Sermon August 17: Renewal Reflections

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Faith United Methodist Church
August 17, 2014
Return from Renewal Leave
Rev. Krista-Beth Atwood

Scripture:  Mark 6:30-32, Philippians 4:4-7

Sermon:  Renewal Reflections

It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I missed you.  I missed this.   And I’m not just saying that. Really!  I’ve been away and it’s good to be back.  If we look at our Gospel lesson we see that Jesus said (in the New Revised Standard Version), “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  Jesus didn’t say to stay there.  Jesus said, “…rest a while.”

So I’ve rested a while and I am back.  I know I’m curious to know what you did over the summer.  So I imagine you might be a little curious to know what I did while we were apart.  Before I left I titled this sermon “Renewal Reflections” so it would be sufficiently flexible to accommodate whatever came up.  What came up for me was rest, reflection, reconnection, inspiration, joy and recommitment.

First, though, I want to share some of what was going on with me before embarking on my Renewal Leave.  As many of you know, I’ve been a pastor since July 2000 and served two other churches before I came here in 2009.  My early ministry got off to a painful start when I was assaulted in 2001, just one year into my first appointment.  The assault took place in the parsonage of the church I was serving in Holbrook, MA.  This was, clearly, a traumatic event for me and for the congregation.   To have my-very-self and the church property violated in such a way was a shattering experience.

After a time of recovery I continued my ministry in Holbrook for three more years, but the shadow of my assault remained.  The congregation was loving and supportive, but living in the place where I had been so violently attacked turned out to be too much for me to bear.  In 2004 I moved to Manchester, CT where I was appointed as Associate Pastor for five years.  During those years I didn’t talk about my assault.  I didn’t tell the congregation what happened to me and shared my experience with only a very few close coworkers.  By not talking about it I convinced myself that I was healing, but I wasn’t.

In 2008 I crumbled under the pressure of hiding – hiding my true self and my struggles.  It was then that I admitted to myself that I needed more help than I was getting and accepted the diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  This was also when I was matched with Bady, the amazing German Shepherd Dog that you sometimes see in my office.

When I arrived here in 2009 I was on an upswing.  I was feeling better than I had in nearly a decade.  I decided there would be no more hiding.  I shared my story and you heard me, really heard me. You accepted me and welcomed Bady with open arms.  The past five years have been a blessing.  Yet there was healing still to be done.

One thing I’ve learned in the life of faith is that the journey rarely goes in a straight line.  Sometimes we go up.  Sometimes we go down.  Other times we curve to the left or to the right.  And sometimes we loop back and cover territory we thought we’d long since left behind.

My call to ministry came to me early and definitively.  I was about twelve when I began to think about ministry.  I identified with the young woman pastor serving our small church and, for the first time, could see myself up there, behind the pulpit, serving communion, praying for the congregation.  That inkling became stronger and by the time I was a junior in high school I knew I was going to be a pastor, I just had to figure out how to do it.  Like a typical teenager, I worried about what my friends would think.  I asked God if I couldn’t please do something else, something more normal, with my life.  But no, I knew that I was meant to be, that I was going to be, a pastor.

And I loved it.  I loved my internship year working as a Christian education director.  I loved seminary.  I loved my applied practice serving as a chaplain in a nursing home.  I loved my New Testament Classes and Old Testament Classes, Hebrew and Greek.  I even loved my work-study job in the seminary library.  My first year of ministry was excitingly terrifying.  My first funeral, my first wedding, my first baptism and confirmation.  I felt as if I was doing exactly what God wanted me to do.

So it was surprising to me that, over the past couple of years, I began to question, to wonder, to ask God if this is still where I am meant to be, what I am supposed to do.  Suddenly ~ and out of the blue ~ the direction of my journey didn’t seem quite so certain.  The road looped back to territory I had long since covered and brought me to a fork in the road I had not before considered.

I thought back to immediately after the assault when I vowed not to let my attacker take away the most important thing to me ~ my ministry.  I had friends and colleagues ask me if I was going to leave.  I suspect even my supervisors expected me to step away from the ministry, at least for a time.  But God had gotten me that far and I was not going to let one person who committed an evil act take that away.

So this was how I proceeded over the next several years.  Despite my struggles, despite my personal pain, I determined to be a good pastor.  Everything in my life ~ all my energy and resources ~ I devoted to ensuring I could fulfill my call.   My ministry came first on my list of priorities, to the detriment of my emotional health and even my family.  Nothing was more important than being the pastor that God called me to be.

But then, like a tap on my shoulder, God got my attention.  Here, in this beautiful part of New England, serving with you this amazing congregation, God reminded me that I am more than a pastor.  God nudged me one crisp fall day when I was on retreat at the Weston Priory and planted a seed in my soul.  I will love you always, whether you are a pastor or not.  This nudge, this seed, filled me with both relief and with terror.  If I am not a pastor, what will I be.  God answered.  You will be ~ you are ~ my daughter.  A child of God.

I realized that I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone, not to myself and especially not to God.  I no longer needed to live life reacting to my assault.  For many years I worked so hard at being a pastor that I forgot how to be Krista Beth.   God invited me to wonder, to ponder, to look at life as the big adventure that it is.  And I did.  And in it I found freedom and healing.

So during my Renewal Leave I wondered, I pondered, and I prayed.  I visited other churches ~ United Methodist and not ~ and worshipped as part of the congregation.  I started writing a book about my experience of PTSD and how I found healing through my beloved Bady.  I read books about faith and worship and ministry not because I had to, but because I wanted to.  I spent time with family and friends I don’t get to see very often.  I visited that small church in Maine where, as a twelve-year-old girl, I felt that first inkling of call.   I remembered what it felt like to be filled with hope and expectation, in love with God, in love with the church and filled with the joy at the great privilege of ministry.

I am a pastor.  Not because I have to be.  Not because I have to prove myself to anyone.  I am a pastor because God has called me to be ~ both when I was 12 years old and today.  I am also a wife and a stepmother, a friend and a dog trainer, a writer and a survivor, an advocate and a daughter.  I am all of these things because God calls us to live a whole life.  God loves me just for being me, not for anything I do.  This is the same way God loves you.  At the same time, God wants us to do what brings joy to our souls and love to the world ~ whatever that is in your life, that is your call.  I won’t be presumptuous enough to say that God will never tap me on the shoulder again, that I will never again loop back on that path and be asked to explore my call, but I know that God has seen me through some hard work and, for the moment I feel contentment and peace, and no small amount of joy at just being here.

So that was a long answer to the short question of what I did this summer!  The short answer would be, “I’ve rested a while and I am very glad to be back doing God’s work among and alongside God’s people.”  But I wanted to share the long answer because we all have a story, we all have a journey of faith, and by sharing our stories we can sometimes help others along the way.  So may you, too, share the story of what God has done in your life, of a moment when you were invited to come away and rest… a while.

Thanks be to God who taps, who nudges, and who calls us all to this winding journey of faith.  Amen.