On Sunday June 13th, 2021 it happened… I forgot the doxology. In the Christian tradition the doxology is a liturgical formula of praise to God. We sing these same words in every worship experience as we bring the offering to the altar…
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host: Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.”
I’ve been joining the chorus of those words even before the neural pathways for memories formation were developed in my brain. From the time of my infant baptism, I’ve participated in a community of love and forgiveness, chanting the doxology.
Yet on this particular Sunday, standing on the altar with my microphone hot, somewhere between “Praise” and “Amen,” I could not mentally recover the words. One of my ushers who was faithfully bringing up the sparsely filled offering plate said, “Pastor, did you just forget the doxology? You need a break!”
The Pandemic Stress Spiral
Over the course of the past several months I’d been experiencing deep fatigue. Like many people, I tried to find the opportunities amid the pandemic. There were obvious things we needed to do to “love our neighbor” by protecting peoples’ lives. We moved from onsite to online worship, found ways to connect with isolated persons uncomfortable with using technology, and found ways to meet the needs in our city in the midst of the crisis.
For us, this included creating daily ways for people to connect digitally, planting an online campus, and cultivating digital fresh expressions. A “care band caravan” to visit shut ins in a safe, social distanced way, care packages, a phone tree, reverse mentorships with our oldest and youngest members. As well as expanding the food pantry to five days a week during the summer, and weekly drive through community dinners.
Dozens of personal speaking engagements were canceled, but this transformed into what seemed like a never-ending series of webinars, trainings, classes, and coaching sessions. I jumped from one Zoom room to the next. Some days I offered sessions in multiple states and time zones, all without leaving my bedroom. Sometimes I was attending multiple meetings simultaneously, by sitting in front of several screens at once, trying to take in the various conversations, unmuting and jumping in when called upon.
The decreased travel time opened hours and days of free time in my schedule. I was able to be more present with my family, nightly dinners, deep conversations, and lots of family walks. I designed and created a website for my LLC, learned to use Canvas, taught classes at a couple seminaries, even earning a new long-term position at one. I wrote several new books and contributed chapters to several more.
The unlimited access to work with the touch of a screen created a new scenario… a workaholics dream. I found myself not in a good rhythm. I worked more hours for each organization through which I am employed than ever before. We missed our 2020 vacation entirely and ended up going almost two years with no break. The only downtime our family had was when we became infected with COVID, and honestly even then I continued to work digitally.
In the midst of all this, very few people in our congregations seemed satisfied with our efforts. Some said we shouldn’t have shut down onsite worship, they found churches nearby that continued to worship. Some thought we returned to outdoor onsite worship too soon, endangering people’s lives. Most people in our existing congregations did not participate in any of our daily online offerings, and yet we found ourselves connecting deeply with new people all over the country and even joining new members. Some church members informed us that it appeared we were “on vacation” the entirety of the pandemic. Others were deeply concerned about our increased workload and the massive increase in pandemic induced stress.
Our very vocal and public support of antiracism work, naming as wrong the exceptionalism and racist rhetoric of former President Trump, and participating in Black Lives Matter marches was also a cause for angst. Some protested pastors should not “get political” (see my thoughts on that here) for others our involvement in the struggle for equality was not extreme enough. Nevertheless, a mass exodus of people we knew, loved, and served was the result. People we visited in their homes, sat by their hospital beds, and baptized their children and grandchildren… left.
Regardless we found a safe reentry rhythm. Not a single case of Covid transmission resulted from our ministries. We found a way to survive, grow, conduct baptisms, and even plant a couple new churches. As soon as things opened up, I went back on the road, now participating in a mixture of onsite and online speaking engagements. The week before our vacation, I provided seven major presentations with different organizations in just over one week.
As our vacation started, I blacked out my social media accounts, turned the keys over to our team, submitted a final manuscript to my publisher, and I slept for several days. It was as if my soul was catching up with my body.
Unplugging From the Matrix
There is a scene in The Matrix in which Neo wakes up in a mechanical womb. He bursts out of the amniotic fluid, disconnects the cords and pumps, and takes a deep breath. Quickly he finds himself in a startling reality he is not fully prepared for. A rude awakening! This is what the start of our vacation felt like.
When I came too, I started to feel the oddly familiar symptoms of withdrawal. Not withdrawal from opioid narcotics and alcohol (an old friend I knew quite well), but withdrawal from work and technology addiction.
I had to confess that I had crashed. I was in denial about the problem. I was in immense emotional pain and traumatic memories started to strangely resurface. It was in that unpleasant place, where the nature of my conversation with Jesus changed. Yes, I went to him daily before… for inspiration, for downloads, for strength to carry out my work. But now I was going to him with no agenda beside that of my own healing.
I ultimately discovered I was carrying a lot of unresolved trauma, including the deaths of friends and family members.
A Time to Grieve
We were led to set apart that time to come away and grieve the loss of the world we knew before. But I discovered there were much deeper things in my soul that were coming to the surface.
I share this story because I know I’m not alone. If you can resonate with any part of this… type amen!
In my latest book, Painting With Ashes, I suggest “our weakness is our superpower.” I explore how people across history used their wounds as a source of healing for others. This requires us to move through a journey of grief towards healing. As we say in the recovery community, “hurt people hurt people.” But it also true that “wounded healers heal people.”
A key to moving into a space of healing is having a community of grace where we can be vulnerable. I define this as a community that is accessible, safe, and real. In that community we must be able to process our grief in an unfiltered way.
I forgot the doxology that I’ve been singing my entire life. But maybe this was a symptom of something deeper God was trying to help me realize in my own soul. I began to come to terms with Jesus’ mysterious statement “Blessed are those who mourn.”
How Goes It With Your Soul?
If you are grieving I want to encourage you to forget the doxology. Yes I said that. Why sing it when you don’t mean it anyway? A church always singing doxology and never lament is not being real. As we will see, this is why the Bible gives us an incredible resource in the lament psalms. Loss and pain require an appropriate period of grieving. A church rushing “back to normal” amid a pandemic with a long tail is unhealthy. We are inadvertently minimizing people’s loss and grief, diminishing their capacity to heal.
In what ways have you jumped headlong into a workaholic cycle? When was the last time you unplugged from the matrix? Are you taking time to feel your feelings?
As we continue to deal with the implications of COVID-19, I’m concerned that the vast majority of people lack these resources and have not been given space to begin the journey. It seems as though we have a society of “hurt people hurting people.”
In this series, I want to ponder together Jesus’ words “Blessed are those who mourn.” I hope it will be a resource for you in your grieving. As we begin the journey, I want to invite you to pause and take some time to prayerfully contemplate these questions…
What have I lost? What am I grieving? What unresolved wounds am I carrying right now?
In the next reflections we will explore what grief is, what to do with it, and explore resources for healing.