumstances, and started focusing on God.
Now here’s the thing. I don’t know if the psalmist really meant what he said when he started praising God. Maybe—we’ll never know for sure, but maybe—he really didn’t mean it. Think about it. Have you ever smiled when you didn’t mean it but then found that before long you felt happy anyway? Have you ever laughed when you didn’t feel like it then kept laughing until you did feel like it? Maybe, when we don’t feel like praising God, maybe we should praise God anyway. You know, praise God until we do mean it.
When we are faced with suffering that surpasses our limits, sometimes praising God is the only answer. It helps to say it aloud—to tell people that we believe in God, that we are in awe of God's love. It helps to say how God has blessed us in the past, and to proclaim God's goodness to our loved ones. Whatever caused the psalmist to start praising God, what resulted from his praise is remarkable. Depression redesigned as delight. Trauma transformed into triumph. Extraordinary.
“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”
Never in Psalm 22 does God answer the question. When the same question is asked from the cross, no answer comes. Yet Psalm 22 ends in joy, and the crucifixion resulted in the resurrection. The problem then, or at least one of them, is how do we move from the question to the joy? How do we get from the crucifixion to the resurrection? It seems like one way is to keep talking to—or screaming at—God. (I think God can handle it when we get mad at him and wrongly accuse him. We may not fare so well, but God manages just fine, I think.) And somehow, we are transformed. We move out of the pain and into the praise. We go from raging to rejoicing. I don’t understand it; but it happened to the writer of Psalm 22. And It happened to Jesus.
“Praise him, you servants of theLord!
Honor him, you descendants of Jacob!
Worship him, you people of Israel!" Psalm 22:23 (GNT)
*This piece is a portion of my very first sermon. I wrote it in Spring 2010 for Intro to Preaching class with Dr. Danny West at Gardner-Webb University, M. Christopher White Divinity School.