I was talking with a friend of mine who over the course of the last month or so has had to deal with a host of health and personal issues. He was openly lamenting how life is filled with heartbreak and pain. Filled with problems that have no easy solutions. People and situations you'd like to fix, but you just can't.
"I don't know why life has to be so hard", he told me. "Why it has to have so much heartbreak. I wish it were different."
I agree. I wholeheartedly agree. More than you know, I stand with my friend on these sentiments. I wish life wasn't so hard, so full of heartbreak. But it is, and the only thing we can do is use our own painful experiences to learn some hard lessons, trust more deeply in the Lord, allow ourselves to be tended to by others, and ultimately bring some comfort to someone else.
This is the pathway through pain toward comfort we find in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. The Lord is the Lord of comfort. In this is our hope. And whether that healing come through the power of the Holy Spirit, the simple passage of time, or through the words and actions of good friends, the promise we hold onto is that there is always a daybreak at the end of a long-dark night.
As a pastor for twenty-five years I believe once of the the most important parts of my job has been to bring comfort to others. Those moments are the moments I've felt the most useful in terms of the work the Lord was trying to do, and the most memorable of my career.
One of the best friends I ever had in all my years of ministry was Stan Weller. Some of you may remember Stan. He retired many years ago as the principle at Cridersville and was a long time member of this church. Even though there was about a 40 year age gap between us, Stan and I enjoyed hanging out with each other. Frequently he would call me and let me know he'd just made a pot of a chili, and if I hurried to his house to lunch there might be a bowl left before his wife Betty ate it all.
After getting a chili call one day, I moseyed my way over to Lorain Drive, and made my way up the front steps for lunch. Immediately though when Stan let me inside I could see he was stressed out. Stan was a man's man, but he was on the verge of tears. When I asked him what was wrong, he just waved his hand to have me take a look at his living room. And there, everywhere on the walls, pictures, and furniture were little homemade signs on copy paper. I walked around and started to read...
"No your mom isn't coming today. She's been dead many years."
"We are not going to school. We've graduated."
"I can't go get your sisters to come and play jumprope. They don't live near us anymore."
"You father isn't coming home after work. He passed away."
All over the room these little signs spelled out some other detail of his wife's life that her dementia had robbed, that she asked about again and again and again and again. I gave Stan a big hug and just let him unload all his frustration and sorrow as he grieved the slow loss of Betty to this terrible disease, and struggled with keeping the patience he needed to be her caregiver.
Stan just needed a little comfort, and that's what I believe the Lord longed to provide to him that day. I don't know about you, but I am gratified when God uses me for this kind of work.
But sometimes comfort isn't something we give. Sometimes we need to receive it. To allow the Lord to fill our cup when it's empty. I'm not comfortable with receiving comfort. I'd rather be showing compassion that receiving it. It's humbling, and sometimes embarrassing to admit we need to be comforted. And it's painful. We need comfort when we are in pain, or have failed, or been hurt, or come to the terrible realization we have failed someone else. I think to be on the receiving end of the comfort of the Lord and others, and just learning to humbly receive the gift is grace is one of most important steps we can take on our spiritual journey.
The Apostle Paul makes it clear that he is one who is used by God to provide comfort to others, but he's also grateful to receive that comfort also. To grow in Christ's likeness is to seek both bring and receive comfort to others. Sometimes that's easy, and other times it's not.
This morning I come to you as someone who, while normally seeks as best he can to bring comfort to others, as a man broken, seeking comfort and solace in a very difficult time. After a particularly difficult season in our twenty-six year long marriage, Aimee and I are separating. This has been an incredibly painful decision with terrible consequences to so many people we love, particularly our children. However, we must now admit that the issues between us not properly resolved, the pressures of living in the "fishbowl" of ministry, and all the ways life wears all of us down have eroded the commitment we've made to one another. For different reasons individually, we simply do not have the needed resources to seek reconciliation. It is unfortunate, but we agree new boundaries are necessary to keep our relationship respectful and fruitful for our children, others we are called to serve.
We've loved each other since we were kids. I've loved her since she was fifteen years old. We just don't want to hurt each other anymore.
We both have a hand in this failure. From my perspective I have not practiced what I preached and tended to the garden that is my wife's love. Too many times I've asked her to "shake it off", "gut it out", and "toughen up", when rather I should have listened, embraced, and comforted. Plenty of times I've talked about the importance of the fruits of the spirit from this pulpit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control - and yet I've played my part in allowing the weeds of indifference, the urgent, and obligations which too, too often rendered her second, to choke out those fruits in our own marriage.
While I want to make it clear that I have nothing to violate the vows I took at my ordination, and am still in good standing as an Elder in the United Methodist Church, I am sorry I have failed both her, my children, and you, the congregation I serve. I am simply a man with feet of clay, who has failed miserably by loving imperfectly.
I must also admit today that the visibility and pressure of ministry has played a major part in my marriage now coming to a close. As we make this change in our lives, I cannot ask Aimee or our sons to go through this trial on a public stage. Now is a time we need privacy. We need to assure our children of our love and commitment to them, and help find a new "normal" which will nurture them. I need to provide space to Aimee to find healing and comfort in the wake of this storm.
So beginning at the close of this service, with the blessing of our Pastor Parish Relations Committee and Bishop Palmer of the West Ohio Conference, I will begin a three month leave. This will allow our family to step out of the spotlight, and make all the necessary arrangements to close this chapter, and begin a new one. The plan is that I, after a review of PPRC and our District Superintendent, will return to the pulpit here at Shawnee UMC in January. That review could determine that another course of action, or different timeline for my return be established, but at this juncture the goal will be a return after the new year. During this season two interim pastors, our friend David MacDonald, and an old friend of mine, Loran Miracle, will serve this congregation. I encourage you to welcome and support them warmly.
Please pray for Aimee. The journey of a United Methodist pastor's wife - of just being my wife - has not been an easy one for her. While I'm sure she would say she's made mistakes along the way, for as long and well as she could she carried these burdens with mercy and grace. Pray for her healing and restoration as she makes this journey, which I know for her will be both painful and hopeful as she seeks to become who God created her to be.
Please lift me in your prayers. I simply have little to offer others right now, and our kids need me more than ever. It's a terrible feeling to want to fix something terribly broken that you know now could still be intact if just little timely fixes of tiny fragments had been repaired along the way. This is has created within a substantial amount of shame, anger, hurt and disappointment. Someday I hope to turn the difficulty of these moments into words of hope for someone else...
but that day is not today. It's just going to take time. Thank you for giving some to me.
But most importantly, please pray for Max, Xavier, Elijah, and Toby. We love our kids and hate to see them hurting like they are right now. It is the comfort of the Lord and the peace which passes all understanding for our sons that I know is Aimee and I's most fervent prayer. Please just love on our kids.
Today we take communion. It's the sacrament that reminds us that the price of abundant life is brokenness. We celebrate this together, corporately, because life is hard and full of heartbreak. And the difference between finding joy out of despair, goodness out of evil, and light in the darkness is whether or not we'll let the Lord carry us, and carry each other. To offer each other the bread of life, and the cup of salvation with each prayer, embrace, listening ear, and willingness to just be present. Or to accept that quiet presence of someone else.
So as we close this service let us remember that our God is a God of comfort. This is the promise we cling to in Jesus Christ. Let us trust in this promise, while we love one another, and love our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.