Every year, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, our small group of Oviedo ministers hosts a shared Thanksgiving service in one of our churches. This past year it was held at Oviedo’s Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Participating were Charles, the pastor of that church, Jayson, the pastor of an independent church, Jon, an Episcopal priest, John, a church planter with a congregational denomination, and Paul, a mainline Presbyterian pastor. Also in attendance were Bobby, a United Methodist pastor, Dan, a former Evangelical Presbyterian pastor who now pastors the Oviedo plant of an Orlando megachurch, and Joseph, a United Methodist pastor and professor at the Asbury Seminary branch here in Orlando. Wonderful men, all of them.
I had been asked to preach which I found terribly intimidating. All of these men are gifted preachers. When each had preached in previous years, my assessment of my own preaching abilities diminished. But they had asked me, and I agreed.
In the weeks leading up to the service, I felt inclined to preach on the subject of lament. At a Thanksgiving service. It was a crazy idea, but I couldn’t shake it. My heart told me that it is hard for the truly sad to endure Thanksgiving. People need to be given permission to lament, if that is where their hearts are, even when everyone else is telling them to be happy. The Psalms, from which I intended to preach, are rich in thanksgiving and lament. Perhaps we needed to learn that thanksgiving is richer and more real when it is expressed through tears and sorrow.
As the service began, and the time to actually preach this sermon drew closer minute by minute, I sat internally scolding myself for choosing such an awful topic for such a joyful occasion. The crowd would be too kind to boo me off the stage, but I was certain that the message would be met with stony silence.
I began, audaciously speaking about the musical genre of the blues to this predominantly black congregation. The “amens” from the gospel choir behind me and joined by the congregation before me encouraged me forward. I felt a comfort and a freedom in the pulpit that made it a surprising joy. The response of many was affirming.
After the service, a woman stood near me as I spoke with others. I could tell she wanted to say something to me, so I finished my conversation and introduced myself to her. She gave me a hug and thanked me. She said, through tears, that she had planned on not coming but at the last minute changed her mind. She explained that her best friend, in Ohio, on the previous Saturday had been killed. She needed to grieve and was afraid that a Thanksgiving service would not allow that. She said that my message was the one she needed to hear. I carefully probed to find out how her friend had died. She said, “Her husband shot her in front of her two children.”
She needed permission to lament, and God, using me, had given that to her. I had not known her, her life, her circumstances, and her need, but God did.
I think it was British pastor Martin Lloyd-Jones who called such experiences the romance of preaching. We never know what the Holy Spirit plans to do with the words we speak.
Sometimes he lets us see.
The sermon, for those interested, is posted here