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Wounded Healers

[I preached this sermon in June, 2009 at Timonium UMC for the commissioning of  our first class of Stephen Ministers. I am also a Stephen Leader and Minister at TUMC. This is a great ministry. To learn more visit Stephen Ministries.]

In his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of an old Chinese woman whose only son had died. Overwhelmed by grief, she went to the village holy man and asked him for prayers and magical incantations to bring her son back to life. Rather than dismiss her or try to reason her through her grief, he said “Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use that to drive out your sorrow.” So she set off in search of the magical mustard seed. The first home she came to was a great mansion and she felt sure that a place of such great wealth would not have known sorrow. But when she knocked on the door and explained she was looking for a home that had never known sorrow, the owner related terrible tragedies that had recently befallen his family. The woman said to herself, “Who is better to help these poor unfortunate people than I, who have had misfortune of my own.” So she stayed to comfort them, then she continued her search. But wherever she went, whether palace or hovel, she encountered stories of sadness and misfortune. At each she ministered to those in grief and in time she forgot her quest, never realizing that in comforting others she herself had been comforted. Because of her suffering, she could comfort those who suffered. Because of her wounds, she could heal.

Stephen Ministry training involves 50 hours of training in a broad range of topics and skills. In our initial training kickoff session, I introduced the team to the concept of the “wounded healer,” a term from author Henri Nouwen who is a favorite of Stephen Ministry, and emphasized as described in our passage from Second Corinthians, that the essence of becoming a Stephen Minister is learning to allow Christ to transform all of our experiences of loss, loneliness, and suffering, and the comfort in Christ that we have experienced during our grief, loneliness, and suffering, into empathy and understanding that Jesus will use to comfort others. I believe I can speak for the team in saying that none of us had a clue when we started how deep into our lives this ministry would reach.

Stephen Ministry is a ministry of presence. A Stephen Minister is not a therapist. A Stephen Minister is not a pastor. A Stephen Minister IS a compassionate heart committed to being with a person who is struggling to deal with one or more of the many ways that life can burden us, listening with understanding but without judgment to the fears and concerns that the person expresses, and when appropriate sharing how the faith of the Stephen Minister has helped through difficult times. A Stephen Minister is a prayer warrior for the care receiver, either with the care receiver when requested, but also always on their own with Christ. A Stephen Minister always tries to show the love of Christ in action and when the care receiver is willing, will witness to that love in words.

Stephen Ministry also is not just for the major hurts of life. The brochure in the pews today speaks to the many circumstances, more and less complex, in which a Stephen Minister may serve. Yes, we are prepared to help people through grief at the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, major illness, or other significant life challenges. But a Stephen Minister can help even in brief periods of need. I can attest to that personally. When our daughter, Meredith, left home last summer to report for duty with the Navy, she was anxious and lonely. Kathy and I did not know at the time, but because she knew about Stephen Ministry through our involvement, she called the local Methodist church and asked for a Stephen Minister. The minister assigned helped her for 8 weeks until she started actual flight training in Pensacola. The minister still follows up by phone occasionally just to see how she is doing. As her father, I can tell you that her need was brief, but the Stephen Minister made a huge difference for her. So in a real sense, our daughter became the first person to receive care as a consequence of the Stephen Ministry at this church. Isn’t the way God works amazing?!

By the way, I also share this as her father, not as a Stephen Minister. You have information in the bulletin about the measures that we take as Stephen Ministers to assure confidentiality. But even though I know the facts as her father, as a Stephen Minister I was concerned about the confidentiality of the relationship. Meredith assured me that disclosure was OK and that she would have been happy to speak to you if she were here.

What we learned today from Corinthians and other lessons regarding the body of Christ, and what we in Stephen Ministry have learned very intimately and personally during our training, is that we as Christians may pray for ourselves and for each other, but we receive Christ’s comforting and healing through each other. But what we also learned as a team is that any problem that one of us faced impacted the well being of the entire team and that we had an obligation to Jesus as well as each other to allow ourselves to be comforted and healed by Christ, through one another. As Paul emphasized in his first letter to the Corinthians, we are all parts of the body of Christ and all parts are necessary for the functioning of the body. That is particularly true when one of us is suffering. When the foot is in pain the whole body suffers. So when we are suffering, we owe it not only to ourselves, but to the entire body of Christ to allow others to care for us. And the irony is that each of us is far more willing to give care than receive it, but as the scripture we have read today emphasizes, both giving and receiving comfort is essential to our life in Christ.

In his essay, “The Grace to Receive,” Kenneth Haugk, the founder of Stephen Ministry, addressed the paradox that we can only give to others when we first have received Christ’s care from others. He observed:

Counselors, teachers, ministers, parents, friends – all of us often find it difficult to receive gifts from others. Oh, we find it relatively easy to help others – to give money to them, to spend time with them when they are sick, to visit them when they are in need of a visit, and so on. But when it comes time for us to be on the receiving end, we often fidget, squirm, make excuses, and even refuse — for their own good, of course! We employ clichés like “Better to give than receive” to support our one-sided way of relating to people.

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Strange that we Christians should find it difficult to be gracious receivers when we confess that our entire lives – physical and spiritual – are gifts of God’s Spirit. Although the Bible stresses giving it also gives us examples of receiving.

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It is this divine love and concern that we have experienced that expands and becomes a source of our acts of love and concern for others. When Christians, then, give love and concern to others, they are sharing the love of Christ active within them. And when we receive gifts of love from our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are in a real sense also receiving Christ.

What I don’t think any of us understood when we started the training for Stephen Ministry was that our ministry would start in our caring for each other. As part of the training exercises, we found that when we did role playing in the care receiver roles, we ended up sharing actual wounds that we had suffered along the paths of our lives and in so doing we have grown very close to each other. But even more significant, as the months of training unfolded practically every one of us suffered some crisis that was typical of the situations that Stephen Ministers address. So our caring ministry began by caring for each other. We listened and cried with each other….as Stephen Ministers will do with care receivers. We laughed and celebrated with each other… Stephen Ministers will do with care receivers. We were present for and prayed with each other….as Stephen Ministers will do with care receivers. And in the process, we have been transformed by the Holy Spirit. For we have discovered that what Christ has done is take all of the times in our lives where we have received his love and care from others, and, in Kenneth Haugk’s terms, expanded it to become the “source of our acts of love and concern for others.”  In God’s math, he has taken the love of one person, and combined it with that of another, but multiplying instead of adding, and in so doing created a team of people with a capacity and skills for caring far beyond what any of us have individually, but only by using what we have received from Christ through other Christians.

In our reading from Isaiah, Isaiah responds to the call of God by stating, “Here I am.” The phrase “Here I am” is an important phrase in scripture and is often associated with Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah among others. The actual Hebrew word used would have been “Hineni”. That word means more than just “I am here.” The entirety of its meaning is something akin to “I am here Lord and listening to you.” And even God used it in Isaiah 58:9 when the people cry out to him and he responds, “Hineni. I am here. I am listening.”

We feel that if this ministry had not been named after Stephen it could easily have been named “Hineni” for that is where we now stand. This ministry is yours as a congregation. We are just the instruments to be used. We pledge to you collectively and individually that when you call we will answer. We will be present. We will care. But you must call and receive. We are ready to answer and give. So for all who stand before you today I say, “Hineni.”

© 2009, Thomas M. Trezise

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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