Dr. Steve Lindsley and Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
(Psalm 130: 1-8)
The reality we need to acknowledge: There is no going back to the way things used to be.
There are lots of ways one can understand the expression “Let’s get real,” and believe me, a Google search is more than happy to share them all with you. The one I like best comes from a website selling, of all things, healthy, environmental-friendly products:
When you hear the phrase “get real”, it usually implies that it’s time to be honest, genuine, and authentic. To be true, and to do so out of love.
I think Rebecca would agree that’s pretty much what the two of us had in mind when we started planning for our fall theme, “Prepare The Way;” and in particular how it might play out in this sermon series. And what led us to settle on the phrase “Let’s Get Real” is that we feel called in this moment to be honest, genuine, and authentic with you, specifically when it comes to this church. This church we all love. This church that Rebecca and I have had the pleasure of serving for a combined fourteen years to date. As we said in the video you hopefully saw this week, we’ve gotten to know you and know this church over the years, you’ve gotten to know us; and because of our love for you and this church, we feel it’s time to “get real.” In fact, in many ways we feel we were called to be your pastors precisely for the message we’ll be sharing over the next four weeks.
And so you might be asking, Get real about what, Steve? Well, Rebecca and I are going to get real about four things our church needs to do; four steps we need to take in order to move into the future God has in store for us. Those four things are: lament, healing, celebration, and transformation. And truthfully, it’s about more than just our church. It’s about what each of us needs to do as individuals and children of God – how we deal with where we are and how we live into the new thing God is already doing.
And as we do this, we hope you know that everything we share in these sermons is absolutely shared in love – love for God, love for this church, and especially love for each and every one of you. We believe fervently in the future of this church; we are convinced God has wonderful things in store if we are willing, if all of us are willing, to be part of it. It will require embracing change. It will involve steadfastness and faith. And it will lead us to engage those four steps of lament, healing, celebration, and transformation.
And so today, we begin with lament. Which might seem like an odd place to begin, kind of a downer, why start there. But a wise colleague of mine put it best when, after explaining this sermon series to him, he said, “you know, Steve, basically what you and Rebecca are doing is telling the Easter story.” And he’s exactly right: our Easter story, our story of resurrection, does not begin on Sunday. It begins on Friday – and we all remember what happened on that Friday. Loss, grief, lament. That’s where our journey begins. Easter is coming; our redemption waiting in the wings. But not quite yet. Before we can truly move forward into all there is to gain, we first have to face all that has been lost.
We begin with the voice of the psalmist – a voice that, in 150 psalms, captures every human voice imaginable. Thanksgiving, praise, joy – it’s all there. As is the voice of lament – the voice that comes when something’s been lost, when something is not as it once was; and there is deep grief in that. In our passage today the Psalmist cries out to God, I wait for the Lord; my soul waits. And immediately we sense that this is not some ordinary waiting, like waiting in line at the grocery store or waiting for the traffic light to change. No, this is a deeper waiting; a longing, even. We’re not told what’s being waited on specifically or how long it will last, but perhaps that’s the Psalmist’s intent: so every one can hear these words as our own and ask, what kind of lament must be experienced in order to elicit a waiting soul?
The one thing we are told about the waiting is how it feels: More than those who watch for the morning, they say. And then once again, More than those who watch for the morning. Did you notice the repetition? The Psalmist wants to be abundantly clear with us how this waiting feels. You ever been awake during that 3-6am time frame, worrying about something, unable to sleep? That is what’s described here. It’s always worse at night, isn’t it? The world is dark and hushed; the loneliness, acute. You long for the first light of dawn, because even though the source of your struggle will still be there, somehow daylight takes the edge off it a bit. But you can’t make the planet spin any faster, you can’t make the sun rise any sooner. So you wait; you wait more than those who watch for the morning.
Waiting. Loss. Lament. We know what those things are like, don’t we?
We’ve all experienced loss over the last three plus years and we each experience it differently. Some days, it feels like the bereavement of the pandemic is still very much with us.
Elizabeth Jennings, a poet, writes,
“Time does not heal,
It makes a half-stitched scar
That can be broken and you feel
Grief as total as in its first hour.”
Loss leaves a lasting scar and when it’s not acknowledged it cycles in an unhealthy pattern around and around and around. It affects our relationships, our hopes for the future, our energy, mental health, our hobbies, the community we belong to, and even the risks we might otherwise be willing to take.
Allan Hugh Cole Jr., the author of Good Mourning, if you use the QR code in the pew or bulletin, you’re find his book there, writes about three terms associated with our experience of loss: bereavement, grief, and mourning. Bereavement as he writes,
“refers to the fact that one has experienced a significant loss.”
Someone who is bereaved
lives with the absence of something or someone they loved and valued.
A true, heartfelt, painful loss that disrupts our daily routines
and shifts the world we once knew.
Sound familiar? The world is not what it used to be and church is not what it used to be. And so Steve and I want to name that loss with you, not to bring more pain to ourselves, but to let you know that we are aware of these losses, of your grief, of even our own grief that sits with you everyday. And we want to name it so we as a community might begin to take healthy steps forward.
While we’ve accepted it, it often feels empty in this space on a Sunday. It’s not as full of a sanctuary that maybe it once was and that brings a sense of sorrow and pang to our memories when we think about the days where nearly every seat was full in this holy space. There has been a loss of membership. We can get real here and acknowledge not everyone who was attending our church before the pandemic has come back. While Steve, your Session, and I have heard from some of those people, there are a lot of folks who did not reach out or answer our inquiries. That hurts all of us and we miss those people, our friendships, and the gifts they gave to this community.
Because of those two losses, sometimes it feels like our vibrant community has faded when we gather together. Maybe it doesn’t feel the same. I can’t count the number of you who have asked Steve and I, “where is everyone? Where are the programs and the activity? Where’s the energy? This isn’t Trinity. Something is not right here.”
I remember the first Weekday School Fall Festival Amy hosted in 2021, I ran into one of you and while pointing to all the people and activity, you said with a sadness in your voice, “this is what Trinity used to be. Active, fresh, big, loud. What has happened?”
We’ve lost friendships that we thought would be lifelong. We’ve lost traditions and grieve how easy it was to run a program together. We’ve aged and grown tired. The active children at the March 2020 Children’s Worship are now in middle school and high school, busy and overwhelmed by life as a teenager. The active members who were once engaged in everything are tired and hoping another generation will take on the tasks. Your pastors who came with energy have run through waves of exhaustion and excitement and gratitude over the last three years.
And let’s get real, Church doesn’t mean what it used to for society and that makes all of us sad. Church used to be intentional, now it doesn’t fit into schedules. Church used to be how we start the week, now there are other, more tempting opportunities. Church used to be at the center of our week, nothing was planned around the 11am hour, now the Church has to schedule around the current culture and way of life. That’s not to blame or point fingers, it just is. It’s the world we now live in. And we acknowledge the Church, every church, has experienced loss.
YOU have experienced loss. We are bereaved people who live with an absence of something we once had and loved so much. And so with that, comes grief. Allan Hugh Cole Jr. describes grief as
“the various painful and complex psychological, emotional, physical,
spiritual, behavioral, and relational responses to loss that one endures.”
Grief is the reaction internally and externally to the loss. This is all natural and absolutely expected. Steve and I have sat with members in tears over the lack of attendance. We’ve heard angry words and seen anger embodied as well. We’ve had meetings after meetings of talking through shifting a program from this time to this time, from this activity to this activity hoping, praying for involvement and good numbers. We’ve had coffee with folks who are questioning their faith. And a lot of these conversations stem from fear. My goodness, we have heard the fear that comes with your grief!
Fear and lament go hand and hand. We fear the unknown, the future of Trinity, the security for our children, the financial burden of this building. The fear of we are not doing enough and not reaching out enough, a fear that we are not enough. And those are normal and absolutely expected because we know it’s grief. And we also know that that grief can move us forward if we allow it.
Let’s take a quick poll – show of hands of those who during and coming out of the pandemic heard, thought, or said these ten words:
I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.
A lot has certainly changed over the past couple of years; of that, there is no doubt. But let’s get real about something: that change was already happening long before the pandemic came along. For decades, the church has been undergoing seismic change; cultural trends of the American church losing its privileged status and captive audience in an increasingly secularized society, the loss of the cultural “sacredness” of Sunday morning. All of that started decades ago – and most of us barely noticed; a drip-drip kind of change. Complicated even more by the unholy union of American Christianity and political power, the seeds of what now has metastasized into Christian Nationalism, which has only served to exacerbate those trends. Beloved, the pandemic did not cause the loss we now lament; all it did was accelerate it, like a time warp. And in so doing, it made it obvious to us; no longer able to ignore.
And that’s why if all we do is just try to wait for things to “get back to normal,” a normal that has fundamentally and forever changed, we are relegating ourselves to walking in the Psalmist’s shoes – waiting for the Lord, waiting upon waiting, our very souls waiting, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
Which brings us to something we’re going to get real about in each of our four sermons: a reality we need to acknowledge in order to move forward. Today’s reality is printed in the bulletin under the sermon title: the reality we need to acknowledge is that there is no going back to the way things used to be. And for many of us, that is sad. Devastating, even. Rebecca has already recounted some ways our church has experienced this. Whatever our church is in the process of becoming, it will look different from what we’ve been used to. There is no going back to the way things used to be – for our church or for any church.
And that has led some of us to even wonder if the church universal is dying. Perhaps it’d be good to remind ourselves that this is not the first time the church has been run through the ringer. It’s not the first time the church has gone through seismic, fundamental change in its 2000-year history. Through all of that, the church has survived and even thrived – it’s not going anywhere. It’s just going to look different from what we’ve been used to. That is the source of our lament in this liminal season.
We’ve talked about the differences between bereavement and grief. Allan Hugh Cole Jr. mentions a third experience of loss -mourning, I would even go so far as to say lamenting. Mourning is the step of loss we all long to be in, especially since we know loss cycles around, like a marked scar just waiting to reopen. Cole describes mourning as
“the process by which a bereaved person gradually changes their relationship
to what has been lost,
so that an emotional investment in new relationships
and other aspects of life may occur.”
It’s living with the loss, taking the time that is needed to grieve what we valued and loved, And waiting for the morning, as the Psalmist writes, to discover healthy new ways to live faithfully, humbling, authentically. Mourning is the healthy process of getting through loss over time.
Cole says it beautifully,
“Mourning certainly involves continued grieving,
but the mourning process also involves
learning how to live with a lasting void created by what we have lost.”
We have to mourn what we have lost. We have to lament what we have lost. While it might take time, lots of energy, and certainly vulnerability and courage, Steve and I are asking you today to make intentional and emotional space where you sit with each other and with God while acknowledging the reality we’re in – there’s no going back to the way things used to be and we lament this.
But here’s the thing to remember about lament: it is a first, not last, step. We know what happened two days after Good Friday, do we not? And that’s why we acknowledge the reality in front of us; that we run toward, not away from, lament. Because lament is not where this ends.
A few months ago I was visiting with a wonderful church couple, two of our beloved patriarchs and matriarchs, recalling some time we spent together earlier, back when the lament was loud and clear and those ten aforementioned words were voiced more than once: I cannot wait for things to get back to normal.
But now this couple, who had seen it all, who loved the Trinity they remembered, were prepared to love the Trinity to come; were saying something different:
I guess “normal” is not coming back again.
Words of lament, yes. But also, in their own way, words of hope. That’s where lament leads us, if we let it take us there. Lament leads to hope. And hope leads to healing, which we’ll dive into next week. In the meantime, talk to us. Tell us what you think, what you feel. We want to hear from you. We love you. We are in this together.
And for that, in the name of 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.
 Allan Hugh Cole Jr, Good Mourning: Getting Through Your Grief (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), xv.
 Ibid., xvii.
 Cole, Good Mourning, xvii.
 Cole, Good Mourning, vxii.