‘Church – We do not serve a God whose story ends on a cross or in lament’

Rev. Heather Carlson tells us, “Faith-filled lament is…not about getting stuck or lost in our fear and anxiety. When we find it hard to believe, hard to make sense of the circumstances, hard to see what God could possibly be up to, that is when we become watchers. We permit the Holy Spirit to transform the anguish, not into despair, but into a fresh watching for God.”  Read through these rich words to the end for Heather’s own story of ‘fresh watching for God.’  Scripture: Luke 24:13–21a; 27-37 and Psalm 130 in Voices United, “Up From The Depths I Cry to God.”

It was May 1989. Fifteen United Church youth in grades 10-12 gathered in the dormitory of Augustana College, Camrose, AB. Joined by a handful of young adult leaders, it became an immersion into ice breaker games, singing, trust exercises, acronyms of UCW, ANW, M&P, and DWO. There were conversations with church leaders, prayer, too much junk food and too little sleep. And encouragement. Encouragement to invest in this church; to worship, oppose apartheid, implement work from the 1988 General Council, build a community of companions and discover our own song of faith.

It was my introduction to Alberta and Northwest (ANW) Conference. In the years since, I have worked alongside you in this Conference in youth ministries, reconciliation work, camps, communications, theme committees, and the strains and joys of congregational, presbytery and conference life.

As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened. Joined by a stranger on the way who asked them, “What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?”

O church, in this season, in our gathering, what are we discussing so intently as we walk along? Have we found words to share what matters most? Have we welcomed companions on the journey… even when they first appear as strangers?

What are you discussing so intensely as you walk along?

We had hoped, said the disciples on the road to Emmaus that Sunday 2000 years ago. We had hoped. We watched Jesus perform miracles, teach with authority, challenge oppression, heal sin & disease. We had followed him; learning the way he spoke, and ate, and prayed and loved. We had invested our time, our talent, our treasure, our reputations into his success. He had popularity with the people and favour with God.

But we watched him be handed over, condemned and crucified.
We had hoped Jesus was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel.

We had hoped.

Three small words that convey heavy hearts. After Good Friday – everything looks bleak. It isn’t simply any lament. It is the lament of a people whose God vision has unravelled, whose Saviour has been crucified. Who are unsure of the way forward because the future they thought was arriving, has shattered in a way that the pieces cannot be reassembled.

Sometimes we sing our song of lament loudly – declining attendance, aging leadership, closures of UCW’s, Sunday Schools and churches, reduction of staff, and priorities dictated by deficit budget projections. We lament that children living in poverty, the militarization of conflict, and racial injustice.

Sometimes our songs of lament are more muted – desperate prayers tucked into the cracks of a wailing wall, crucial conversations silenced because we are afraid our fellowship could not withstand the friction, aches of loneliness for companions that once laboured alongside us.

Sometimes we lament that we are lamenting. Because we are weary of it. It eats at our joy and our hope and our faith.

Jesus probes, What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?

The church stops short, paused in its meeting on a soccer field at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park, sadness written across our face. We pause to tell our stories of lament because lament can become a commitment to love one another by sharing the pain and fear and listening to the depths of our companions. It makes space to not be trite with one another.

To participate in lament is a gesture of humility – an admission that we do not have all the answers. That complexities and perplexities are not easily explained or solved. Lament does not come to those who are still claiming to be in charge and in control. For self-sufficiency will blur our vision and we will be unable to depend on God. Faithful lament is an invitation to let go of all notions that have obscured our eyes from seeing Jesus.

If we miss this step… if we are unwilling to pause….If we will not lament, we risk missing the transformative stranger on the road to Emmaus.

In Psalm 130 we sang “it is the nation mourning for its sin that God surely will redeem.” (Psalm 130 VU) O church, let us not miss this chance to acknowledge, lay down, repent, turn away from and lay at the foot of the cross those distorted hopes and dreams that blur our vision of the living Christ.

“Up from the depths I call to God, O listen, Lord, to me. O hear my voice in this distress this mire of misery. I wait for God with all my heart, my hope is in his word; and more than watchers for the dawn I’m longing for you, God.”

Psalm 130 instructs us to be watchful. To be surveillance agents who call the alert on the coming of dawn. The Psalm says to be those who long for the Lord…Those who have put their hope in God’s word….Those who will look for the movement of God…. Who will await the glimpses of God’s unfailing love, the outpouring of forgiveness and the cascade of God’s redemption.

Lament doesn’t conclude in the rehearsal of pain. Faith-filled lament is a promise not to wallow. It’s not about getting stuck or lost in our fear and anxiety. When we find it hard to believe, hard to make sense of the circumstances, hard to see what God could possibly be up to, that is when we become watchers. We permit the Holy Spirit to transform the anguish, not into despair, but into a fresh watching for God.

As they sat down to eat, he took the bread and blessed it. Then he broke it and gave it to them. Suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.

The surprising, amazing, wonderful good news is that just when the travellers thought all hope was lost, that Jesus was dead, their Messiah gone, they discover he is alive and present with them!

When the travellers do meet and begin to speak with Jesus, they discover he was there long before they even knew which way was up. As a God who comes a baby in the manger, like a Father who awaits the return of the prodigal, like a woman who searches for a lost coin, as a Saviour who dies for us before we know the cost.

This Messiah meets us on the road to Emmaus. Not dead, but alive. Not aloof but intimate. Not the Messiah we constructed for ourselves, but the one God sent to save us.

Jesus revealed himself that day to the travelling disciples through the scriptures and the breaking of bread. Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us? Their encounter is so transforming that they are compelled to not wait until morning to hit the road. “And within the hour they were on their way back to Jerusalem [where] the two from Emmaus told their story of how Jesus had appeared to them as they were walking along the road, and how they had recognized him…”

O church, we need our lament, both corporate and personal, to lead us to anticipation and watching for the living presence of Christ.

I want to end with a personal Emmaus story. I want you to know I have permission from my husband Jason to share this. We have a multi-generational agreement in our family that people referred to in sermon illustrations receive Dairy Queen!

I was ordained in 2001 – flying in under the radar as the first Alberta and Northwest Celebration of Ministry service without a conference meeting alongside. I was settled to Bonnyville Pastoral Charge. I served there for a little over eight years when, after returning from a maternity leave, I sensed God lift my call to ministry there.

Eventually, my husband and I settled on a move to Fort McMurray where his career in IT could expand and I could stay home with our two young children. The change was great for a lot of reasons – one of which was that it provided a great cover to hide the hope in me that had died.

I had hoped. I had hoped to serve the United Church in ministry my whole life.  But for a myriad of reasons whose details would not be edifying, that would take me too far over my time limit and arouse the ire of my theme committee companions, my God vision had unravelled. These reasons held all the pain and disconnection, and isolation and despair that I shared earlier that make up our laments.   I could no longer see a place for me in ministry… and then my husband and I could not see a place for us in the United Church… and for a period of time, no place in the church at all.

I dreaded each spring when I would have to file the papers to be retained on the Roll of United Church Ministers. I agonized each time about what God was calling me to do. As my youngest turned school age the questions grew heavier. What was the next faithful step? God seemed silent. If only God had a fax machine and I could get a clear answer on demand! (yes, I am that old… and sometimes a Luddite with technology).

My companions on the road to Emmaus became a women’s Wednesday morning Bible Study at Evergreen Community Christian Reformed Church; faithful women who became watchers with me. I remember the morning we were studying “Experiencing God” in John’s gospel and Jesus’ words leapt off the page and burned their way into my soul. “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep and they know me…my sheep listen to my voice” and I realized Jesus wanted to teach me his voice. He would do so. I could shelve the fax machine!

At that Bible study and as my own scripture study progressed, I began to trust I would hear and recognize Jesus. It started with phrases or words in scripture that felt like they were written in neon. My prayer deepened.

Then it was Christmas time 2013. On Boxing Day I was in the walk-in clinic with my son. As we sat waiting, I was reading Max Lucado’s book, Grace (2014). Suddenly, I was flooded with the grace of the Holy Spirit’s presence. In that moment I felt healing for some of the shame I wasn’t even aware I still carried from my time in ministry. I was struck at a deep level with the understanding that it was never about me, but God. Despite all the skill and evaluation paperwork that we prepare for our ministry formation process, my call to ministry wasn’t because I was qualified, but because Jesus was sufficient. Lament, let go.

That Sunday, on a visit to my home church where I’d become a candidate, my children and I were the only ones out of 100+ people not of retirement age. Where was everyone my age and younger? I began to wonder, “What would happen if these people prayed for their children, and their grandchildren, and the coworkers of their children and the schools of their neighbourhood, and their neighbours…” Not prayers to get this building filled, or make their budget, but listening and learning how to pray for God’s will to be done. Listening and learning to hear the voice of Jesus and follow his call. Was revival possible? Not because they were qualified, but because Jesus is alive and sufficient!

It seemed absurd. We were living in Fort McMurray (who already had a United Church minister), my husband was in line for a promotion, attending at Alliance Church where we were in the older cohort of the congregation… why was my heart getting warm thinking about coaching United Church seniors and others to pray?

The rest of the week continued to have time after time of other burning heart moments (some of us are harder to get through to!), and moments where I could feel resentments healed, and barriers get shed. By the time I arrived home, I knew I needed to tell my husband about these surprising encounters with Jesus.

I began tentatively… “I think I may be being called back into ministry. I think it may be in the United Church.”

To which he began to laugh… which was at first a bit shocking!

However, he quickly explained, “It’s been on my heart for several months that God was calling you back into ministry… and in the United Church. But I knew it was a painful topic so I told God I wouldn’t talk to you about it. This week while you’ve been away, God put it so heavily on my heart that I said I would talk about it with you… but only if God gave me an absolute, obvious, unmistakable sign. I think this was it!

And within the hour they were on their way back to Jerusalem. There they found the eleven disciples and the others who had gathered with them,  who said, “The Lord has really risen!

Church – we do not serve a God whose story ends on a cross or in lament. Let us be watchers, longing for the Lord, putting hope in God’s word for we have a living Messiah. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Heather Carlson is minister at Knox United Church in Drumheller, AB