Preaching Through Pain

I preached my grandfather’s funeral this past weekend. I was simultaneously saddened by the loss of my grandfather and relieved that his long battle with multiple ailments was over and that he is, to the best of my discernment, now with the Lord. I have been told multiple times that a preacher should not officiate the funeral of a close relative. While I realize why this is said now (this was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever faced), I believe that there was value in preaching in my own grief.

Please understand, the weekend was exhausting in ways I can’t even describe. An introvert by nature, facing a constant stream of people (even though many were my family) drained energy from me. On top of this exhaustion was that of both dealing with my altered sleep schedule for the trip (making the break from my nocturnal schedule my job entails) and the fact that this year I have faced the absolute worst case of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that I have ever encountered. This entire winter has been a struggle of just mustering up enough energy to get by. I have been so physically, mentally, and emotionally drained that I haven’t even been able to write.

You heard me… the writer hasn’t been able to write. It has taken several days just to finish this blog post. It makes me feel incapacitated, almost useless. I was sort of glad I put down some notes for my grandfather’s funeral over a year ago because I was seriously doubting my ability to write it Friday night when I arrived in Georgia. All this said, the Lord was good, and I was able to give both the eulogy and a short homily based on Revelation 21:1-5. It was, honestly, the one place I knew I could go. It has been the place I have gone whenever death has struck, and it has been a particular comfort in this long winter when my own physical, mental, and spiritual brokenness have been so apparent. These things will be made right. The world will be remade as it should be.

I don’t regret preaching at the funeral because, in my grief, I was able to more honestly tell of the source I have for hope in my grief. It is a powerful thing when we speak out of our own brokenness. The gospel is a powerful thing, and it is no more powerful than when we realize the hopelessness of our world and our own selves left to our own devices. It is merely by the relentless love of God for us and by his promised consummation of Christ’s kingdom that we can live with hope and joy. If we can speak honestly in our hope-filled brokenness, that hope is better communicated to others.

The words and music of the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins have been a constant source of comfort to me from early in my Christian journey. Acutely aware of his faults and his struggle with depression for a good portion of his life, Rich used his own brokenness to touch others in a unique way with the love of God. Rich was particularly inspired by writer and lecturer Brennan Manning, who wrote in The Ragamuffin Gospel, “To be alive is to be broken. And to be broken is to stand in need of grace. Honesty keeps us in touch with our neediness and the truth that we are saved sinners. There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are.”

I wish I were as transparent about the joys and pains of life as I should be. Our very humanity is a powerful communicator of the love that God has for us, often much more than miraculous wonders that could be done. Thornton Wilder, in his short play The Angel That Troubled the Waters, tells of a physician that comes to a healing pool, which is stirred each day by an angel, hoping to be cured. The angel appears to him and prevents the man from entering: “Draw back, physician, this moment is not for you… Healing is not for you.” The man pleads and begs with the angel, petitioning what good he could do for the world if only he were rid of his downcast spirit. The angel replies, “Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In Love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve.”

Join with me, fellow soldiers in the fight. We know our broken state and how we have broken the world, but we also know the One who is turning this curse backwards. We believe that when he accomplishes the work he is doing, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Living in this truth, we can live more honestly in the here and now, preaching the gospel even through our pain.

(Cover image: Edvard Munch, The Death Bed)

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