On February 14, 1983 I woke up in the local emergency room and I was not happy. Apparently, I had woken up in my room at home and made it downstairs before passing out. My mother then called 911 because she could not wake me up. Sometime later, I woke up in the hospital. By then, it was no secret what I had done. The day before I had purposely overdosed because I did not want to live anymore.
I was fifteen and completely overwhelmed. A few months before I had lost a few pounds and received a lot of praise. By February I had a full-blown eating disorder that would soon be apparent to everyone. But on the day I overdosed, my slowed digestion might have prevented more serious consequences to what I had done. Even so, my memories of that day and the week that followed have never been more than hazy.
People came to visit. Some I remember and some I don’t. I have a few distinct memories. One is of the senior pastor of my childhood church in the emergency room holding a basin while my stomach forcefully ejected its contents. He was kind and caring. It was either that day or a later time when he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know how much pain you were in. I would have tried to help.” He wasn’t alone; no one really knew what I was experiencing.
Another memory I have is less clear only because I know there are pieces missing. It is of the associate pastor showing up in the emergency room and not leaving. Of course, he had to have left and returned several times during the week that followed. At some point I promised that I would not try to kill myself again. Over the weeks, months, and years I learned to trust him enough to share some of the most painful parts of my life because he kept coming back. He continuously showed up and did not leave me alone in the utter darkness I felt.
These pastors weren’t the only ones who showed up. The congregation also demonstrated care and concern and support. By June of that year I was hospitalized for eating disorder treatment. During those two months, the congregation sent cards and gifts and welcomed me with genuine care on my weekend visits home. They truly embodied what it means to be church. I was one of the fragile, most vulnerable members and they cared for me without hesitation. They gave me a place of belonging, a place where I was loved and valued. Because of this 9 years later this same congregation would lay their hands on me, ordaining me to ministry in the United Church of Christ.
The journey to my ordination day was not an easy one, though. In spite of the lessons of love I received from my childhood church, it took a long time for me to believe that God loved even me. I could tell myself that if they really knew me, they would not love me. That faulty reasoning allowed me to believe that God could not love me because God really knew me. It was with another pastor in another church while I was a seminary student that I finally realized God’s love and care for me.
It was a typical Sunday night youth group meeting. The associate pastor and I were leading a discussion on peer pressure. It was all the stuff one might expect in the early ‘90s. Kids were struggling with alcohol, drugs, sex, grades, sports, etc. One of the girls finally burst out with, “You don’t know! You don’t know how much pressure there is to be perfect!” She went on to list her struggles with grades and sports. The pastor looked at me and I essentially told my story. The tone of the meeting shifted and became much more “real” after that.
When the meeting was over, the pastor and I were debriefing. And I lost it. I confessed that I didn’t think God loved me. Where was Christ during the traumatic times in my life? Where was Christ when I wanted to die? Where was Christ when I fought so hard for recovery? Where was Christ if he loved me so much? My friend kept quiet and let me come to the realization on my own. Christ was present in those bleakest moments. Christ surrounded me with a faithful community and people who embodied God’s unconditional love. Christ’s own heart broke when the pain was more than I could bear. Christ remained present, waiting for me to see, feel, and accept the love, forgiveness, and healing.
Emotional and spiritual healing are slow. My journey has not been pain-free since those
early days. However, the way the church I grew up in embodied God’s love for me kept me anchored in church through all the pain and struggles that would follow. They lived out what Paul was describing to the church in Corinth. It was a lesson I learned early and one that has been foundational in my ministry. The church at its best is a church that cares for the most vulnerable. The greatest gift of the church is the power to save lives.
It is this power to literally save lives that is what makes church the body of Christ. Like those early Corinthians, we forget this. We want our pews full. We want our budgets balanced and our buildings well-maintained. We want clear doctrine and guidelines for membership. We want the church to grow in numbers and be what it once was in our society. None of this matters if we are not a community that demonstrates Christ’s love in very real ways.
The world is full of people who are fragile, flawed, and lost. Why are we as Church not shouting out our message of faith loud enough to drown out the pain, violence, and hatred of this world? Who are you? You are God’s beloved and you belong in a community that loves you, values you, and wants you. We are in the business of saving lives. Let’s get to it!
The law of God is perfect,
reviving the soul…
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
RCL – Year C – Third Sunday after Epiphany
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a