Deliver Us From Evil

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February 3 2019

    Words, words, words!  We are bombarded with words–from brief and clever tweets of 140 characters to rambling blogs posted by anybody who owns a computer and is connected to the internet.  We carry our smart phones  and receive emails 24/7.  We get phone messages wherever we are: on the golf course, in the grocery store,  in the car.  Text messages come to us in the movie theater and even in church!  
    Words, words  words!   And it’s not enough to watch the news on CNN.  Simultaneously,  underneath the telecast, a ticker runs across the screen informing us of other late-breaking developments.   
    But no matter how many words we are immersed in, there are moments in our lives when words are not adequate. 
    A friend loses  her mother unexpectedly, a couple we love are splitting up, our daughter has a miscarriage.  And we can’t seem to find the right words to say to express what we feel.
    So many disasters in the world simply take our breath away.  The earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Houston and Puerto Rico.  The never ending quagmire of Afghanistan– and we all wonder how it will turn out, and will the sacrifice of our soldiers have made any difference at the end of the day?  (2200 killed) 
    We become numb to the ceaseless violence here in this country and abroad.    And we don’t know how to interpret all this to our children, or even ourselves.  So much needless pain in the world.     
    We canvass our minds to find the right  words to make sense of all of this.    But no matter how hard we try, sometimes the words  stubbornly refuse to rise to the tips of our tongues.  
    They especially escape us when we are facing the evils of pain, injustice, and brokenness in any form. Jesus knew  these pains, all too well, walking and talking each day with broken humans beings in a tragic world.   It’s why, when Jesus is teaching us to pray, he includes the line: Deliver us from evil.
    Deliver us from evil. Deliver us from the times when there are no words.
    A few years ago, I faced a time when I could not find the words to deliver me from an awful situation.  After more than 30 years of successful ministry, after being pastor of the 10th largest Presbyterian Church in the United States, I found myself serving a church in Jackson, MS.   After 6 months there, I knew I should have never taken the call.    I tried everything in my power to make it work, but nothing did.  Finally, after serving in Jackson for two years, the Session  voted 11-7 to ask me to leave.  
    Some of you here have been fired and downsized, so you and I could give a clinic on the experience, couldn’t we?  I will give you the short version of the “Getting Fired Seminar.”  No matter how successful you have been in the past, no matter how robust is your self-esteem, getting fired makes you feel lower than a pregnant ant.  
    So here I was 56 years old, over the hill for a minister or for nearly any professional in this society.  Here I was without a job and without any prospects for a job.  Here I was 9 years away from blessed retirement.  (Why am I smiling when I say that?)  Here I was, having lived through an absolutely hellish ministry in an absolutely alien culture,  and feeling that I would never be  happy or fulfilled in the Christian ministry again.  
    And I, who make my living being a wordsmith, could find no words to help me.  So I found myself praying desperately to God, deliver me, deliver me, deliver me…
    To add to all that, I felt so terribly alone; I felt  I had let down my wife, who had agreed to go to Mississippi, despite profound, underscore profound reservations.   I had moments when I envisioned homelessness or selling paint at Home Depot   After all, what does an unemployed 56 year old minister do?    
    Deliver me, deliver me, deliver me….Dear God, give me the words to make sense of what is happening to me now.
    When we pray this prayer, what exactly are we seeking?  
    On one level, we are seeking the right words, that is to say, some comprehensive understanding that helps us make sense of a situation that is greater than we are.  
    But also, when we pray this prayer, we are harboring an unrealistic hope that the situation will change, that it will somehow come out right, right being what we define as right.  We are praying that we won’t have to go through the pain and travail that this situation is handing us. 
    It’s so human and so understandable for us to ask God to deliver us from pain, brokenness and evil.   To take away the cancer, end hunger, and stop wars and natural disasters.   To give us the answers.  To provide a solution.  
In our text from Romans 8, these beautiful words that the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome, he tells us that in the midst of our struggles, when we don’t know what to say, when we don’t pray as we ought, that the spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
    When we don’t know what to pray, when we pray for the wrong things, when we are so lost in  grief, depression, and anxiety, the spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
    The Spirit takes over and does the talking for us.
    This is what happened to me as I started searching for a new job.  I got my resume spiffed up, started applying for new jobs, and started getting some interest.  I spent a lot of time crafting a statement on why I was leaving Briarwood after only two years that I could share with pastor search committees.  After all, a search committee sees that you’ve only been in a job for two years, and they say, “Damaged goods.”  So I knew I needed a good explanation.  Here’s what I wrote, in part.  

Why I Resigned From Briarwood

    In recent weeks I have made an important decision.  It’s a decision that I have prayed about for the last nine months, and I believe it comes from the leading of the Holy Spirit.  It’s a decision that Barbara and I affirm and rejoice in.
    I have resigned as pastor from Briarwood Presbyterian Church as of July 1st.   I have done so because I believe that I am better suited for a different kind of ministry than I have here, and that Briarwood would be better served with a different pastor. 
    Why resign after only two years of ministry?  When I came to Briarwood, the Church Information Form indicated that the annual budget of the congregation was $560,000.  In the first month of my ministry, the church held its stewardship campaign, and the pledged amount was $384,000.  Briarwood was facing a $180,000 deficit from the outset of my ministry.   No one at Briarwood had analyzed the fact that the church had lost a number of significant givers (due to death and moves) over a two year period prior to my coming, and the loss of those gifts had not been replaced.  
    I came to Briarwood, in part,  because it was a multiple staff ministry.  A talented associate pastor was already here, and I looked forward to sharing the ministry with her.  When she left to take a new call in August, 2000, the Session determined that we could no longer afford an associate pastor.    That was disheartening and discouraging to me, and in my mind, changed the equation significantly.  I was now solo pastor of a church of 550 members, and with the financial short-fall still a reality, there would be no relief in sight for many years.
    Over time I began to realize how much I missed the larger church.  I recalled the joy I had in Portland (1000 members) and Lake Forest (2300 members).  I loved being there as pastor and head of staff, and I realized that my heart yearned to serve a larger, multiple staffed church.
     I came to understand, as well, that my style and approach did not fit all the people at Briarwood.   Although I’m from the South, Mississippi is part of the deep south; I have learned that it truly helps “to be from here.”   Many people who have come here from other places have shared with me their own difficulties “to fit in.”   My approach to people and issues has always been honest and straight-forward.   That approach was appreciated in other settings.  But here, it was seen by some as to direct and abrupt.  
    I have come to understand over time, that my leadership gifts and style do not match the needs of every congregation.  There is “the right chemistry between pastor and congregation.”   I have had that right chemistry in other churches.  I actually have had it with most of the congregation here, but not with everybody.    
    Given the fact that I was feeling led to seek a new call, and given the fact that “my style and approach did not fit everyone at Briarwood,” I thought it was time to resign and move on.  The ministry is not about me, but about Jesus Christ.   I feel grateful for my time at Briarwood, for in this time I have learned and grown much, and now, more than any time in my life, I am focused on what I do best, and filled with a deeper spiritual strength and serenity. 
    I believe the best years of my ministry are still ahead.  I await on tiptoe what God is calling me to next.
    Well, that’s a pretty nice spin, isn’t it?  Within a couple of months I had some good leads.  One of those was First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, DE, a robust congregation of 2000 members.  As I was being interviewd by the committee, they  they asked me about my ministry at Briarwood.  I was ready.  I had my polished statement memorized.  But I didn’t get more than two lines into it, when something brought me up short.  And I blurted out something which I am sure was just a tad shade short of babbling.  I said, “You know, I have been in the ministry for 32 years.  I think if you will check back with my references that people will tell you that I’ve always left churches stronger than I’ve found them.    But I came up against something at Briarwood that I couldn’t deal with.  I didn’t know how to deal with the problems of the church–a declining church in a changing neighborhood.  I couldn’t deal with the cultural expectations.   I was really unhappy there, and they were unhappy with me, and the Session voted to remove me as their pastor.  You need to know all that about me, and today, as I sit here, there’s part of me that feels like a failure, and a lot of me that has been broken in this process. 
    When I got back to my motel room that night, I thought to myself, “Well that little maudlin confession was a deal-breaker, if ever there was one.”
    But you know what?   It wasn’t.  They offered me the job.  THEY OFFERED ME THE JOB.  And when I asked the chairperson why they did that, he said, “It was your telling us about Briarwood, and we all agreed that we wanted a pastor who knew what it was like to be hurt by life, and has made it back, at least part of the way.”      
    On that night, before that committee, the Spirit spoke for me.
    What I learned that night is that we have the gift of God’s eternal word,  especially when we don’t have words ourselves. And the Spirit is always, always there breathing those words when we can’t cough them up ourselves.  
    Dear God, deliver us.  
    Deliver us from thinking that our ways are always the right ways, and that our answers are always the right answers.
    Deliver us from the despair of believing that we have reached a dead end in the road, and there is no way out.  
    Deliver us from believing that when something awful happens to us that it is beyond the reach of redemption.
    Deliver us from thinking that we are alone in our struggles.    
    This powerful scripture from Romans 8, which for my money is the greatest passage in the NT, reminds us that we always have with us the eternal Word, Jesus Christ, interceding   for us.   It is THAT  word that provides our deliverance.
For neither death nor life, (nor cancer nor war)
Nor rulers nor angels (nor who is in the White House at any given time) 
Nor thing present nor things to come (nor job less nor infertility nor grief)
Nor power nor height nor depth (not addiction or mental illness nor heart ache )
Nor anything in all creation
Can separate us from the love  God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

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