Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Isaiah 40: 1-11)
The reality we need to acknowledge: Healing brings wholeness.
So first, a quick recap: Rebecca and I are preaching a sermon series, “Let’s Get Real,” where we are getting real with you about four things we need to do as a congregation in order to move forward. Those four things are: lament, healing, celebration, and transformation. Last week we got real about lament. I hope you got a chance to watch or read the sermon – if you didn’t, I highly encourage you to check it out at our website. Before we get to today’s sermon, though, I want to take a second to mention two things about last week.
First, Rebecca and I both want to say a heartfelt “thank you.” Thank you for “going there” with us last week. Thank you for your emails, texts, and conversations since. I think both of us were a little nervous stepping into the proverbial pulpit last Sunday because we knew what “getting real” about lament meant. It meant openly acknowledging the elephant in the room, tapping into what for many of us is a deep, deep grief. It meant opening the door for you to tap into other griefs we know nothing about. It meant preaching a message that might not resonate with everyone, because they’ve already worked through their lament. And it meant the two of us standing up here and making ourselves vulnerable, acknowledging our own struggles. As you did yours, evident in these dozens of written laments that you offered up. Rebecca and I read through each and everyone of these. So thank you. Thank you for going with us on the journey.
And then second, Rebecca and I recognize that this process of lament, healing, celebration and transformation is not something that everyone fully experiences simultaneously – and certainly not in a seven-day preaching cycle. Two weeks from today we’ll be talking about transformation. That does not mean everyone will fully be in that transformative moment come October 8th. Some of you are already there. Some of you will take a little more time to get there. And that’s okay. Whatever your unique situation is, we hope you can locate yourself somewhere in the holy work of those four steps and move forward at whatever pace is right for you. If you need a little longer for lament, that’s fine. If healing is going to take some time, that’s fine. If living into the celebration or transformation comes in fits and spurts, that’s okay. We’re all on this journey together, even if we’re at different stops on the trip. We’re still all on the journey together.
And so with that, we turn this morning to healing. Which can mean something very practical – “to make free from injury or disease,” according to Webster’s; as well as something more cosmic – “to make whole, to restore” – also from Webster’s. Healing happens, obviously, when something has been broken, out of sorts, needs to be fixed. But here’s the thing: before healing can occur, you have to know something is broken, right? A wound does not heal until it’s been recognized and tended to. The same is true with the heart. You have to recognize the brokenness before the healing can begin.
I remember a time when I first recognized something in my life that had been out of sorts and needed healing. It was on a family trip at the beach, of all places; let’s say thirteen years ago. It had rained the first few days we were there, but now the sun was out and the place was packed. We carved out a few square feet of sand for our two folding chairs to mark our place. Although truth be told, we wouldn’t be doing much sitting there, because the majority of the Lindsleys would be out in the water, out in the waves. I’ve always loved the body surfing/boogie-boarding thing, and I’m proud to have passed that on to our sons.
Although it’s a whole different experience as a parent, right? I have to shelve my own desire to plunge headfirst into oncoming waves in order to keep a vigilant eye on our boys and make sure they’re safe. And “safe” at the beach is a tricky thing – that huge wave doesn’t materialize until it’s right on you, all the undercurrents and rip currents, and unforeseen marine life that I’ve had personal experience with.
And it’s made even more difficult by the fact that our two sons at that age experienced the beach in very different ways. Our oldest shared my tendency to throw himself into something with reckless abandon. So at the beach he says to me, Dad, I want to go out to the big waves. I say, We can’t, son, the lifeguard says there are rip currents out there. He responds with, What does he know, he’s sitting back there in his lifeguard chair! And so it went. At the beach, our older son lived to bodysurf the big waves and loved it even more when they rocked his world.
Very different story with our younger son. He may have wanted to follow Dad and big brother out into the surf, but for him, the threat that posed overrode any potential thrill. Now keep in mind, this is the kid who’s now a freshman at UNC-Wilmington and is considering surfing lessons. But at the time, this was not his thing. Still, he wasn’t going to sit up in the beach chair all day. It’s the beach, after all. So he lingered a few feet into the surf, feet planted firmly in the sand, the last gasp of waves lapping at his ankles and maybe his knees. He knew his limits at five years of age and was not about to exceed them.
So there I was, the dutiful Dad, standing in the middle of the two. One eye on Older, way out there tossing and turning in the waves; the other on Younger, way over here at surf’s edge. Stuck there, trying to be what I needed to be for both of them.
And standing there in the middle one morning, it hit me: being a Dad at the beach is a lot like pastoring a church. Because some folks are like my older son, feeling the urge to plunge head-first into the waves of change. Why delay the inevitable, they say. Change is coming, whether we like it or not. Might as well catch the wave than have it bowl us over. Others, like my younger son, view change as something to be afraid of. They prefer wave-less water. So they wade in the surf but only to a point – or they remain seated in their beach chair altogether, refusing to engage the change at all.
Both are faithful followers of Christ. Both are children of God. They just do things differently. And there is the pastor in the middle of it all – standing in the surf, calling out to one group of folks to come back, not so fast, wait up for everyone else; while calling out to others: come on in, it’s not so bad, you’ll be alright.
At that time, I was a decade-plus into ministry; and I had felt that constant tug as a pastor, that nearly impossible balancing act; but I had never fully acknowledged it or the effect it was having on me. Never fully understood the weight I placed on myself to try and carry all that, be all things to all people; never realized the stress it was causing, the pain it left me with. Until that moment with my boys on a sunny day at the beach.
And that, for me, is when the healing began.
In our scripture today that Julia read earlier, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to God’s people at a critical moment in their storied existence. And he’s speaking with a voice so very different from the one that had been voiced up to that point. The contrast is impossible to miss. For the first 39 chapters of this book, Isaiah is prophesying to a nation on the brink. Over and over again he warns them, pleads with them to repent, to turn back to God, or bad things are going to happen. Judgment is coming. And looking back on it in hindsight, we know that’s exactly what happened: 587 BCE, the Babylonian army descends on the city of Jerusalem – a city God’s people had forever thought was untouchable – and burns it to the ground, carting off nearly all of the Israelite nation to live in captivity for over a generation. Talk about lament.
And after 39 chapters of doom and gloom, the prophet had every reason in the remaining 26 to say every permutation possible of “I told you so!” And yet here in chapter 40, with the very first word of the very first verse, he strikes a decidedly different tone:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
Comfort. Very different from what came before, is it not?
Isaiah continues: In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord. It’s a lovely thought, albeit a preposterous one; as roads are near impossible to build in the desert, rough terrain and immovable rock forever in the way. But here, the prophet proclaims; it is going to happen. In fact, it is already happening.
The people respond by giving voice to all of their loss, saying: The grass withers, the flower fades, surely the people are grass. Lament. The prophet acknowledges their grief, but then he hints at something more: Yes, he says, grass withers; yes, flowers fade. But the word of our God? That lasts forever.”
There comes a time in our grief, in our lament, when healing begins. It is different for different people, and for some it takes longer than others. It is not an on/off switch. It is more like a tipping of the scales, a gradual displacement, like a topsy-turvy wave transitioning to a gentle lap on the shore.
But let’s get real – it’s not like the source of our grief and lament magically disappears in that. It’s still there – in a sense, it always will be. The difference is that the grief and lament no longer have a hold on us like they once did. We are no longer defined by what has been. We are now ready to lean into what is becoming.
And so on this Sunday, the second in our “Let’s Get Real” sermon series, we come to the reality we need to acknowledge in order to move forward. You’ll recall that last Sunday, our Sunday on lament, the reality we needed to acknowledge was that there is no going back to the way they used to be. Today, the reality we need to acknowledge in order to move forward is this: healing brings wholeness. Healing brings wholeness. It may take time, it will involve a little work, but healing brings wholeness.
And here’s how I choose to understand that.
In my seminary preaching class, I remember our professor telling us that as preachers we should preach out of our scars and not out our wounds. It took me a while to understand what that meant. No one wants a preacher who uses the pulpit as their personal therapy platform – preaching out of their wounds. Nor do they want them standing in the pulpit pretending they’ve never had a problem in their life – that’s not helpful, either. Preaching out of one’s scars is a way of embracing an authentic humanity that, my professor would say, makes for the best sermon of all.
Now I have found that advice to be very helpful in writing sermons, but I think it’s even better advice when it comes to how we live our lives. Because to be forever held captive by the wounds that cut deep is not a healthy way to live – for us or for those around us. Nor is it a sign of wholeness to pretend as if we have no wounds at all or that we’re not affected by them, thinking erroneously that strength comes from the projection of stoic perfectionism and our laments are best tended to by not engaging them at all. Healing brings wholeness when we live not of our wounds, but our scars.
Last week, in her Prayers of the People, Rebecca provided room for us to write our prayers of lament and bring them forward during the Offering. As I mentioned before, you blew us away with your prayers, and they’ve made their way onto the colored ribbon now woven into our “Prepare The Way” banner hanging from our table. We’re going to do the same thing in our Prayers of the People today, and just so you have a heads-up, the question Rebecca will be asking you to reflect on is this: How have you experienced healing? Better yet, how have you experienced God’s healing? Be thinking about that leading up to our prayer; and when the time comes, thank you for writing what is on your heart.
And as you prepare to do that, beloved, hear this: live out of your scars, not your wounds. Live out of your scars because you have them, as we all do. Live out of your scars because you are a more authentic human being and child of God when you do. Live out of your scars because wounds will always leave them and we carry those scars forever – not tying us down and trapping us in a painful past, but reminding us of where we have come from as we figure out where we are going, as we covenant to move into our collective future together.
Because I’m going to let you in on a little secret, friends: our future is bright. There is much to celebrate. We’ll dive into that next week.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.