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Sermon transcript for October 20, 2013

 

Hospitality—A Way of Life
Preached Oct. 20, 2013
Belmont UMC
Heather Harriss, preaching

Audio - MP3

The scripture tells us that it is the Sabbath and Jesus is going to have dinner in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees.  We quickly learn that this is not a small affair, but instead a lavish banquet and a whole lot of other Pharisees are there as well.  Jesus enters the home and feels all eyes on him.  The Pharisees are watching him closely, studying his every move.  Is he a reckless lawbreaker? Could he be the Messiah?  

A man makes a beeline for a seat at the main table, another is close behind him.  Jesus sees another man sigh as he realizes he is not going to get one of the prime seats, dejected he heads to the table by the door.  When everyone is seated, those in seats of honor, looking pleased with themselves, those who are not looking a bit abashed, Jesus says, “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor.  Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host.  The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place.  Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place.  When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.  All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

Talk about a conversation stopper!  After a bit of stunned silence, perhaps someone mentioned the weather.  But Jesus is not ready to let this group off the hook; he’s addressed how guests should behave; now he has a few pointers for how to be a good host.  First of all he says, “Don’t invite the people who will just invite you back over to their house for an even fancier dinner, oh no, if you are going to host a dinner, you know who you need to invite?  The people you would never dream of inviting!  That’s who needs to be on your list.  I wonder if Jesus stayed and finished his dinner?  These Pharisees who have been watching his every move, do they have their answer?  Could he be the Messiah?

Truthfully, I find this scene at the Pharisees house to be kind of a drag.  It reminds me too much of my own clamoring to get the best seat and my own reluctance to welcome the stranger into my home.  

Have you seen the show, Undercover Boss?  If you haven’t here’s the premise, the CEO of a large company disguises her or himself and works in different areas of the company.  Mostly areas that pay minimum wage and require much more skill and effort than the boss is aware of, As the boss is trained to do these jobs, (which he is always surprised to discover are way more complicated, difficult and at times back breaking than he or she ever imagined).  The boss encounters people who are doing an incredible job, but whose dedication and hard work go unnoticed, he also meets people who are all big talk and no results.  The show ends in a very satisfactory way, the hardworking noble people are finally recognized for the generous ways they share their gifts and talents and the louts are put in their place.  Isn’t it nice when things work out this way?  From our scripture this morning, this is sort of an example of Jesus’ first admonition to the Pharisees, “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”   

But this is all so counter to our culture; this way of thinking so novel that it is fodder for summer television programming.  Because really it is the loudest, the boldest, the outrageous, the smartest, the richest, the winners, the powerful, the savviest, the successful who get the seats at the table.  We enter a room and scan it, “who’s here? Who should connect with, who do I need to be sure and speak to, who do I need to impress?”  And there’s Jesus watching us jockey to secure our place, he sees our desperation and he sees the futility of it all, he offers an alternative to this empty grasping for status:  Invite the lowly, you’ll know exactly what to do, be kind, gratitude will permeate the room and you will be blessed.  Befriend the person you fear, engage the one you usually ignore.  “Do this,” Jesus tells us and we will be builders of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Last week I was invited to attend a fundraiser for Thistle Farms.  Some of you may be familiar with this ministry that is the vision of the Reverend Becca Stevens.  She heard Jesus’ instructions on how to host a banquet and they caught fire in her heart.  She invited women who were addicted to drugs, in prison, those who were poor and crippled and beaten down by sexism, racism and misogyny.  She found these women and invited them to a banquet.  This banquet grew to include housing, intensive rehabilitation and therapy, job training, and because it is very difficult for people with a prison record to get a job, they started their own business.  That banquet has now become a nation wide model for helping women break the cycles of addiction and abuse.  

As you can imagine, this was a very inspiring fundraiser.  Together on the stage of the Ryman were women participating in the program, graduates, and women of wealth and privilege and they were united by the love, friendship and admiration they have for one another.  It was a glimpse of the kind of banquet Jesus invites us to host.  

Luckily, as a minister here at Belmont, I get to see some of the banquets that you all throw.  I get to see first hand, the shocking hospitality Jesus was urging on those Pharisees all those years ago, lived out right here.  
In an art club that welcomes all artists, in gatherings in homes, in our Community Center where people with homes and those without share a meal and conversation and often a bit of surprise when they discover something they have in common, in a school for English learners who come from around the world and find new friends as they study the language of their new country.  In Sunday school classes that carry one another’s burdens, in members who greet newcomers and make sure they know they are welcome here.  In the laughter and spiritual formation of our children and youth, In soccer teams, sewing circles and massive tutoring programs, in music that invites us to sacred places, in worship that unites us and reminds us that we are indeed the children of God.  In meetings where grace abounds, in a word of kindness spoken at just the right time, in friends gathering around the bedside of a beloved friend.  In the person who sees a ministry that needs to happen and starts it, in the people who pray daily, in these things and so many more we are guests and hosts, receiving and giving shocking hospitality.

The poet Mary Oliver writes, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”  As Jesus sat down to dinner with the Pharisees this is what he was urging them to do.  We don’t know the name of Jesus’ host, but can you see Jesus leaning over to him and saying, “let’s imagine something different, what if you weren’t hosting this banquet because last month you attended an astounding Sabbath meal at your neighbor’s house and not only are you now in his debt, you want to make your dinner even more lavish, and the money you have spent is keeping you up at night, let’s imagine something different.”

If Jesus stood behind the man who had just sunk into a place of honor with palpable relief on his face, thinking, “maybe now I’ll feel like I belong,” and Jesus whispers in his ear, “Let’s imagine something different,” If Jesus went to the woman serving the meal and said, “Let’s imagine something different.”  Might they not all sigh with relief and say, “Yes, for goodness sake, yes!  Get me out of this crazy cycle of reciprocity with the ante going up with each round, free me from this anxiety that somehow I’m not good enough, smart enough, rich enough, pious enough to belong here, free me from the constraints of stereotypes, gender roles, class and prejudice.”

Jesus looks around and says, “Imagine this, give a banquet and invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.  And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you.  Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”  They look blankly at Jesus, they can’t imagine it yet, but perhaps in their hearts there is now a space, be it ever so small, for the unimaginable.

Each year our confirmands participate in a retreat at Lake Junaluska.  One of the things the leaders teach is the word, Theotokos.  The confirmands learn that Theotokos means God bearer and that it was first used to describe Mary the mother of Jesus, then they go on to say that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are now all image bearers, each of us bearing the image of Christ out into the world.  In her book, A Million Little Ways, Emily Freeman writes, “Every moment is packed with artistic possibility because, as an image bearer with a job to do, there is potential to reveal the glory of God in every circumstance, no matter how I feel, who I’m with, what my hands hold, or what’s gone wrong, God with us lives within us.  And God will come out through us in a million little ways,”  Keep a little room in your heart for the unimaginable; after all, we are image bearers with a job to do.  

We live in a world that frightens and overwhelms us, that pressures us with so many demands we can forget that we are image bearers and it is our job to help our fellow travelers feel a little more at home in this world, to remind each other that we are so loved by God that we are compelled to lover one another, even when it is hard to love one another.  When we remember this, when we shock ourselves with our hospitality, we bear the image of Christ out into our world and Jesus continually says to each of us, “Imagine that!”

Amen.

 

Sermon transcript for October 6, 2013

Nurture. . . A Way of Life
Belmont UMC—October 6, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

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As you learned earlier we are in a period of pledging for our 2014 budget to support the ministries of the church. We are using this time to focus on the 4 core values identified during the strategic planning process. We understand these 4 core values, diversity, nurture, hospitality and mission are not programs of the church but they are a way of life. They describe who we as Belmonters are called to be as Christ followers. (Next Sunday we will take a break from these 4 values because some of us will be worshipping here and some of us will be worshipping at the All Church Retreat.)

Today, we are thinking about nurture, spiritual nurture, and you’ve heard two wonderful witnesses today of how their lives and their family members’ lives have nurtured spiritually in this faith community. I think Lucy Cramer is spot on and I like all the things she likes: All Church Retreat, spending time with family and friends, and learning about our faith and how we treat each other with love and care.

And I have to say a rousing “amen” to the words of my friend, Virginia Kessen, because my family has been enriched by this church, too, especially the life of our youngest son, Aren. He is a wonderful young man with strong values and much of who is today has to do with the youth program, music program and a host of adult volunteers and youth friends who have loved him and supported him. Let me say thank-you for that. I always say that you can put a price tag on some things in church, like the cost of study manual or an overnight for a retreat, but the relationships our son has had with so many of you are priceless. (Sounds like an American Express commercial, but it’s true.)

For today’s sermon I found myself gleaning the scriptures for images and metaphors that relate to the theme of spiritual nurture.

The word “longing” came up a lot in the strategic planning sessions when people talked about spiritual nurture. People expressed a deep longing for spiritual practice, for worship, for prayer ministry, for small groups, for retreats and Sabbath times. The idea of longing is found in the words of scripture, especially in the Psalms. One of my favorite passages is Psalm 42:1-2, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” Hear the deep longing of the Psalmist.

I have often considered the possibility that we have been created with this sense of deep longing so that we will always be looking and seeking to fill an inner void, an empty place inside of us. This empty space can only be filled by God.

There are other metaphors that relate to this deep longing as well. The scriptures speak of spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5) This passage from the Beatitudes draws our mind’s eye to a well in Samaria. It is there that Jesus meets a woman who has come to get water to quench her physical thirst, but Jesus offers her spiritual water, water that can bring up into everlasting life. Jesus sees beyond the empty vessel she carries and into the deep spiritual thirst of her soul. (John 4)

Do you have a deep longing, a hunger or thirst for God? I sat in my office one day listening to a friend’s faith story. He said, “For a long time I was like the man who wakes up in the night with a craving, a hunger. He opens the refrigerator and stares until all the cold escapes. Then he goes to the pantry and stares again. But nothing that he sees is right. For the life of him, he cannot identify what it is he craves. All I knew is that I felt empty inside. But one day I walked into this church and knew immediately what I was hungry for. God has been so gracious to me.”

There is another image that is found in one of the lectionary passages for today. It is found in 2 Timothy and the Apostle Paul is writing to his young friend and disciple Timothy and encouraging him. The image here is fire. Timothy’s faith is waning and Paul urges him, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands, for God did give you the spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love, and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6)

Do you remember the movie, Castaway, in which Tom Hanks plays a Fed-X worker who goes down in a plane crash. He manages to grab hold of a life raft as the plane goes down and winds up on a deserted island. After several days of eating coconuts and trying to eat raw crabs, he realizes that he needs fire, fire with which to cook fish, fire to keep warm, fire to signal for help and fire to keep him company on those long lonely nights.

Some of the most dramatic scenes occur while Hanks’ character is trying to rub sticks together to make fire. His hands become raw and bloody and he keeps giving up. One day the hollow stick he is using splits in two and the split allows air to come into play with heat and the small clump of dried brush he’s using for fuel ignites. He has success and does a little happy fire dance.

When getting fire is this difficult, what will you do? You’ll try to keep it lit so you don’t have start from scratch. The spiritual fire within us does not require us to rub sticks together until our hands are raw; it is a gift from God, but we will need spiritual practices and worship to keep the fire going.

The acolytes bring the light of Christ into the sanctuary and light the candles on the altar and paschal candle on the stand. At the end of the service, they do not merely extinguish the candles but they relight their wick to symbolically take the light of Christ out into the world. Our acolytes are well trained and conscientious. We’d had a few missteps in worship one day and I thought the sermon was rather flat and disappointing. Unfortunately, I was the preacher. I was standing down at the chancel during the last hymn when the acolyte came around the side and his wick was not lit and he rather apologetically said, “My fire went out.” I responded, “So did mine, son. So did mine.” Do you ever feel like your spiritual fire has gone out? 

Until I was nine we lived in a house that was heated by two coal burning fireplaces in the front rooms and cast iron stove in the kitchen. I used to watch my Dad bank the fire before we went to bed. He would take the scuttle and scoop ashes from the hearth on top of the fire. This caused the fire to die down a bit and hold the heat, but not go out. It also meant that we’d need an extra quilt about 2 AM because the house would grow colder. In the morning we’d run downstairs in our pajamas and wait for Dad to stoke those glowing coals back to life. Then we’d warm ourselves by the fire.

Spiritual nurture is about rekindling the fire with us that is gift from God. It’s about worship, study, prayer, fasting, Sabbath keeping, retreating, small groups; it’s about making space for God in our lives. It is good for us to gather around this table, to share in this sacred meal that reminds us of the gift of God within us.

As we come to the table today, may our prayer be something like this, “Rekindling fire, bread from heaven, water that springs up into eternal life, come within and draw us closer to our God. Renew us, nourish us, strengthen us, to be your people. Amen.”

   

Sermon transcript for September 29, 2013

“Diversity. . . a way of life”
1 Corinthians 12
Belmont UMC—September 29, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

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As you learned earlier, we are beginning a focus on pledging gifts to support the ministries of our church in 2014. As a part of that emphasis we decided to design worship around the 4 themes that emerged during our strategic planning sessions. I’m calling these our 4 core values as Christ followers:  Diversity, Nurture, Hospitality and Mission. The theme of our campaign is “I’M IN. . .” because we want to emphasize our full engagement in the life of the church and in these 4 core values. Diversity, Nurture, Hospitality and Mission are not programs of the church, but a way of life, a part of our spiritual DNA. They are not someone else’s responsibility; they are mine; they are yours.

I have suggested to the staff and others that we might use these core values as points for accountability as Christ followers. In the early Wesleyan small groups called class meetings, the people would go around the circle and ask, “How is with your soul this week?” We might ask ourselves:  How did we celebrate diversity this week? How are we enriching our lives and the lives of others through spiritual formation and worship (nurture)? Where did we offer genuine hospitality to someone this week?  Have we gone to the places where God is calling us in mission?

Today, let us think together about diversity as a way of life. The creation story of Genesis reveals how God created a diverse world. And the story of the creation or birth of the church in Acts 2 reveals how the church came together in diverse setting where people from all over the Mediterranean world gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost and the disciples were given the gift to speak in the different languages of the people. We were born in diversity.

There are many ways in which we experience diversity in the church. We are blessed with different age groups from tiniest babies brought to the chancel for the covenant of baptism to the oldest adults. 

At Belmont we are blessed with a diversity of cultures and that diversity brings depth, meaning and great joy to our gatherings. I am fortunate to be here on weekdays when ESL classes are in session. I am fortunate to be greeted by smiling faces from all over the globe. The whole world gathers at Belmont on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Our lives have been enriched by church members from many countries. We continue to learn from our members who came here from Burma, Thailand, Laos, India, Mexico, Uganda, Afghanistan, Hungary, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Canada, China, Korea and the list goes on. We celebrate diversity as it reminds us of the wideness of God’s love and reach. If we showed up here on a Sunday morning and every body was a 61 year old man named Ken, we wouldn’t come back because it would so very boring and uninteresting.

Our text today is about the diversity of spiritual gifts in the church. In this chapter Paul uses the metaphor of the human body for the church and calls the church “the body of Christ.” The human body has many parts, many different parts that work in concert with one each other, many diverse parts that dependent on each other. The diversity in the human body creates unity. Paul is saying that the human body needs diversity or it cannot survive. The church needs diversity or it will not survive.

The Holy Spirit has given each of us gifts to serve within the church. We have diverse gifts. We are not all teachers or pastors or administrators but we are all gifted and called to serve. To be fully engaged in the life of the church we must discover our spiritual gifts and find ways to use them to enrich the life of the body of Christ.

In the text today we learn that each person’s gift is to be valued. This was very countercultural for Paul to say in the first century and it continues to be so in a culture that esteems some over others. Listen to what Paul says, “Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary (we can’t live without them). The parts of the body we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most.” (verses 22-23 CEB) Do we hear how counter-cultural this was and is even now? Do we value diversity of gifts in the body of Christ in that way or do we think some people are more important than all the others?

I was away from the church on the morning of September 11, 2001 when terrorists attacked our country but I quickly returned. I found the administrative assistant answering the phone and she indicated that the phone was ringing non-stop. Lots of people were calling the church and many of them just wanted to talk. A deacon from the Publishing House, which had been closed, came to the church and offered to help answer calls. In between calls the staff conferred about ways to respond to the needs of our church members.

One of the calls I received came from a young teenager, a teen who really hadn’t been on my radar until that day. She was crying as she said, “Pastor Ken, I was wondering if we could gather at church tonight and worship?”

I knew immediately that I needed to listen to her. I asked, “What time do you think we should gather and what do you think we should do?”

She said, “Seven would be a good time for worship. I think we simply need to be together and we could sing some hymns and read from the Psalms and maybe we could write prayers and bring them to the chancel.” I asked her to call the other youth and tell them that we would be gathering for worship at 7 PM.

I went into the outer office and called all the staff together and said, “We are going to gather for worship at 7 PM because we need to be together. We will sing some hymns and read from the Psalms and we need 3 by 5 cards so we write prayers and bring them to the chancel. Let’s get the word out. And by the way, this great idea was not mine but one of our teenagers who is very wise for her age.”

Because this young woman used the gift God had given her, we did gather and we could not seat all the people who showed up that night. Dozens of people stood around the walls. For a number of our folks this was a night of spiritual transformation and renewal. For all of us it was a night of healing and hope. Everyone has gifts of ministry and all are important to the vitality and unity of the body of Christ.

We need to admit that we have diverse ways of looking at the world. We are not all like-minded nor are we called to be. We are called to love one another and sometimes our diverse points of view make that more challenging. But as Christ followers we are always up for a challenge.

The first Disciple 1 Bible Study I taught was an interesting group. Disciple Bible Study is an overview of the entire Bible and it spans 34 weeks and requires a commitment of time and preparation. It also requires a covenant of the members to be present, to pray for one another and to respect one another’s opinions.

There were two people in that class who were as different as night and day. George was a single older adult. He had only been at the church about 6 months, having moved from Texas. He had warm heart, a big smile and a very, very conservative, evangelical view of the world. Nell was an older widow who was active in serving the poor and in other aspects of social justice. She had huge heart and a very, very liberal, activist view of the world.

On the second week of the Study we were focusing on the creation stories from Genesis. Nell was sitting next to George that night, and about 30 minutes into the class Nell said, “I don’t know why we are spending so much time on these stories; everyone knows they are myths.”

George’s face turned a deep red color not normally seen in nature and I think he stopped breathing for a few seconds. Then he turned toward Nell and said, “I beg your pardon.” I took a deep breath and shot up a prayer that said, “Dear God, I am going to need some help with these two.” I explained that we were going to read these stories and ask what they told us about God, about ourselves, and about our relationship with God and we are going to respect each other’s point of view.

Each week Nell and George set next to each other. There were more disagreements but things seem to be less heated. One night George came in my office and asked me to pray for him. He was scheduled for an arteriogram that week and he had some heart problems. Knowing that he lived alone, I asked if he needed me or someone to drive him to the hospital for the tests. “No,” he said, “Nell is taking me.” Then he winked at me.  Unbeknownst to me and the rest of the class, these two had become good friends. We may not always agree with one another but we will still love one another.


Diversity is a gift from God and we celebrate this gift knowing that it is in diversity that we find strength and unity to live as followers of Jesus Christ. During the next few weeks, let’s agree to reflect on the diversity of the church and the community. Let’s ask God to help us discern the unique gifts of ministry we have been given. And let us find some quiet moments to celebrate the gift of diversity.

 

Sermon transcript for September 22, 2013

Finding Balm in Gilead
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Belmont UMC—September 22, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

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As most of you know I have returned from a one month study and renewal leave. One of our bishops suggested the standard of clergy taking a renewal leave once every four years so after 40 years it seemed like time to do that. I want to thank you for that time. I want to thank the Staff Parish Relations Committee at Belmont for its continued accountability for staff self-care. I want to thank our staff who may have had extra work to do during my absence. Many of you prayed for me during that time away and I was blessed to know. And then others of you probably did not notice that I had been away. I love you anyway.

Many of you asked me how my time away was and how I spent it. I read a lot and began a personal writing project. I organized the garage, painted the bathrooms and did some yard work. I went for long meditative walks and rekindled some atrophied spiritual practices. I sat on a beach and stared at the ocean for many hours one week and I visited the mountains for a few days. Both of these places remind me of the vastness of God’s mercy and grace. Once in awhile I got a glimpse of what real Sabbath means. And I’m glad to be back with you.

I chose today’s text and sermon title before I left for this month-long leave. Somehow the words of this lament spoke to me then. Maybe there would be time to find renewed sources of hope and healing during my time away.

Maybe I would find balm in Gilead. Balm was an aromatic ointment that was thought to have medicinal qualities; it is mentioned in several places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here it is a metaphor for healing. Gilead was a real place north of the Dead Sea and a little east of the Jordan River. David took  refuge there when he was being hunted down by his enemy, his own son, Absalom. Gilead is a place of refuge, a retreat from the threats and hardships of life. The lament is, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”

I had forgotten what a downer this passage from Jeremiah is. Jeremiah is not known for his sense of humor; he is often called the weeping prophet, and his prophesies gave birth to a word, ‘jeremiad,” which means a long complaint or lamentation. Jeremiah, like the other prophets spoke the truth to power but they also spoke truth to weakness and suffering. Speaking the truth is never the pathway to popularity. Jeremiah and the other prophets suffered the consequences of their words. They were mocked, held in contempt and isolated.

These words from Jeremiah were spoken at a time when the people of Israel had lost their way and had lost sight of who God had called them to be. When Jeremiah was young, Josiah was king of the land of Israel. Israel’s perpetual enemy, Assyria, waned in power and left Israel alone. Josiah had rebuilt the temple and launched religious reform. He removed the shrines of Assyrian deities from the countryside and moved the center of worship and religious back to the temple. But Josiah was killed in battle and Jehoiakim became king. Jehoiakim was apathetic toward religious reform. The words of this lament were written at a time of spiritual and moral crisis. It was a time of great woundedness of spirit.

We are reminded that, “Every generation can hear the lament of Jeremiah with new ears, because demoralization and suffering span the centuries and the cultures.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, p. 74, Stephen Breck Reid) And after weeks of tragic news, genocide in Syria, more senseless gun violence in our nation’s capital, and floods in Mexico and Colorado, and more unnecessary gridlock in Washington, we may have arrived here this morning and wondered, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”

The rhetorical questions and laments of this passage seem to imply a negative answer. Is there no balm in Gilead? No balm? So we must remember that these words are given to us as though they are coming directly from God. Jeremiah is not weeping. God is weeping. God is weeping for the hurt of God’s people. It is God who is heart sick. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt. I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” (v. 21)

There is great hope in this God who cares so deeply for God’s people, for us. If we can find a way to this God of mercy and grace, then we can find healing. We can find balm in Gilead.

I enjoyed reading the novel, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr, and there is a wonderful British film of this novel. So if you’re not a reader, you might like the movie version. The main character, Tom Birkin, is a veteran of the Great War and he has returned with Post Traumatic Stress (what was then called “shell shocked”). His marriage has failed and he’s a broken man. He comes to a remote Yorkshire village to restore a medieval wall painting in tiny parish church. His arrival is dismal. It is raining. No one comes to meet him at the train. The parish rector is hostile toward him because he fears that the restored painting will be a distraction for his already inattentive congregation.

During the weeks that Tom works on the painting there are two local children who keep him company, but his most constant companions are the nightmares and the dead artist who painted the judgment scene he is restoring.

Gradually, the painting comes to life and Tom’s bitterness and fears begin to diminish. As he spends his days with the image of Jesus at the heart of the painting, Tom begins to see others in the village with new compassion. His heart is filled with love for the people in the village:  the children who visit him as he works, a young girl in the village who is dying of tuberculosis, the bereaved family of a soldier killed in France, a young man tormented by his secret homosexuality, and Alice, the rector’s lonely wife.


As he uncovers the image of Christ, revealing a forgotten beauty in the small church, Tom finds restoration and healing of his soul. In face of God’s great compassion his heart is transformed to the point that he is able to deal compassionately even with those who are the most unsympathetic. ( see also: Weavings, XVIII: 3, pp. 11-12)

I did not choose this text because I felt wounded before I went on leave, at least not that I was aware of. One of the books I read in preparation for leave-taking suggested that one often discovers painful realities about oneself and hidden wounds during time of solitude and retreat. Frankly, I found that disconcerting. But I did sense a deep longing for places of solitude, quiet places where I could make space for God. And don’t we all long for those places. And don’t we all hope to find the healing balm of God’s grace in those places?

These words of Henri Nouwen continue to teach me and guide me, “In solitude we can listen to the voice of him who spoke to us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It’s there we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received.” (Out of Solitude p. 22)

When I was a boy we went to a small rural church that began every worship service, singing these simple words, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” Over the years I have heard in my mind the sweet, tinny voices of older women in that church singing those words and found comfort in knowing that healing and wholeness do not rest with me, but with our God and our God’s wide mercy and rich grace.

We find balm in Gilead when we allow space for this God who loves us so very much and who longs for us and who even weeps for us and with us when we have lost direction, when we have become distracted from whom God called us to be, or we are simply overwhelmed by much of the harsh realities we face each day.

And so we are not without hope in this world. And there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.

   

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