The Season . . . Is The Reason Dr. Timothy McNeil, LMHC Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11

The Season Is The Reason

          By our very nature we are creatures who hunger for meaning and to make sense out of experience. Terrorists explode pressure cooker bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and immediately we want to know who did it and why. We now know the who and we await the why. A fertilizer factory explodes and decimates a small Texas town and we want to know how and why.

          Speaking of explosions, last Saturday evening Brenda and I were in Cherokee Sound in the Abacos for a brief weekend fishing trip. In the distance I could hear thunder. I borrowed a bicycle and rode down to the dock and took this picture of an approaching storm. We came back to the house, ate dinner, cleaned up the kitchen, and began to settle in for the evening. Our hosts were watching marathon re-runs of the Golden Girls which I took as a signal that God was calling me to go upstairs to gather a few thoughts about what to say for today. I knew the announcement that was going to be made. I was staring at a blank page on my I-Pad and my mind was as completely blank as the page was in front of me. And then the power went off. And I was wondering if this was what it was going to be like here on Sunday . . . blank minds and to add stunned faces and a feeling like all of the air leaving the building and the power going off.

          I want to apologize to any of you who are first time visitors because this is probably going to feel like you are attending someone else's family reunion and you must have stumbled in here by mistake. Last Sunday it was announced that Bill and his wife Becky, who have provided the pastoral leadership for this church, will be leaving after 5 years in June. No mention of where they are going and no mention of who is coming to replace him. With this comes a vague assurance that everything is going to be ok, it's a done deal, and trust the system. And so if you are visiting hang with me . . . eventually this might work.

          Since we are by nature creatures of meaning making, and we always try to make sense out of experience, we all want to know why. I've been a United Methodist all of my life. My Grandfather, P.T. Holloway, was a Methodist preacher and a member of the South Georgia Conference. When my grandfather served the church pastors didn't find out where they were going until the last day of annual conference. Pastors would have to go home and pack and be in their new assignment the following week. After 70 years the logistics haven't changed all that much, and the emotional dynamics are about the same.      

And so in this way it is frequently like a death or a divorce. The church can ask for it or the pastor can ask for it. If a pastor practices self-awareness he or she will always be asking whether or not they sense and feel they are the right fit in this place and at this time for the people they serve. When I was in my 5th year in Madison I once asked George Foster, a wise pastor who has long retired to the other shore, "George, when is it time to leave?" And he told me, "The year before you have to." Bill didn't have to and it probably wasn't the year before he had to. The church didn't ask for it and technically Bill didn't ask for it. When we left Hollywood Hills after being an apprentice associate for three years I asked for a move sensing it was time for me to lead my own congregation. When we left Madison and moved to Daytona and then when we left Daytona and moved to Palm Harbor both churches asked for us to stay and we asked to stay.

          Technically he didn't ask for it and I didn't ask for it but in a sense we did when we who are United Methodist Clergy accept the vows we take at the time or ordination. Ordained elders agree to itinerate. We agree that the Bishop and the District Superintendents have the authority to send us where they believe our gifts, talents, skills, and abilities may best be utilized.  And so in this sense the pastor is ultimately married to the conference."You've brought stability and helped facilitate healing and we need Bill over there and we think this one is the right fit for over here." There are times when they get it right and there are other times it is a mismatch. It is both matriarchal and patriarchal in the sense that in this day and age it seems strange to have to be a part of a system of arranged marriages. Most of us tend to push back against authorities when someone tells us, "We know what is best for you."

          As the John Mellencamp song goes, "I fight authority and authority always wins." We don't like hearing, "we know what's best for you." I remember being 12 years old and going to the Midway Drive In theatre in Jacksonville. I was in the back seat with my pajamas on and the movie was "Shenandoah," starring James Stewart." He played a widower who was raising 6 sons cast during The Civil War. The Confederate Army was calling for recruits and they came to Jimmy Stewart's farm. The recruiter said of his sons, "The Confederate Army needs your sons. And Jimmy Stewart said, "Where was the Army when we needed a spare (breast) around here?" My twelve year old mind was shocked at what I heard, especially since the word used was slang for breast.

          But some higher authority is always asking us to sacrifice our sons and daughters for a "higher cause," for God, or for the church, or for the good of the nation. I have always struggled with the story recorded in Genesis when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I know from a form critical perspective that the story represents the end of human sacrifices which were quite prevalent until around the 17th century BCE but I still don't like it. 'We were all horrified when an eight year old boy died at the bombing at the Boston Marathon and more so the Shady Hook massacre that claimed the innocent lives of 20 school children. However, the fact of the matter is that 70 other children were murdered by a parent that same week and every week since then by one or both parents and most of them are under 5 years of age. If it happened today either God or Abraham would be reported to DCF. At times it is the military and in other times it is corporations, Jimmy Stewart's protest is the protest of every parent. Why does this higher authority have the right to lay claim to our own flesh and blood?

          And so how do we make sense out of this? We are creatures who are always trying to make sense out of experience. One of the dangers we face is to reduce it all down to a cliché. Pain is the sign of weakness leaving the body. What doesn't kill you will make you stronger. God doesn't give you anything that you can't handle. God has a plan and a purpose. Everything happens for a reason. None of these commonly held beliefs are to be found in the Bible. I wish there was a way we could apply a vacuum to the language of Christian clichés and suck them all out of our vocabulary.

          I'd really like to tackle all of these but I'm only going to stick with one. Everything happens for a reason. I am fairly convinced we default to these clichés when we really don't know what else to say. I have learned that whenever I am in doubt as to what to say it is better to say nothing. It had only been about four or five months after I had this strong sense that I needed to finish my undergraduate career and prepare for the ministry when my Dad, Bob Peters who was to become my father-in-law, and I were mixing concrete and pouring a walkway between the back porch and the utility room. The day happened to be Good Friday when we were doing this chore and while digging and mixing and pouring Bob asked me, "Why do they call it Good Friday?" I'm guessing my Dad read the dumbfounded look on my face when he immediately said, "If you don't know the answer to that question then don't say anything." It was good advice.

          At times the most appropriate response we can make is silence. In other moments we don't really want answers we just want our cries of pain to be heard. When we are heard we feel cared for and comforted. On Wednesday evening we were entrusted to be the babysitters for Maya. This was Mom and Dad's first trip out in leaving their child while they went out to dinner. We had been warned "she's been fussy lately." For about three of the four hours Maya gave us a full demonstration in order to let us know that her lungs were working correctly. After checking for the obvious signs of distress, with a clean diaper and knowing she had been fed, I told her, "You just go right ahead and tell Papa all about it." She is such a smart girl because you know what? That is exactly what she did. We may say we want answers when what we really want is to be held in whatever anguish we happen to be experiencing.  Now I can honestly say I do know the answer to that question. It was named Good Friday centuries later. But when the nails were being pounded into his hands I can't imagine anybody that day thought it was good.

          In Genesis 50 Jacob has died in Egypt and Joseph has his father embalmed and asks Pharaoh if he can take his body back to Canaan to bury him. When Joseph's brothers hear of his arrival they are quaking in their boots, or sandals, or whatever they were quaking in. They hated their brother. He was clearly their father's favorite. His father had given him the Brook's Brothers coat of many colors. It was trimmed in leather and suede. They were first going to kill him, then they threw him in a well, then they pulled him out and sold him into slavery. Potiphar recognizes Joseph's abilities and puts him in charge of his household. Potiphar's wife early on had auditioned for "Desperate Housewives" and she tries to put the move on Joseph. Being the gentleman he was he spurned her advances. As a scorned woman she now claims he tried to rape her. Joseph is imprisoned, nearly executed, and gets labeled as a sexual predator and has to register on Pharaoh's data base. While he is in prison he enrolls in the University of Phoenix, takes on line courses, and studies to become a psychotherapist. Joseph learns how to interpret dreams which come in quite handy when he interpreted Pharaoh's dream of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows. "The seven fat cows means we are going to have a bull market and for the next seven years you need to invest in grain futures on the commodities market. After that there are going to be seven years when the market is going to look worse than the housing bubble burst and a famine is going to hit that will make the great depression look good." He had been thrown down into a well, down into slavery, and down into prison and had to reinvent himself three times. He was now the 2nd most powerful man in Egypt. Joseph's brothers were shaking in their sandals. And then Joseph puts a spin on all of this that requires most of us to take our heads off and shake them and then put it back on. "You meant it for evil but God meant it for good." I don't think Joseph could have come to that conclusion when he was in the bottom of the well or in solitary confinement in prison.

          Paul writes in Romans 7:15 about being conflicted. "The very thing I know I ought not do is what I end up doing. Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from the bonds of this affliction?" It is what I call the psychic crucifixion. The most vivid closest association I have with wretched is vomiting. It is the evoking of disgust. But it is only through this that we get to Romans 8:1 "Now therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." And further in Romans 8:28 "All things work for good for those who love God and who are called according to His purpose." If you find yourself in the belly of the whale just hold me and be with me in it. Life doesn't come with a fast forward button and we can't microwave our way through it.

          Does everything happen for a reason? Nobody can make that for us. Like Jesus, Joseph, Jonah, Paul, and you and me and Bill and Becky, we just have to hold those affirmations until we are ready to make them for ourselves. Let's just say it this way for now. Everything does happen in a season. A time to plant and a time to reap. A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time pitch our tent and a time to pack it up and move on.

          So what does it all mean? How do we make sense out of your time with us and our time with you? Harry Baas is a colleague in ministry who is now retired. I remember a story Harry told many years ago about returning to the Peeler Memorial UMC for a homecoming where he had served as the pastor years earlier. Many of the previous pastors had returned for the occasion and someone had put together a booklet outlining their achievements. Harry was somewhat stunned when he read the synopsis of his pastorate when some well meaning person wrote, "During Rev. Baa's pastorate the Pastor's Office was moved from the East Wing of the administrative building to the west wing."

          And so it's only natural for a pastor to wonder about the legacy and the footprint they leave in the life of a congregation. Did it matter? Was it worth it? It may be early to say this but I'm going to say it anyway. You are a gifted teacher. You have brought stability to this congregation. You have helped to facilitate healing. You have brought hope.

          A couple of years ago when you were trying to embed and work on a purpose statement you came up with two simple words. We Care. And although that may say something about us it says everything about you. When my father was dying in a nursing home in St. Augustine Bill and Becky showed up. If you were in the hospital here or in Jacksonville or Gainesville or Orlando Bill would be there. If there was a death Bill would be there. You have excelled as a teacher and at times a prophet and you could say anything to us you wanted to from that sacred desk because we know you have cared.

          Bill and Becky have loved and cared for us but we have loved and cared for them. Their son Jeremy is a captain of a ship half way around the world in Quadulan. We celebrated in the marriage of their daughter Beth and Keith in January. Their son Wesley is in the Marine Corp and Maggie and Callie are in San Diego. We pray for him every week. Callie is the most beautiful granddaughter I have ever seen . . . until our granddaughter Maya was born. Their family has become our family.

          Everything happens in the season. But the season is changing. Spring will soon be summer. Does everything happen for a reason? Maybe. Let's just not try to rush through it. When you tell me it all happens for a reason it feels like you are just trying to shush me. Hold me when I am hurting. Teach me to be silent when I do not know the answers.