Psalm 130:1-2, 5-8
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. . . . I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with the Lord is great power to redeem. It is the Lord who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.
Some days I feel like my calling is to be a repository for sad stories. These past few months I have sat and listened to so many hard, hard stories. Students, colleagues, women ministers, church members, and friends have come to me with stories of painful break ups, tragic deaths, and unexpected diagnoses. Most of the time all I can do, all I know to do is to whisper a few words of love and pray. But I recently figured out that I am also holding their stories close in my heart. I am collecting their painful words. I am a repository.
This week all that holding suddenly felt like too much. My heart was bruised. My spirit felt broken. All those stories compounded by the daily news of terror and violence, hatred and anger left me living in the shadows. It was all just too much.
In the midst of my sadness, I knew Sunday was coming. And I was scheduled to preach. And it was the third week of Advent—the Sunday of Joy. Nothing makes a preacher feel more like a fraud than to stand and preach on joy when she can’t seem to find any joy herself. But that is what I did. I stood and promised my beloved congregation that joy could be found. I assured them that in staying close to Jesus we can experience joy, that by being faithful in living God’s good news we will discover joy, and that by saying “Yes” to God’s plan for the salvation of the world we will know joy.
I said all those things, fully expecting my preacher’s license to be revoked in the middle of my sermon. But I kept preaching . . . getting close to the end of the sermon, and that is when it happened. I stopped preaching, call it a dramatic pause if you like. Call me the moment of truth. But there I stood with no words. My mouth open, but nothing coming out. And I cried out to the Lord. “Are you listening, God? I am here preaching all this joy—but I am pretty desperate. Are you listening? Because I am waiting here, needing something from you. Joy—that is what I need. Are you listening?”
Then suddenly I was speaking again . . . but I wasn’t saying the words on my manuscript. Instead I was confessing my lack of joy out loud . . . to my church. To be honest, it scared me a bit but I couldn’t hold back my words. I told them the truth about my shadows. I told them that joy had been really elusive for me lately. I told them that I was struggling, and because my lovely church members talk back to the preacher, they said, “Yes.” “Preach it.” “Go on!” And they nodded and again said, “Yes.” But what I also heard them saying was “We know how you feel!” “We are with you.” “Us too!” Suddenly, I was no longer alone, and there it was . . . a glimmer of joy. I looked out at the faces of Eleanor and Jamie, Robert and Bernard, Norm and Chrissy, and in that moment, joy didn’t seem so far away.
Yesterday, Cornerstone reached out to me and said, “There is hope AND JOY in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with the Lord is great power to redeem.” Sometimes it is the preacher who needs to hear her sermon the most.
Pam Durso is the executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.