By Norris Burkes May 21 2023
After working 30 years as a hospital and military chaplain, I was surprised more than anyone by my return to parish ministry last year.
And the word “surprise” has become a regular part of my strategy with my unsuspecting little congregation.
Each Sunday, I try to keep them guessing. That’s because I don’t think memorized prayer or rote liturgy always gets the job done.
For instance, we began our Mother’s Day service with Paul Simon’s music video of “Love Me Like a Rock.” I then gathered the congregants into five groups, allowing them five minutes to share something about their mother, good and difficult.
And we even had time for a serious sermon on “The Motherly Qualities of God.”
Given what I did a few weeks earlier on Easter, I doubt that I can surprise them much anymore. We kicked off the service by bouncing a beach ball through the crowd. The “Happy Dance” video by Mercy Me had everyone busting a move or two, but mostly I just busted that dance.
I managed to shock a few first-time visitors, but the idea was that Easter should be celebrated as a wonderful surprise. After all, I don’t think there’s a bigger surprise than Jesus coming out of the grave.
But it’s what I did on the Sunday before Easter that still has a few of them talking.
I began by telling them the story of a wounded soldier who asked me to help him forgive the insurgents that killed his squad leader. I confessed how the story had inspired me to forgive a fellow chaplain of a long-time hurt.
I paused for a moment, carving a silent space to honor the holy. I then asked them to consider their own stories and those who’ve hurt them in perhaps unforgiveable ways.
“Today, I hope it’s time to let that go,” I suggested.
I motioned them into a circle around the edges of the sanctuary and then distributed a responsive reading that I’ve shared with dozens of churches around the U.S.
From a half sheet of paper, I challenged them to respond to a litany that my father-in-law, Wil, wrote to help me deal with past hurts.
He titled it, “A Litany for Our Deepest Hurts.”
Leader: Because there are pains that do not heal as physical pain does with time, surgery, or medication, we are engaged in this spiritual covenant in anticipation — now or soon — of eventual healing of our spirits.
Response: I accept and enter this covenant as if I were beginning a brand new journey in life.
Leader: The deeper the hurt, the longer the journey, whether in minutes, hours or days to that healing destination brought about by forgiveness and release.
Response: I promise to move in that direction. I may not move as fast as you think I should, but today or daily I will release and surrender either all or some part of this cumbersome weight.
Leader: These hurts have many names such as bushwhacked, waylaid, back-stabbed, slandered, deceived, etc., and none hurt like that received from a perceived friend.
Response: I will cease giving it a name and simply reject anything in my mind and spirit that is counterproductive to what God has planned for me.
Leader: Ceasing to dwell on this matter is not a matter of weakness, for it will free your time and mind. Therefore, if you are willing to stop looking back and instead face a forward direction, then our mighty God will be better able to bless and direct a forward-moving life.
Response: Because I know you are right, I hereby give up to God my so-called “rights” I have attached to my hurts, knowing he will deal with those involved while also leading me “in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
I’ve shared this litany with many audiences during the talks I’ve given in past years. No one has said that it’s a magic pill. Yet, most have found it useful as a strong first step toward being surprised by forgiveness.
Perhaps you too can find it helpful. Take this column and litany back to your church, small group or family reunion. Challenge them to let go and walk into the “forward-facing life.”
In the meantime, the words are my daily touchstone, reminding me to never be surprised by the power of forgiveness.
Snail mail received at 10566 Combie Road, Suite 6643, Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail 843-608-9715. Visit my website at www.thechaplain.net where you can read past columns and purchase my books.