Lament, Advent, and Welcome: Erin Moorman

The NazToo blog welcomes the Advent season with a post from our own Erin Moorman. Erin is a district-licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene, currently co-pastoring a local house-church-plant and working full-time in the city to support her family of five. She collects fair-trade nativities from around the world, the newest of which is from Russia (but she promises it had no influence on the most recent elections whatsoever). She also continues to annoy her friends and family by celebrating her “40th Birthday Year” through the remainder of 2018.

A couple weeks ago I shared with some friends that I was having a hard time appreciating the “Name something you’re thankful for” Thanksgiving memes that had started going around in November.

I didn’t feel thankful.

It’s difficult to think of something to say “thank you” for when one thing after another, then after another, and then two more for good measure, pile up around you – weighing against you daily, weekly, for months, with no resolution in sight. Whether it’s finances or health or relationships, or all three at once and then some, at some point “I’m thankful for the basics” or “I’m thankful things aren’t worse” lose their luster when you just want things to feel normal again. And “I’m thankful I’m not as bad off as that person” just feels joyless, as well as selfish and heartless. No. Thanksgiving memes weren’t doing it for me.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving, we attended a Thanksgiving Service and the pastor preached from Philippians 3:1 and 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Near the beginning of the service the pastor led us in prayer specifically for those suffering in the midst of the California wildfires. During the message I found myself wondering, even if I were able to rejoice myself, how would that message be received by the people being devastated by the fires that very day? Would that message truly carry hope for them?

“Paul’s words carry weight because he wrote them in the midst of his own suffering.”

OK, sure. But it’s one thing to choose to rejoice myself. It’s another to tell others to rejoice in the midst of their suffering. In the midst of my thanksgiving-meme-induced slump, someone telling me to rejoice wasn’t actually encouraging. It brought no resolution for my needs or answers for my questions. It brought no hope that a resolution would come. It brought no peace to my anxiety. It was just words. Words which wanted to silence my lament so that others could enjoy their own moment of rejoicing.

OK. I realize that’s not completely fair. That, of course, is not their intent. But the result feels the same.

The pastor continued: “It’s not about rejoicing about all circumstances. It’s about rejoicing in all circumstances. We can rejoice in all circumstances because of the Lord! We rejoice in Him!”

Oh, that’s right. We rejoice In The Lord. It’s not about what I’m dealing with, but rather Who is with me.

So I wondered some more: Who is with me?

For me the answer was an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, holy loving Savior who knows my every need and can fix them if He wants to. But He sure is taking His time. If He’s not answering desperate prayers, what is it exactly that I’m rejoicing in Him for? The things He’s done in the past? Those are said and done. Should I be thankful for the works of the past? Yes. But the works of the past aren’t answers to prayers now. God isn’t just “was”, He “is”, and I need Him now. The people in California need Him now. The families at the border need Him now. The kids in cages and the vets on the street and the lonely outcasts contemplating suicide need Him now. Is “Rejoice in the Lord” more than just sentiment? Are we really OK with His presence feeling so distant?

The pastor then invited the congregation to share in a time of testimony. For anyone who has experienced testimony times, it wasn’t anything unusual. Short, long. Calm, emotional. Specific, general. Praises for recent days, praises for decades of faithfulness. But there was one testimony which stuck out to me.

An older gentleman stood and shared that he had preached at another church the previous week. He said the title of his message was “The God of Tears”, and that his message was about how God speaks the language of tears.

And my heart rejoiced.

The God Who is with me is the God who understands the language – the “wordless groans” – of tears. He (unlike so many people) is not afraid of lament. He knows that rejoicing and lamenting aren’t an “either/or” endeavor, but a “both/and” journey. That makes it more than sentiment. That makes God near.

Which made me think of Advent.

Advent holds a special place in my heart. Advent restored my joy at a time when Christmas began to lose all meaning for me. At some point in my early-adulthood, I’d found that all the usual Christmas preparation and expectations felt empty. If Christmas was really about Jesus, why was my church “business as usual” except for a Christmas sermon, a few Christmas carols, and a little added pageantry? If Christmas was really about Jesus, why was it a struggle to get my family to set aside time to read the Birth Narrative on Christmas morning? If Christmas was really about Jesus, why did our family’s schedule say that it was really about food, family and presents? I learned what I’d been shown, and what I’d been shown wasn’t doing it for me.

It didn’t feel like it was about Jesus.

It didn’t feel special.

It didn’t feel joyful.

“Great,” I thought. “I’m going to become one of those ‘Grinches’ people hate to be around” and figured it was probably time to claim the “Bah Humbug” hat someone had given to my mom as a joke several years before.

But through thoughtful prayer I was guided to learn more about the history and traditions surrounding Christmas, and in that learning I found Advent.

Advent is all about that near/far, rejoice/lament tension.

All of the incessant “Joy, Joy, JOY!” from Thanksgiving through December 25th had taken away my permission to lament. The “Christmas season” (as I then saw it) seemed to want to silence my lament so that others could enjoy their own moment of rejoicing. “Joy” was the expectation, and if I didn’t feel it, I was lesser. Not being “in the spirit of Christmas” felt almost “not Christian.” But the Christian walk is more than mere sentiment, and I must have felt that Christmas was, too.

Then Advent whispered, “God speaks the language of tears.”

And my heart rejoiced.

The God Who is with me is the God who recognizes that waiting is hard. He isn’t afraid of lament. Even though I may not feel joy, He (unlike so many people) is with me anyway. It was no longer mere sentiment. God was near.

And that made me think of Welcome.

In a service orchestrated to tell me I needed to feel joyful when I really didn’t, I felt out of place. The preacher’s testimony made me feel welcome.

In a season orchestrated to make me feel joyful even if I really didn’t, I felt out of place. Advent’s message made me feel welcome.

I felt welcomed by God and God’s people in my lament, and that gave me joy.

* * * * * * *

As I was listening to the sermon the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I realized that I’d had a sense of peace that week that hadn’t been there the week before. I had no “right” to the sense of peace I felt. Not much had changed in my circumstances. But through the words of that preacher’s testimony, God had spoken to my heart and restored my hope. In restoring my hope, He gave me a peace that “passes understanding.” In finding peace, I once again could rejoice. In being able to rejoice, I was better able to love those around me. God had given me the gift of joy by welcoming my lament.

Like all Israel, the shepherds in the fields had waited for God to fulfill His promises. God’s presence must have felt distant. I imagine that there were many times they struggled to have hope, peace, or joy; or to recognize God’s abounding love. And then one ordinary night, the angels spoke to them. The angels didn’t speak to everyone in the world. They didn’t even speak to everyone in Israel. They told a few lowly, poor, outcast shepherds. And those few rejoiced. They were welcomed by God to share his Word.

And it has been that way for Christ’s people, since. God speaks, and in speaking He welcomes and restores us. The Word sneaks up on us and speaks powerfully and deeply to our hearts in ways we can’t always explain – one faithful person at a time sharing with another.

And that word doesn’t just say “Rejoice!”

It says, “I understand your tears, and they are welcome.”

Welcoming suffering makes God near.

Welcoming those who suffer makes God nearer.

So what might be the message we have for the people in California? The families at the border? The kids in cages and the vets on the street and the lonely outcasts contemplating suicide? Maybe it’s that God understands their tears, and that both they and their tears are welcome by God and God’s people. But it has to be more than just sentiment. It has to cause us to be near to them, and allow them to be near to us.

The things God has done in the past are worthy of praise, but they are a sign-post telling us we can hope in the things to come. The Creator God continues to create. He continues to work. And He asks His people to work creatively with Him in the lives of those around us. For those who have lost everything, we share our abundance. For those seeking asylum, we share our security. For those who are separated, we give restoration. For those homeless and sick, we give stability and health. For those who feel ostracized and unwanted by those they know, we wrap our arms around them and share our love. One faithful church at a time sharing with others.

And we remember that true welcome does not require them to feel joy if they don’t. But maybe – just maybe – as they are welcomed with their tears and lament, the gift of joy will find them, too. For joy comes in the moment of a hope fulfilled.

* * * * * * *

As we wait this Advent, I pray that the never-endingly patient God of hope, peace, joy and love will be with us all, and give us hearts of welcome to those in need.

Grace in Place of Grace: Emily Greenhalge

November’s post comes to us from Louisiana, courtesy of NazToo-er Emily Greenhalge. Emily is Pastor of Discipleship at GracePointe Church of the Nazarene in Shreveport, LA, where she has served for six years.  She blogs intermittently at https://theostoria.wordpress.com/, and is the mother of three amazing kids.

“As Christ followers at GracePointe, we are called to bless others with the grace we have received so we can point them to Jesus.”

We say this together as a congregation every Sunday before the benediction.  I’ve heard it and said it so many times over the past seven years as a part of this body of believers that it’s become like blood that flows through my veins.  It comes to my mind every time I begin to feel self-righteous and “holier than thou.” It is the answer to my judgemental spirit and critical attitude. Luke 12:48 says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”  

Grace.  Undeserved favor of God.  A gift freely given. Something completely out of our hands, but something we’ve been called to give to others.  It’s by grace we have been saved, not by works so we have no reason to boast (Eph. 2:8). It is grace that goes before us and chases after us as we are pursued by a loving God.  It is grace that empowers us to love our enemies and forgive when we’ve been wronged. Grace. Marvelous grace.

So if that’s what we’re called to, why do we keep hearing stories of people who have been deeply wounded by the Church?  Growing up, it was the warring factions of the conservative holiness movement. My own family is still bleeding thirty years later from the legalistic battles of the 80s and 90s. In my high school years, it was the worship wars, where style was the focus and substance was an afterthought.  In college, it was the image of the institution that mattered most. Grace was given until someone got caught and it was made public. In the past few years, we’ve heard over and over about how our “big tent” only stretches so far, and often only in one direction. And in recent months, heartbreaking stories wearing the hashtag #churchtoo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual have shown again that grace is sometimes limited to those whose power and privilege we feel the need to protect.  

Fortunately, these aren’t the only stories we have in the Church. For each tragic failure, there are also beautiful tales of redemption. You see, I have a story that is still being written.  I was given the wise counsel as a young minister to “preach from your scars, not your wounds,” and I’ll admit my wounds are still healing. So rather than bleeding on the proverbial page, I’ll take this opportunity to write about the grace I’ve been receiving, and the grace I feel the Church is being called to give to those who are hurting and broken among us.

I have received such grace recently, at a time when I needed it more than words could express. When I was broken in a million pieces, my local church leaders surrounded me in prayer and support, and grieved with me as I grieved.  I was challenged to think through my feelings and decisions, and they ultimately trusted that God was leading me in the way I should go. My district leadership counseled my pastor to love me through my pain, and then brought my story to their leaders.  I arrived at our District Ministry Preparation weekend prepared to sit before the board of ministry and be told I wouldn’t be granted a license renewal. Instead, my letter to the district board of ministry was received with love and compassion, and my mentors laid hands on me and prayed for me.  At district assembly, one of those dear leaders asked how I was doing. When I told her what my fears had been and how the Church had loved me so well, she hugged me and I heard through my tears as she said, “Emily, the Church believes in you. I believe in you.” Grace in place of grace already given.  

In John’s Gospel, we read about the incarnation of Christ, how God became flesh and entered into our world as one of us, feeling our pain and knowing our struggles.  It’s one of my favorite passages, as I tried to convey to the teens I teach in Sunday school when we studied it.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:14-17)

The logos of God, God’s thoughts, God’s person, God’s very being, became flesh and (as the late Eugene Peterson paraphrased) “moved into the neighborhood.”  God’s holy Self became one with God’s creation, experiencing all of the joys and all of the sorrows, all of the victories, and all of the struggles of humanity. Before the Church was ever exhorted to weep together and rejoice together in Romans, Jesus showed us what it means to enter into the broken story of humankind and become a means of grace.  And it is by that grace that God calls us to do the same.

We are a broken people.  We are often a broken Church.  Even as I rejoice in the grace God has given me through the body of Christ, I grieve with brothers and sisters who have not experienced the Bride of Christ at her best, those who have been cast out in an attempt to protect the institution of the Church.  I weep with my friend whose story was not heard when her marriage ended. I mourn with the women who have been told they have no mentors in ministry. I’m wounded with those we have given up on instead of walking with in discipleship. And I suffer with those who have suffered abuse at the hands of those tasked with spiritual leadership. As we hear the stories of such failures of the Church in recent years, we cry out together in a lament of “Christ have mercy.” We grieve with those who are grieving, and it is with great hope that I say we learn from our past failures and grow into the opportunities God is giving us.  

Out of his fullness, we have all have received grace in place of grace already given.  May we give as freely as we’ve received.