Grief Is a Powerful Thing

"So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves." 1 Thessalonians 2:8

My first couple of Sundays at Grace, early in July, a couple of different people asked me this question immediately before worship: "How are you feeling?" My response: "Terrified." This was met with sort of shocked looks, then afterward the same person would say something like, "See that was ok." I've always been nervous before preaching-- the ramped up nerves help me to focus on my task and give me energy. But this seemed stronger. On Saturday nights my first couple of months at Grace I would hear an inner critic saying, "You're not prepared." "You're going to bomb today." Most Sundays he was wrong. A couple of sermons did bomb, but that happens. I decided to seek out a spiritual director to help me discern what was going on with me. I knew it was internal, but couldn't quite nail down the source.

I shared about the recent move to Sherman from Allen/Plano, from Custer Road UMC to Grace. I shared that several couples and groups from Custer Road had attended worship at Grace to reconnect with us. On one Sunday, the Misfits, our Sunday School class, visited, bringing their families-- so the boys had friends here too. Following worship we had a potluck lunch, and one of our Grace members saw our family interacting with our friends. He approached me and said, "I see now the sacrifices your family had to make to come here. Thank you." I'll probably never forget that moment-- it was such a powerful insight. Thanks, John.
The Misfits of Custer Road visited us in September. They even wore their t-shirts.

The counselor then named what I had been feeling for three months: grief. It was just like everything fell into place and I could see and feel clearly. Sort of like how the printed text changed when I started wearing reading glasses. One day three friends had lunch together in Plano and they took a selfie together and texted it to me out of the blue. On the same day another friend called with a random question. Dealing with the change from one place of ministry to another has left me missing friends and colleagues from Custer Road. Boom. 

The counselor then asked about my prayer life. "Pretty much non-existent right now," I said. He gave me some ideas for different methods of praying, which could help with sermon development and my feeling of nervousness. I had read previously that perfectionist personality types would benefit from praying with beads, and I ordered some. I began praying The Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer. I dusted off my Common Prayer daily devotional book, which includes scripture readings. For the last couple of weeks I have been reading from Ezra and Nehemiah in the Old Testament (the rebuilding of the Temple and walls around Jerusalem after the exile) and 2 Corinthians in the New Testament. Coincidentally, we've read a couple of texts from 2 Corinthians in worship recently.

My daily prayer/devotional routine the last couple of weeks.

Because of a couple of scheduling quirks, I am only preaching twice out of the five Sundays of October. This break has mostly silenced my inner preaching critic, although I am sure he will return with a vengeance for November and December! The break from the weekly grind of sermon preparation has allowed for room to reflect on preaching. Before I served at Custer Road, I was strictly a series preacher. I rarely used the lectionary. When we started Lectio, I preached exclusively from the lectionary. I found that practice so meaningful that I continued the practice at Grace. But having a series to build lectionary sermons around helps-- because one week flows into the next. Order. It's looked like this:
  • October: Fall into Grace: stewardship. Texts from Jeremiah, Luke, Timothy, and 2 Corinthians
  • November: No series, but each Sunday has a theme: All Saints, Thanksgiving, Christ the King, Advent
  • December: Seek the Light: Advent
  • January 2017: Wesleyan Covenant Renewal, Reaffirmation of Baptism, Grace UMC Core Values: Isaiah, Micah, Matthew, John
  • February 2017: The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew
Recently I've intentionally reached out to a handful of Plano friends for coffee or lunch. At recent clergy retreats I have diverted my attention from large gatherings and focused on more intimate and honest conversations with colleagues. And at Grace I'll be more intentional in offering learning opportunities, since my gifts are teaching, wisdom, and knowledge, beginning with an Advent study on Wednesday nights. My soul is fed when teaching.

None of this should be interpreted as being miserable in Sherman or unhappy at Grace. It couldn't be more the opposite. I love being back in a lead pastor role. Grace is a wonderful place and we have been made to feel overwhelmingly welcome and at home. I mean, at almost all of James' home football games, someone from Grace has shown up (the last one is this Thursday!). Christy, the boys, and I have become invested in Sherman, not only through the church and schools, but in volunteer opportunities, community theatre (Miles), attending the symphony, and participating in the Arts Festival, Hispanic Festival, a color run, and more. It's a great place to live and serve.

Moving on from one setting to another, or one feeling to another, without allowing space for grief can be frustrating. People experience different kinds of grief in different ways and at different times. Any significant life change, including but not limited to loss of a significant life, can bring grief. The rush to "get over it" or "move on" can leave us agitated, or, in my case, anxious. A healthy prayer life helps. Maintaining healthy relationships, with appropriate boundaries when necessary, helps. Getting involved in a new setting, in a variety of ways, helps. And social media makes it very easy to maintain some level of contact, though not as deep.

Christy often gives the boyos and others this context when discussing the many moves we've made as a family: "Each church introduces us to more amazing people who become great friends." (Her words are better, but you get the idea). She's right. Every place we have served has welcomed us and loved us. When we left we felt appreciated and loved. When we arrived at a new place we've been offered hospitality. But at the same time each of us has missed friends from the previous places. 

There's been a movement in the broader society that can be narrowed down to "mindfulness." Taking time to focus, examining one's self, or considering one's emotions before reacting has been used as an alternative to punishing children or certain medications, for example. Praying my prayer beads this morning, here's one of the assigned texts for this week: "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves" (1 Thessalonians 2:8). That "our own selves" says something to me about honesty and vulnerability. It leaves space to really know, and be known by, others. Over the past month or so, I've been aware and especially thankful for those relationships. Naming that grief has helped my outlook and my overall ministry. Thanks be to God for the indescribable gift of amazing people-- here, there, and everywhere!