Bridging the gap between weekday devastation and Sunday’s sermon.

The murder of Linda Vander Veen, age 11, greatly affected people in the Grand Rapids area this year. Linda was abducted from her safety patrol post near Mulick Park Public School at 8:30 on the morning of February 12, 1979, by a man in a black car. Eight agonizing hours later her body was found in a snow bank, less than a mile away, strangled from behind with her own chain necklace. Dazed with grief and ill with anger, we groped through the week after the horror of the first news on Monday.

The following Sunday members of a sick community gathered in the many churches, needing, more than we knew, help and healing for our heartaches and resentments.

An informal survey found that in a few churches the sermon dealt specifically with the wounds of grieving congregations. These pastors recognized their opportunity and responsibility to use the sermon and the Scriptures to heal the brokenhearted throngs who spiritually staggered to church, shocked and bleeding from Linda’s murder.

But what the majority of others experienced that Sunday may not have been unusual, for many have grown accustomed to a gap between weekday devastation and the Sunday morning sermon.

In my own adult Sunday school class that weekend, we tried in vain to discuss the lesson for the day. But almost every comment led back to the incredible events of the preceding Monday. We had to talk about it. Fortunately, our leader didn’t pressure us to keep to the text, but he allowed our hidden agendas to be dealt with. Battlefield experience and research has shown us that the best thing that can be done for soldiers who have faced combat is to give them a chance very soon to debrief. They talk about what they’ve gone through, they air their feelings and verbalize their thoughts with someone else.

The pastoral opportunity to bring healing to large groups of hurting people through the Sunday sermon, music, and prayers is deeply appreciated by a few members of the clergy. They recognize how, for example, an act of violence, a threat of war, natural disasters both near and far dispirit people, sicken them, make them vulnerable to illness, irritability, temperamentalness, resentment, and even violence. Cancers of the spiritual variety are precipitated by events which disrupt or threaten faith and disturb settled theological thinking.

Cataclysmic acts, hardships, threatening circumstances, or tragedies do not take place in a vacuum. Even when these things happen to others, who may even be in distant places, they have ill effects on all. Ripples from such events go out in a wide circle, affecting millions; the aftershocks continue to jar the lives of people everywhere.

The past two decades have been notable for instances of national and international tragedy, events that have jolted notions of safety and integrity among civilized people. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is believed by some to have set in motion waves of despair throughout the United States, resulting in the chaos of the sixties. The subsequent murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the many confusing and disturbing issues of the Viet Nam war, the cave-in of national leaders in the long, drawn out Watergate scandal that culminated in impeachment proceedings and then President Nixon’s unprecedented resignation, all are memorable times of recent national grief in the U.S. To apply God’s Word specifically to enable healthy mourning to take place, to soothe the frightened and weary, to facilitate clear Christian thinking about disasters, is to seize an opportunity that is unique to the parish pastor. Few others have so much to say; few have such a platform.

The sunday sermon can be a time of helping people to admit and recognize and put in proper perspective intense feelings of anger or fear or hatred. It can be a time to reflect on the inevitability of violence and to refocus on the need members of the body of Christ have for one another in bearing each other’s burdens and in weeping together. Articulated grief can make resurrection hope more powerful and meaningful than ever.

In whatever way it is done, this intentional dealing with what is eating at the hearts of the members of the congregation because of what happened on Monday becomes a healing ministry. It lifts up to God that which is at the surface of everyone’s consciousness. It applies the balm of heaven to wounds afflicting everyone. It becomes a way of showing Christ’s acceptance of our negative feelings. It can disclose how Christians can come to terms with tragedy in human affairs.

Being together at church on Sunday has a healing effect all its own. Public prayers, sermons, and music all can enhance our awareness of Christ’s healing—regardless of their individual themes. A further step is the deliberate ministry, through the sermon, to lives that have been disrupted by tragic events. It is a unique opportunity; it is also a healing responsibility.

The immediacy of some crises may prevent preparation of a highly polished and logical, well-developed sermon. But settling for less content and perfection in presentation may be necessary so that the need of the moment may be met.

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Pastors may further aid the healing process by encouraging families to talk openly at home about their individual attitudes and emotions because of a shattering event. Family members may nudge one another toward acts of help—letters, cards, visits, phone calls, or contributions—which provide added means of relieving those who have been wounded.

Pressing on with an already planned service and sermon when the scores of people in front of us are hurting may not be far from failing to stop to help the man by the side of the road because of duties at the temple.

James R. Kok is chairman of Pastoral Services at Pine Rest Christian Hospital, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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