Today, I am very thankful! Today marks a one-year “anniversary” of sorts, really the anniversary of many things. Today marks one year serving a great church in the North Alabama Conference. Today also marks one year as an associate pastor…a career turn I still don’t fully understand. But most importantly today marks one year since I began the road to healing from some very painful circumstances.
How did this happen? To be honest in a very unexpected way. A little over a year ago I had a pretty abysmal experience in my ministry career. It left me wounded, broken, and angry. Not only could I name the people who had caused this pain, but I could also name folks who stood by and let it happen. So, we can add betrayed to the list of feelings as well.
Often, we hear about the 5 stages of grief (anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Well, I went through all of them. Some of them more than once. When grief comes as a result of death, there is a finality to the acceptance. For sure you never really get over a loss of a loved one, but you begin to accept that they are gone and there is nothing you can do to change that fact. However, when grief comes because of acts of betrayal or injustice the stage of acceptance seems void of any sense of closure.
As I began my first Sunday a year ago at First United Methodist Church of Decatur, I encountered an uncommon practice as part of the pastoral prayer. Our Senior Pastor Hughey Reynolds provided a moment of pause just before the Lord’s Prayer. He invited the congregation to use that pause to lift up by name those who they wished to pray for. He asked them to name them out loud where they sat. As I sat there, I heard a murmur of names and prayers being lifted up by those gathered. I was caught off guard and really had no one on my mind. So, I sat in silence. The next week I was to lead the pastoral prayer. I knew what was coming so I came into worship prepared. I had a few names of friends I wanted to lift up. It felt good to call them by name and lift their needs up to God.
This went on for a few months, I added and exchanged names as circumstances required. Then one Sunday, something triggered my aforementioned grief. It was right in the middle of the service, and I had no way to escape. As I stood there and tried to compose myself, I felt the Holy Spirit whisper to me: Pray for them. I was stunned. I have to admit, I really didn’t want to. But if I’ve learned anything it’s not to ignore God’s voice. So, with all the breath I had left I uttered their names there in that pulpit. And I felt something stir within me.
Later, the next day as I sat in my office trying to make sense of what happened. I was reminded of Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount: “…pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). As I begin to ponder these words, I also remembered how he spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34). Jesus not only TOLD us how to treat those who hurt us, he also MODELED it in his darkest hours. It was at that moment that I realized that there is in fact often a SIXTH step if the grief process for those of us who claim the name of Christ. Forgiveness is not just a command, but it is also part of our healing. In these types of circumstances, forgiveness provides the closure we so deeply desire. It’s difficult to harbor anger or resentment for someone you are praying for.
And so, every Sunday since, I have uttered those names during that prayer time. I’d love to tell you that I’ve been able to put aside all my grief. But it still comes at times and in waves, when I am most vulnerable. Yet it no longer consumes me, and I am free to see how God has used something terrible to bring about something wonderful. Just like every step of grief, forgiveness is part of the process.
Another verse that came not long after that revelation during the prayer time, was Joseph’s words to his brothers. They had betrayed him yet during a time of reconciliation he said to them: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” (Genesis 50:20). That passage has become one I have clung to over the past year. Because God freed me to see that it was in fact true for me as well. My marriage has never been stronger. These times of trial brought Ragan and me closer than we had ever been in the past. I have a gracious and loving church family to serve. They welcomed me with open arms and gave me a place to heal. I am beginning to see gifts and strengths I never knew I had for ministry. And while I’m very unsure about what God has in store for me next, I have certainty that God still has use for me in his Kingdom work. All of this came at a heavy price, but through all of it, God has been faithful. So you see, as I said at the beginning…today I am thankful.