The following is the manuscript of my sermon from Sunday, September 25, 2022. It was a stand-alone sermon following our series “The Songs of Summer Pt. 2″ (which worked through the Psalms and drew parallels to popular music themes). If you want to watch the message rather than read it, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGMW9BEgS8o
Released in 2005, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was written by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day.
The song is about his father, who died from esophageal cancer in the month of September when Armstrong was just 10 years old. He has called the song “the most autobiographical” he has written and he considers it both therapeutic and difficult to perform.
It’s central theme is about loss…
Question: Have you ever wanted to sleep away or hide away or just go away in times of deep sorrow and pain?
I’m a pro at this… hiding in my cave. Nose in a book. Checked out. Heck, I don’t even need deep sorrow or pain to send me into a cave. I go when I’m tired, depleted, or just want to live only inside my mind-castle.
Sure, I’m an introvert. An enneagram #5. I recharge alone and love me some solitude. But I’m hoping to speak to more than just an introvert audience here today.
This subject has less to do with personality and more to do with the uncontrollable circumstances that knock the wind out of our sails and send us into the dark safety of a cave, alone, hurting, trying to survive, not knowing if life could possibly ever be the same again.
Like the loss of a father when you’re just 10 years old.
Or the suicide of a family member.
Or being cheated on, lied to, and left.
The death of a child.
Relapse into drug addiction.
Failing in business. Experiencing a devastating bankruptcy.
Heart failure diagnosis. Cancer. Stroke.
You know what I’m talking about?
The life-altering stuff.
The “things will never be the same again” stuff.
The stuff nobody wants—but everybody gets; the stuff we spend all our best efforts defending against—only to discover it cannot be controlled.
The stuff that makes Billie Joe Armstrong wish he could sleep through September.
Over the course of 15 years in pastoring this church I’ve had a few of those experiences…
My mom’s early death from blood cancer.
A staff member who accepted another job and recruited everyone he could get from our church to go with him to his new church – without notice, warning, or apology.
A global pandemic that completely upended the way we had always known church to be—something Seminary did not train me for, something I did not sign up for.
It also turned out to be something that caused deep division among friends and even family members, with the spread of misinformation, the rejection of the medical and scientific profession, the unwillingness to abide by laws, rules, mandates, and proclamations. People leaving the church due to their own political radicalization and needing to be surrounded by only those who agree with them.
Honestly, I didn’t think I would survive this one. And I wasn’t sure I would survive the next, overlapping one either…
I was struggling to sleep, to breathe, to calm my heart down. Something was wrong.
When I finally did go to the doctor, they took some x-rays and blood and then called me back and told me to go to the ER as soon as possible. I did.
Because of COVID, I had to enter alone. I was in the ER for 7 hours.
Then they admitted me. And I was hooked up to machines for a week.
The cardiologist diagnosed me with left ventricular heart failure.
FAILURE. That word landed so heavy. What does it mean? Beyond return? Done? Over?
While waiting in the wilderness for answers to those questions, the Devil came and tempted me to Google. I’m sure you already know… but there is no comfort to be found there.
It felt like I wouldn’t survive the whole pastoring in a pandemic thing, which in that particular moment, really didn’t seem to matter much because I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive anything. I was literally alone in my hospital room prison contemplating how I might live out a short number of days left with my family – what kinds of things I would want to do, what I would want to say, what final memories would be made.
I wasn’t panicked. I was at peace and ready to die if that was my fate. But I was terribly sad and I was worried for my family.
A hospital room. A diagnosis. A prison. A cave. A wilderness. The dark night of the soul.
Wake me up, when September ends.
Maybe you know from your own experiences what I’m describing.
If not, you surely will. It is all but guaranteed.
There’s one more Psalm that I want to speak from today…
Psalm 142 was written from a cave by David. Let’s take a look…
1 I cry out to the Lord;
I pray to the Lord for mercy.
2 I pour out my problems to him;
I tell him my troubles.
3 When I am afraid,
you, Lord, know the way out.
In the path where I walk,
there are traps hidden for me.
4 Look around me and see…
No one cares about me.
I have no place of safety;
no one cares if I live or die.
5 Lord, I cry out to you.
I say, “You are my protection.
You are all I need in this life.”
6 Listen to my cry,
because I am helpless.
Save me from those who are chasing me,
because they are too strong for me.
7 Free me from my prison,
and I will praise your name.
Then good people will surround me,
because you have taken care of me.
Hiding in the dark of a cave, having no one to turn to, nowhere to go, simply trying to survive this threat on his life from a King who had been rejected but refused to leave office… Saul the tall, handsome, wealthy, seemingly successful man who was at his core deeply insecure, paranoid, and an outright bully—obsessed with image control and completely lacking in character, is now threatening political violence in order to have David assassinated so that he could remain in office indefinitely. It’s like, a timeless tale or something… repeated again when King Herod hears news of a newborn King in Bethlehem and orders the slaughtering of all boys age two and under in the region.
David, alone in his cave, feels as though he only has God. And so he prays.
Official view of the church: That’s a good plan. The Pope has confirmed.
In the prophetic words of MC Hammer,
“We got to pray, just to make it today. That’s why we pray!”
The feeling David had in the dark of the cave… that ALONENESS in his quest for survival, you might have felt it too…
—When the divorce papers arrived
—When the police knocked on your door with unwelcome news
—When the doctor sat down to tell you what you never wanted to hear
Even when we do actually have people in our lives, we are fully aware that they simply cannot experience what we are experiencing nor can they carry it like we have to carry it.
It’s what the cave is. Aloneness. It’s what the wilderness is. Aloneness. It’s what the dark night of the soul is. Aloneness.
While we all prefer to live in the warm sunshine of God’s grace, from time to time we get the cave instead.
Cave time is core curriculum in the school of spiritual maturity.
Call it whatever you want… the pit, the prison, the desert, the wilderness, the cave – it’s basic training for believers.
Joseph had a prison. Moses had the desert. Jeremiah had a pit. Daniel had a den. Paul was in and out of jail so many times he lost count and had as many friends on the inside as on the outside. Even Jesus had a wilderness. He got a cave too – once spent three days inside.
If Jesus had cave time, the cave prolly won’t be optional for you and for me.
And what is the cave really about?
It is a place of death,—where we die to ourselves and our best laid plans, our dreams and ego building schemes, our agenda, our world view, our neatly packaged faith and certainty.
The cave is a place of testing—a furnace revealing moral fiber.
The cave is where your backbone gets tested, your maturity is revealed, your heart is exposed.
When someone goes into the cave of distress, discouragement, or doubt—their true character will show up.
And if we’re brave enough to open up to the truth of ourselves as we are, the cave reveals how much work God still has to do within us in order to prepare us for greater things.
The cave is also a place of separation—where we are stripped of every misplaced dependency. Like David said, “I have no one to turn to. All I have is you, God.”
Undoubtedly, the cave can be the most difficult and frustrating part of our lives—and yet, in hindsight, we may end up seeing it as the most fruitful part of our lives.
I know this is not enjoyable to hear and it will not garner amens from the audience, but it is the dark and difficult days of our lives that most often prepare us for greater things.
What we cannot stand is actually forging our character and readying us for better days.
What feels like a curse is a blessing in the making.
I love what Bubbles, the incredible and unforgettable character from The Wire,
one of the most critically acclaimed television series of all time, had to say…
“Ain’t no shame in holding on to grief. So long as you make room for other things too.”
“Thin line between heaven and here.”
Outside of the Psalms, in one of the more historical literature books of the Old Testament, we get a glimpse of what was happening to David in this story…
1 Samuel 22.1
David fled from the city of Gath and went to hide in the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and the rest of the family heard that he was there, they went there to be with him.
1 Samuel 22.2
And everyone who was in distress, everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him. So he became captain over them. And there were about four hundred men with him.
Yes, David was alone in the cave. All he had was God. He prayed. God listened.
And happens next? His brothers show up. His entire family comes to be WITH him.
The next verse is one of my favorites.
All the negative D-word-folks come to David…
—The Dollemans. Ha! That’s my last name. It’s Dutch and it means, literally, “Crazy Man.” So, yeah, fitting.
The Message Bible says it like this:
So David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all.
He’s not alone. David is NOT ALONE.
God answered his prayer.
How exactly? Through people. People with soft hearts and people who have been through some devastating crap of their own. Survivors. Wounded healers.
Elizabeth Kübler Ross wrote:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
Beautiful people do not just happen. Wow.
That’s a word.
They don’t just happen…
—They emerge from the fire
—They walk out of the cave
—They make it through the dark night of the soul and enter the dawn of day
—They survive the wilderness
—They are released from prison and live free
They are people with soft hearts who have been through some devastating, excruciating crap of their own. They are survivors. They are wounded healers.
And they are the means through which God performs miracles!
They become the answer to someone’s desperate prayer.
They are angels in disguise.
They make purpose out of their worst pain.
They bring beauty from ashes.
Hope out of despair
They love people more than policies
They recognize a limp when they see it. They have an eye for hunger and sorrow and rejection.
They bring liberation and dismantle oppression and work to make every injustice undone.
They are building the Beloved Community, which is God’s Dream for humanity.
They are ones who have been called “down on their luck—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts,” and refused to just go away and disappear because they know the power of redemption, they know that with God anything is possible, they have chosen to become ministers of reconciliation, they are agents of resurrection.
They are a rag-tag collection of people who believe that God is love and grace is for everyone and we’re not better than anyone else.
And I want a place on the team. Anyone else?
I’ve had my cave time. And I’ll probably have more.
But I know a limp when I see one. I have a heart for prodigals because I was one. And I love black sheep because I am one!
As someone who has spent their entire life in the church, I know religious trauma, religious pain, I know the flight to freedom and the longing for a better and more beautiful way. I can tell when someone is fleeing abusive, controlling, manipulative, cultish leadership. I see the hunger for wide open pastures in the eyes of those who are escaping the small and inflexible walls of religious fundamentalism.
I been in the cave. I want on the team!
What was it that Geno Smith said?
They wrote me off. I ain’t write back, though.
Not sure if that applies exactly, and maybe it was just for that one week… but I like the sentiment. I feel like it’s conveying the idea of being hidden in a cave, but look out—I’m here now.
The four hundred misfit wounded healers bring strength and courage and hope to David.
Within a few days, 600 had gathered with him. And they became David’s army – among them were some who the Bible describes as being the mighty men who fought legendary battles and did great exploits against all odds and won.
Do you know what happens when someone is all ALONE and then some wounded healers come—simply to be with them? MIRACLES!
Healing. Restoration. Renewed Hope.
All the bad D words turned around and into something good!
I realize it is possible to emerge from the cave a more bitter, selfish, angry, narrow minded, fearful, judgmental, calloused person…
But, man, what a sad way to let the darkness gain victory over the light, to choose the kingdom of death over the kingdom of life, to surrender to the sorrow and become sour.
I don’t want to ever allow the darkness to damn me—I will choose to let it refine me, purify me, strengthen and prepare me for greater things.
In life, we will be wounded. It’s a given.
But why not turn it into something redemptive, something with healing, resurrection power?
We can be wounded healers…
—Building the Beloved Community, God’s Dream for humanity.
—We can be that rag-tag collection of people who believe that God is love and grace is for everyone and we’re not better than anyone else.
—We can make our wounds worth it.
—Going from cave time…
—To brave time
and I know that’s corny, but still
I dare ya to join me, team.
In the Gospels, we read about how the despised and hated tax collector named Levi—viewed as a traitor to his own people by working for the Roman government, held a dinner party in his home with Jesus as the guest of honor. Levi invited a bunch of his co-workers and friends to come too.
The religious gatekeepers and morality police of the day noticed this and raised their complaint to Jesus’ disciples saying, “Why would he eat and drink with such scum?”
But Jesus heard and responded, I’m paraphrasing now…
“Those who are perfectly put together and constantly maintain their image of strength and power have no need for the wounded healer.
It’s those who are broken, hurting, down on their luck… the misfits, the losers, the least and the last and the lost. They’re the ones who come alive when the wounded healer arrives.
I’m not here for those who think they have it all together. I’m here for those who know they need help.”
And then, our Lord and Savior returned his attention to the riffraff sitting with him at the table and smiled as he asked Levi to pass the grilled flatbread, hummus, and wine.
Later, the disciples started arguing over which of them would be most famous. When Jesus realized how much this mattered to them, he brought a child to his side. “Whoever accepts this child as if the child were me, accepts me,” he said. “And whoever accepts me, accepts the One who sent me. You become great by accepting, not asserting.”
I invite you to become a wounded healer, together with others who have been through it—and survived, building the beloved community, which is God’s dream, through every act of accepting rather than asserting, with-ness, solidarity, kinship, and a willingness to be the answer to someone’s desperate prayer from their cave of aloneness. The choice is yours.