January 24, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalm 84, Luke 24: 13-35
Well, Jan is gone. Our beloved pastor has left us. We pray that she will enjoy a long and happy, well-deserved retirement. But for us, it’s a great loss.
We know how the disciples on the road to Emmaus felt. We can see them: Dragging their sandals on the dusty path; barely having the energy to lift their feet; heads hanging and grief on their faces as they share their disappointment.
We can identify with them. We have experienced such losses. Perhaps it was the death of a parent or grandparent who was the spiritual and emotional cement of the family. Maybe it was the breakup of the family home where everyone gathered on special occasions.
We know how the disciples felt as we remember Jan and think about our church community. After all, their experience was very similar to ours. They, like us, had just lost a spiritual leader who stretched them.
Jan, like Jesus preached inclusiveness. He welcomed sinners, those who broke ritual law, and tax collectors. The tax collectors, as you probably know, were Roman collaborators; Jews who worked for the Romans and handled coins embossed with Roman gods; idolatry to the Jews. And yet Jesus ate with them. Jesus welcomed those with disabilities. Despite the teaching in the book of Job, most Jews believed that those with infirmities were being punished by God for their sinfulness. And, if they had been born with ailments, it simply meant that they had come from bad homes. It was their parents’ sins for which they were being punished. Yet Jesus welcomed them warmly. He preached that love trumped following the letter of the law. That it was more important to help someone in need on the Sabbath than to limit ones activity. With Jesus men and women sat together and learned from him. All so new! And now he was gone.
So it was with Jan. She challenged us to be increasingly open, and welcoming, respectful and caring – of wider circles of people, of animals, and of all of creation. She was less focused on traditional ways of worshiping – such as the music selections and readings as she was on ensuring that we experienced God’s love and left motivated, from a sense of gratitude, to live the values that Jesus taught. And now she is gone.
The great Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew loss. Because of his strong opposition to Hitler’s euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned for one and a half years, then transferred to a Nazi concentration camp. After being allegedly associated with the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he was tried and executed by hanging just as the Nazi regime collapsed, only two weeks before Allied forces liberated the camp and three weeks before Hitler’s suicide. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” The words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
When my dad died of cancer at age forty-nine, my mother was devastated. They had been an extremely close couple who did everything together. Yet, when people tried to console her, she responded by saying things like, “Well, I was very lucky. At least I had him in my life.” I think that this is the gratitude to which Bonhoeffer referred. But having this sense of gratitude at the time of loss is not easy. It’s more usual that when change that involves loss is foisted on us we initially feel angry, or sad; sometimes fearful, and even disoriented. “What’s happening now? What’s going to happen?” Change, involving loss, is something that happens to us, even if we don’t agree with it. Change can happen very quickly. Transition, on the other hand, is internal: it’s what happens inside us as we go through change; when we experience loss. Transition usually occurs slowly. We enter the initial stage of transition when we first recognize that a meaningful change involving loss will occur. This stage is often marked with resistance and emotional upheaval, because we are being forced to let go of something that we are comfortable with; in this case someone whom we love as a person and value as our spiritual leader.
Gerri Ravyn Standfield, in her book Extraordinary Healing and Leadership Arts identifies ten qualities for visionary leaders during transitional times, and the first quality that she mentions is the “Capacity for holding grief”.
We need to accept that we will miss Jan and her way of leading. It is normal to be sad and to instinctively react at first to something new or different as inferior. It’s tempting to put our focus on “The Past” where there is certainty. The Past allows us to be comfortable because we know what happened and it’s familiar.
William Bridges, who writes about organizational development, teaches that between the past and the future lies what he calls the “Neutral Zone”. This is a time of ambiguity. But it is a necessary phase. It’s the bridge between the old and the new; in some ways, we still feel attached to the old, while we are also trying to adapt to the new. This is the time for an interim pastor. It’s very normal while in the Neutral Zone to feel ambivalence, skepticism and even resentment about what is different. In this stage, people affected by the change are often confused, uncertain. There may even be a period of low morale and low productivity as some in the congregation may not feel that they have the energy to volunteer for our various mission commitments.
Those who have the most difficult time with the loss are often the most impatient to move things along. They find the Neutral Zone particularly uncomfortable and they want to get past it. “Let’s get a search committee formed and get a settled pastor in here”, as if that will stop the hurt and lessen the anxiety about the future. But in reality trying to rush the transition process doesn’t work anymore than trying to heal a New England Patriot’s broken bone in less than six weeks. It takes the time that it takes. Trying to rush the transition stage is more like putting a band aid on a wound that hasn’t been cleaned. The scab can cover impurities that can fester. Experiencing the loss and supporting each other through all of the normal accompanying feelings is necessary if we are to emerge as a strong and healthy congregation.
We often hear people talk about “the good old days”. As humans we have this psychological mechanism called euphoric recall. It’s a good thing. It helps us erase difficult memories, smooth the rough edges of past pain. But euphoric memory is not necessarily accurate. We can all recall the past as a simpler time; a time when there was less violence, less materialism, less explicit sex, more politeness, more human connection; a time when we didn’t have to worry about global warming, bullying, airport searches, acid rain, PCBs, the obesity epidemic or high cholesterol.
To balance this picture I found an article on the internet titled, “How Did We Survive?” It reads:
“Looking back, it’s hard to believe that we’ve lived this long…First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they carried us. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can, and didn’t get tested for diabetes. Then after that trauma, our baby cribs were covered with bright colored lead-based paints and we grew up in a home probably filled with asbestos. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets, not to mention, the risks we took hitchhiking. As children, we would ride in cars with no seat belts or air bags. Riding in the back of a pick up on a warm day was always a special treat. We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle. We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and no one actually died from this. We ate cupcakes, white bread and real butter and drank soda pop with sugar in it. We would leave home in the morning and be gone all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day. We would spend hours building our go-carts out of scraps and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes. After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to solve the problem. We had friends and we went outside and found them! No organized play-dates with pre-selected kids. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. We played dodge ball and sometimes the ball would really hurt! We played with toy guns, cowboys and Indians, army, cops and robbers, and used our fingers to simulate guns when the toy ones or the BB gun was not available. We were given BB guns for our 10th birthdays, made up games with sticks and tennis balls and although we were told it would happen, we did not put out very many eyes. We played king of the hill on piles of gravel left on vacant construction sites and when we got hurt, mom pulled out the 48 cent bottle of mercurochrome. How did we ever survive?????” (www.pianoladynancy.com/how_did_we_survive.htm)
Another story about the past involves drawing a picture of Jesus:
A kindergarten teacher was walking around her classroom while her students drew pictures. One little girl was scribbling so intently that the teacher asked what she was drawing. The little girl replied, “I’m drawing a picture of Jesus.” The teacher said, “Oh honey, nobody really knows for sure what Jesus looked like.” The little girl, without missing a beat, responded, “They will in a minute.”
Back to the disciples on the road to Emmaus: They were so focused on their pain and perhaps anxiety about what would happen to them and their fledgling community that at first they didn’t even notice that Jesus had joined them.
“How’s it going?” he asks.
“You’re kidding, right? Where have you been?”
Then, as if talking to a simpleton they share their sad tale.
But now it’s Jesus’ turn.
“You numbskulls! Don’t you remember anything?” And then he reviews with them the scriptures that they have been taught. They seem interested. Curious. Perhaps they even have a glimmer of hope in their hearts. As Jesus makes to leave them they invite him to stay with them and dine. He agrees. And only when he performs the ritual part of their meal, blessing, and breaking and sharing the bread do they recognize him. But by then, it’s too late. He’s gone. They turn to each other and marvel, “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked?”
Wasn’t it the same when we heard Jan? Yes, we miss her as a person. But what she said and what she modeled resonated with us, made our hearts burn within us, because it touched the good that was already there. We recognized the truth of her words because they were already in us. After all, every day we hear things that we instinctively reject. We hear people running for office say things contrary to our beliefs and we are turned off and maybe a little afraid that they will be voted into office. But with Jan, she shed light on what we knew to be right and good. And that goodness remains with us and in us.
We will grow as a community to the extent that we focus on the future where there is hope. The future holds endless possibilities. Stage three of transition; after the Neutral Zone, is sometimes referred to as “The New Beginning.” This last transition stage is a time of acceptance and energy. In this stage people have begun to embrace the changes of the new. They’re building the skills they need to work successfully in a new way, and they’re starting to see early wins from their efforts. At this stage, we are likely to experience high energy, openness to learning and a renewed commitment to our church.
If we keep our attention on the past, we never move forward or grow. But, we need to let go of the past first before we can embrace the new, and that will take time. In time we will begin to explore our comfort with the new. And eventually we will begin to embrace the new. Most of us will go through these stages: clinging to and slowly, maybe reluctantly letting go of the past; wading through the Neutral Zone experiencing various levels of discomfort; and then entering the New Beginning. Most of us will bumble through these stages of transition, but in our own time; some more quickly than others. Some may not make the transition at all.
We will honor Jan and continue as a vibrant faith community as we remember and act on what she taught us; as we continue to welcome everyone warmly, as we generously respond to the needs of an ever widening community, and as we treat each other with compassion and tenderness.
Finally, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote something else that will sustain us in this time of transition and for which we can be truly grateful. He said, “Music… will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.”
So let us move forward together, as we heal, grow, and celebrate. “Happy are those who live in God’s house, ever singing God’s praise” (Psalm 84: 4)