Edgar Moore: Struggling out of the valley of shadows
After helping a woman step back from the brink of suicide, a pastor realizes that it was his own journey in grief that had prepared him to offer her the path to redemption.
November 8, 2011 | Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. Ed Moore delivered this sermon on Oct. 25, 2011, at a retreat at Lake Junaluska for Spirited Life, a multi-year health and wellness program and behavioral health study offered by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative.
When you move, you find things. In the summer of 2007, as Mary and I were unpacking at our new home in North Carolina, I came across a box filled with cards and letters I’d received when leaving a congregation to move on to the next appointment. Some were heartfelt goodbyes, wishing me well in the next place of service; others were thinly disguised “thank-God-you’re-moving” kinds of things. Then there was one that was very different.
It was handwritten, came in a basic, white envelope, from a 30-something young woman, highly educated, and it began like this: “Dear Ed, Of all the things for which I need to thank you, first among them is this: You saved my life.”
The writer reminded me of the day she had come into my office and, with clarity and calmness, told me of her intention to take her own life. She had every detail planned: time, place, means of ending it all, letters written to her husband and parents -- everything. The perfect script. She wanted to know if I would still do her funeral if she committed suicide. That was the final bit of planning, you see.
Every competent pastor knows what must be done in a situation like that. We -- the church, medical folk, her family and I -- performed the intervention that was imperative. She recovered from her deep depression. I still get the monthly newsletter from that church; she has been teaching Disciple Bible now for several years. And doing well, thanks be to God.
When she came into my office that day, she brought the valley of the shadow of death along with her, because that is where her soul had already journeyed. As I listened to her describe how she would take her life, I could smell the freshly turned earth from her newly opened grave. She was that far into the valley of shadows. Near the last milepost.
I was able to go in there and take her by the hand because I had been to that same milepost in the valley a few years earlier. I had made similar plans, come calmly and deliberately to the same decisions.
And in that dark place, I had been captured by the grace of God -- a grace incarnate in the lives of folk who cared for me -- and led back out into the light of life. So when that sister came into my office that day, I knew exactly where she was and how to lead her out.
It was not Ed Moore, as her letter suggested, but the grace of God poured out in my life, abundantly and undeservedly, that caught her and saved her. We left that newly opened grave empty on that grace-filled day.
Deep depression takes something out of you. The therapy, the drugs, the difficult journey -- it takes something from you. Struggling out of the valley of shadows, I left some things behind: some intellectual acuity, some vocabulary, a couple of high notes from my spiritual register. I grieved the loss of those parts of myself -- until that day my sister came into the office and cried out from her own graveside.
Then, through the work of the Holy Spirit, I came to understand: it was my own journeying in grief that had prepared me to go in there and offer her the path to redemption. My grief turned out to be a gift for ministry.
I shudder to think what stock textbook answer I might have given her that day, what intellectually impeccable logic I might have flung her way, had I not traveled my own journey into the valley of shadows. I might have ended up presiding at the funeral she requested. And I would have done it with liturgical precision and professional finesse! My, the compliments that would have come my way at the coffee hour after we had laid her in the ground!
But, thanks be to God, I had myself been deep into the valley of shadows.
Every pastor knows that you can read a passage of Scripture 100 times, then next time you turn to it, the Spirit shows you something you had never seen before. When I rediscovered that letter from my former parishioner, my Bible lay open on my desk, turned to Genesis 12, the story of God’s call to Abraham and Sarah.
I saw at once, and for the first time, that God asked Abraham and Sarah to lose parts of themselves before they could begin the covenant journey: their homeland, their clan connection, which meant everything in that culture. I saw, for the first time, that they began the covenant journey in grief, in loss, and that that grieving, that loss began the highway to the new Jerusalem.
When we come to the story of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Christ in what Pilate thought was a cemetery, we view that scene through lenses that prejudice the text. Charles Wesley’s resurrection hymn is already sounding through our souls: “Christ the Lord is risen today, Hallelujah!”
But what the text says is that Mary -- once her name is spoken by the risen Christ and she knows it is Jesus -- immediately goes to find Peter and the ten, huddled in some spiritual bomb shelter, the lot of them having deserted Jesus of Nazareth!