Session 1d: Soul Care for the land in between by Chuck DeGroat

Well, it’s good to be with you. I think the name of my talk is something like, “The Land Between,” or Rene Padilla wrote a book years ago called “Mission Between the Times.”

This is a season of disorientation, a season of massive disorientation. I was pastoring during the days of 9/11. And I remember the Sunday after creating a lament service. In fact, we created space for folks to show up. Share their stories. And it was a powerful time. It was a painful time.

And it was a time that continued for a bit after that. Of course there were some things happening politically, and that created some conversations within the church. And I thought, I don’t think pastors are ever going to have to go through something quite like that again. And then 16 months ago happened and it’s nothing like it.

Well, that’s what I want to share with you this morning. We’ve been thrust back into the lived… you might say the lived psychological experience of the majority of characters we meet in scripture. An experience of disruption, disorientation, wilderness, exile. Not all of us, of course. Some of you know this kind of daily disruption, some of you live with diagnoses and disease. Maybe you’re a person of color. Maybe you have a disability. Maybe you’re an immigrant. Maybe you’ve lived in a cross-cultural context. You know a little bit about disorientation. You know a little bit about disruption. There are quite a few of us in here who haven’t experienced a disruption quite like what we’ve experienced over the last 16 months, right?

A global pandemic, a global plague. I was pretty comfortable before that. Maybe you were pretty comfortable too. Global plagues thankfully don’t come around very often, but then our lives and the lives of our parishioners came to a screeching halt. Our capacity to hug, to touch, to visit, to connect with our people went away. You had to become overnight videographers and platform builders. YouTube and Facebook live and these kinds of things. And we were cut off from the heart of pastoral ministry, the very heart of pastoral ministry, what Henri Nouwen calls the Ministry of Presence.

So can we be honest this morning about how exceptionally difficult the last 16 months has been? Andy and the folks with him have already invited you into some realities about our bodies. Bodily trauma. How the body keeps the score. I want to invite you into some of the emotions of this season. Walter Brueggemann wrote a book a number of years ago called the Psalms and the Life of Faith. Some of you know this book. This is one of the most important books for me in Christian spirituality that is out there, let alone Old Testament scholarship. He talked about Psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. And you might just say too, that there are narratives in scripture of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation, but here’s the reality. We’d like stories and experiences of orientation. I like it when my life is stable, when I feel centered, when God feels near. Many of us were pretty oriented prior to 16 months ago, but then the global pandemic hit.

I talked to a pastor, a veteran of 40 years of pastoral ministry. He said, over the course of 40 years in ministry, he served in tough times. He’s had to navigate through worship wars – any of you had to navigate churches through the worship wars? He’s had to deal with issues of women’s ordination and downturns in the economy that impacted parishioners. And he said, there’ve been painful stories of suicide and loss in his congregations and bouts of depression along the way.

But then he emailed me this. He said there was still a basic predictability. This is ministry. This is what I signed up for. Celebrations of life and baptism, holding space for grief at the end, I’m a pastor after all. He went on to say, in the last year, almost overnight, everything changed. Suddenly, it seemed the air and the surfaces carried disease, that our closest friends were threats to us. That coming together for worship could be fatal. I went into overdrive, checking in on others, caring for people, reshuffling staff responsibilities to facilitate online worship until June came and I hit a wall. I had my first massive panic attack in 40 years of ministry and I didn’t want to get out of bed.

A veteran of 40 years with a basic orientation to the predictable ups and downs of ministry. This lasted 16 months and it’s continuing on, isn’t it? This last 16 months wasn’t mere disruption. It was disorientation. It is disorientation.

I talked to another couple co-pastoring, a number of months ago. Over the course of 12 years in their co-pastoring experience, they’ve experienced steady growth in their church. And over the course of 12 years, they hadn’t taken a sabbatical. So it was time, right? They planned a sabbatical, got it approved by the elders and got a bit of a grant. They were going to get away to Europe for about a month. That was planned for the late summer. And, they couldn’t wait for this. And then some of the announcements about shutdowns and they thought to themselves (you maybe thought to yourself), this will be about six weeks.

Remember that? This would be about six weeks. In fact, this is really kind of nice. It’s kind of a six week pause. I have an excuse not to go to any of my meetings. I can reconnect with my family. We’re kind of bonding together in our home. Whatever it looked like for you. At least for them in that season co-pastoring with some young children, it was, this is okay until it wasn’t okay. Until the elders said, “Hey, it’s time to have some really hard conversations about the finances. Can we talk about the finances?”. “Hey, it’s time to talk about laying off some staff that might not be as critical to the mission”. “But they’re all critical to the mission, what are you saying?”

He wrote this to me. He says by July, I found myself speaking to a camera in my living room. Seeing no live faces, no emotion, no response. I wasn’t sure if anyone was listening. I’m not even sure my wife, my co-pastor was even listening anymore. And he said, I wasn’t even sure if I believed what I was saying about God’s goodness and hope. Disorientation.

It strikes me that the Bible begins in a garden, but by the third chapter, we’re neck deep in disorientation. Find God in that moment, moving towards Adam and Eve in the midst of their exile. In the midst of their disorientation hidden behind fig leaves saying, “Where are you? Where are you?”

God moves toward us in the midst of disorientation. But as you read scripture now from Genesis three, all the way to Revelation, chapter 20, it’s really a story of disorientation.

The nomadic life of the patriarchs, the experience of brutal oppression under Pharaoh, a rescue that leads to 40 years of wilderness wandering. Reorientation under the Davidic kingship, which lasts a couple of generations before division and disruption, and disobedience leads to exile again.

Hundreds of years of waiting and longing for redemption, a Messiah rejected by his own disciples who live lives of security to follow this Messiah in the way of the cross. Paul in and out of prison, tracked and discredited by Judaizers along the way. Peter crucified, John in exile at Patmos. Disorientation over and over again on the pages of scripture and you and I found ourselves in the lived experience of many of the characters, many of the stories of Scripture suddenly in a new way.

It strikes me that Genesis 1 and 2 and Revelation 21 and 22 are bookends to a story of disorientation.

And it helps me make sense of my story. In times like this. Maybe you can relate to the Psalmist in Psalm 1:37 by the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept. When we remembered Zion there on the poplars, we hung our harps for there our captors asked us for songs. Our tormentors demanded songs of joy. They said, sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

Sometimes it’s tough to sing songs of joy. Walter Brueggemann says this in that same book. He says, Israel unflinchingly saw and affirmed that life, as it comes, along with all its joys, is beset by hurt, betrayal, loneliness, disease, threat, anxiety, bewilderment, anger, hatred, and anguish.

And so I want to take the next few minutes and ask you to do a bit of inventory about your own experience. I want to name five emotions that maybe you have experienced in this last season.

I’m going to invite you to pay attention. Maybe one will resonate more than another. And then I’m going to give you a few minutes to (if you’re willing) courageously name what struck you as most significant of the five experiences that I’m about to name. Five lived experiences as I’ve talked to pastors and boy, have I talked to pastors.

I was a pastor for a long time. For the last eight years, I’ve been a seminary professor. In the last year and a half or two years, I’ve had more calls for counseling (I’m a therapist too) and 95% percent of them from pastors. Do you have room for me? I can’t do this. Let me tell you a little bit of what I’m hearing in these days, and let’s just see if you find yourself connecting to some of these lived experiences of pastors I’ve been talking to.

The first lived experience of disorientation is the experience of loss. You might also call it the experience of grief. A loss of connection to those you care for. A loss of common rhythms of life and worship. A loss of friends or loved ones. Losses of hopes you have for yourself or for your ministry in this next season. Listen to this one, I’ve heard this over and over. A loss of people who ghosted you. You, the pastor who did their baptisms. You who married them and suddenly the next week, they’re not there because they disagree with your mask policy. Loss. How have you experienced loss? What is the unnamed grief in your life?

There were a few things that happened over this last year and a half that I had to name as losses. One of them was my oldest daughter who was a sophomore at the time at Calvin University calling and saying, they’re sending us home. I could cry right now thinking about it.

It feels kind of small, but it was kind of a big deal. Her second year in college and she calls up and she says, dad, we were having so much fun. I was just beginning to find my rhythm. I was just beginning to connect with people. And now I’ve got to come home and I’m thinking, come home? I want you to come home. I don’t want to come home. Dad.

My youngest in high school who’s senior year is hijacked by COVID. My dad who calls at the very beginning and my dad, who’s 86 years old now. His wife is on her death bed and he says to me, I need you here. You need to come down to Florida. I said, dad, I can’t get away. I’m anxious. My family’s anxious. I’m not supposed to leave. I can’t right now. I’m going to call people to be with you, but I can’t be with you.

My step-mom Molly dies. Short while later, my stepdad, Bob, dies. I do my first ever Zoom funeral service. And at the Zoom funeral service, my mom can barely get out her words. She’s congested. Three days later, she’s diagnosed with COVID. She’s now a COVID long hauler recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s connected to COVID. Loss upon loss upon loss. How would you name your own grief? How would you name your own loss in this season?

What are the things that you would write down? What are the things that you would speak out loud if you are able to say, this is how I experienced a sense of loss? This is how I felt ghosted. This is how I felt unseen. This is how I experienced it when a loved one died. This is how I experienced it when I had to speak in front of a camera. How have you experienced loss? That’s number one.

Number two. And this may connect to what Andy talked about. Many of us have experienced a spike in anxiety that didn’t have a predictable end to it. In other words, we thought it was going to be six weeks, but then after a little while we heard it was going to go longer and longer and longer. And so our anxiety just grew. When is this going to end? How do I manage myself? Let alone the anxiety of my people, my elders, people calling me. People losing jobs, wondering what to do is spike in anxiety. And with that anxiety, a range of symptoms. People talking to me about panic and sleeplessness, reactivity and relationships. Coping mechanisms that ended up adding to the burden like overeating, and over drinking.

How have you experienced anxiety in this past season? And perhaps this has been your primary experience like it was for a young woman who graduated from seminary a few years ago. She was a star student. She was a solo pastor in a small congregation. She was the kind of student we’re proud to send off. Faithful pastor. Good to go, until global pandemic hits. Turns out, I didn’t talk about global pandemics in the pastoral care classes.

Her body starts responding in ways that scare her. She’d wake up in a panic. She might not even sleep at all. She’d paced the house at 3:00 AM wondering if she’d be homeless or jobless in the next few months. And then one glass of wine became two glasses of wine, became a bottle of wine every night.

At one point through some laughter even, she said, I found myself midday on a Wednesday afternoon, halfway through a bottle of wine, playing video games. And I’m like, something needs to change here.

What have you done with your anxiety? That’s when she finally called a therapist for help. Anxiety shows up in all kinds of ways. Hyper-vigilance, irritability, restlessness, lack of concentration, racing thoughts, unwanted thoughts or intrusive thoughts, fatigue, avoiding, reactivity, self-harm, addiction. How’s the anxiety shown up in your life in the last 16 months? How’s it showing up now?

Third, shame. Some of us experienced a surge of shame. Shame can sound like a question that reverberates in your soul. What’s wrong with me? Whispering at a quiet hum. Most of the time, what’s wrong with me? It comes with insecurity, inadequacy, powerlessness. Shame whispers to you, you’re not enough. You’re not up to this. You don’t have what it takes to handle something like this.

My friend, John is a pastor, not John Brown. My other friend, John is a pastor, not his real name. He began noticing shame in his own life, in his own body. John is an urban pastor. He worked in a setting where presence really matters. I mean, presence matters. But when you’re in an urban setting, presence really matters. People coming in and out, people with addictions, people living on the streets. He looks around and he starts to see some of his friends who he went to seminary with and Facebook live pops up, YouTube videos pop up, really good videography pops up and he starts to think to himself, “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I don’t know how to do this. And how do I do this for my people?”

So people start to call them. His friends start to call him. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t answer phone calls. He doesn’t answer text messages. At one point, he says to his good friend, he says, “All I do every day is my alarm goes up. Often I pull the covers over my head for another 15 minutes, another 30 minutes, another hour, another two hours. I just don’t know what to do. I don’t have what it takes.” How are you experiencing shame? Small church pastor who looks at the big church with all the resources. Wow, they’ve got three videographers on staff. That’s pretty nice. I’m setting up my own videos and running back to speak a sermon into my phone. And I’m even screwing that up. How do I do this? I don’t have what it takes. How have you experienced shame in this season? What are the messages you hear within that speak words of shame to you?

Fourth, loneliness. Have you experienced loneliness in this last year? I think we all long to be known, to be seen, to be loved. And yet there’s been so much distance disconnection. I seem to remember God saying something about it’s not good for human beings to be alone. And yet we found ourselves alone.

I remember seeing this with my students, by the way. I see my students on Zoom suddenly, right? In their apartments, over in the red bricks. One of the things at Western that we enjoy is students enjoyed life in the red bricks. They get to have relationships with one another. And if they have kids, their kids play with one another and they grill out with one another. But now they’re told you can’t interact with one another. You need to stay in your rooms. You’re kind of yelling at your friend across the commons. I begin to see some of the symptoms of loneliness. I began to ask them, how are you doing? I’m not doing well. Assignments come in late, if they come in at all. Loneliness. How are you doing with loneliness? Who are you connecting with? Have you experienced loneliness in this season of ministry? What has it been for you to preach to a camera?

What’s it feel when you’re not being checked in on? What’s it feel frankly, when you don’t get the quick affirmation from your congregation after a sermon, which kind of matters to some of us? How have you experienced loneliness?

And finally anger. The Psalmist give us permission to voice our anger, but more often than not, we don’t give ourselves permission to voice our anger. Why, Lord? The Psalmist cries out. How long, oh Lord? Why, Lord? Why, Lord? We were just about to launch the church. The couple was just about to walk the aisle. I was just finding the rhythm. Why, Lord? Why did our church have to divide over this? Why have we lost so many lives? Why has this become such a lonely vocation for me? I felt this, frankly, when my mom was diagnosed with COVID. Lost two step-parents, and then she’s diagnosed with COVID, but why Lord? What is going on?

Where are your “Why, Lords” showing up? How are your “How long oh, Lord’s” showing up in your life? How are you? Or are you? Or how are you expressing your anger to God in the midst of this season? Loss, anxiety, shame, loneliness, anger, and we can add any number of other emotions to this.

And what I want to end with is God invites you and me to be honest.  He invites us to be honest. God who sees us in our first experience of disorientation moves toward us. Where are you? With kindness? With curiosity. We cry out how long? Lord have mercy. How long? But God moves toward you. I see you. I know it’s really hard, but I’m always with you. Take heart.

So pay attention. God is inviting you to pay attention this morning. Pay attention to what you’ve experienced. What you’re experiencing right now. How you’re experiencing sadness, shame, loneliness, anxiety, disappointment, misunderstanding, lack of belonging, anger.

And meet the one who runs toward you, who pursues you with curiosity and with kindness and with compassion. Where are you? I see you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Here’s what I want to ask you to do. It’ll take just a little bit of courage. Is there a lived experience that I named that you connected with that you might be able to say out loud? Maybe that’s the only thing that you could do. Maybe you’ll say this is just too tough, too tender to speak into right now. I can’t say much more than I’m really, really angry. Can you take that next step to risk just being honest? And that means, by the way, when I go to pastors conferences, a lot of the times we’re in our head, we’re talking theoretically about these things. People experience anger in these seasons, right?

That’s a way of distancing. That’s very different than I’m experiencing some of that shame Chuck’s talking about. I just don’t feel like I have what it takes and I look around and frankly, I’m really envious that that church and that church and that church has it all figured out. And I don’t.

So can you take the risk to say, this is what I’m feeling? Of course, this a therapist telling you to say this, right? So it’s easy for me to say. I’m grateful for it in advance. May God be with you in this season.

Yeah. The Lord be with you. Thanks for listening.

(automated transcript)