Through pain and joy, despair and panic, when you are so utterly exhausted that you wonder if your way is hidden from God, just be real. Embrace your journey.
And don't forget to sing.
That was the message that the Rev. Connie Shelton, senior pastor of Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church, a multiracial downtown church in Jackson, Miss., shared with a gathering of senior adults.
Hundreds flocked to Myrtle Beach on Feb. 7-9 for the United Methodist South Carolina Annual (regional) Conference's Older Adults Spiritual Life Retreat. Craving some winter sunshine and spiritual rejuvenation, attendees cried, laughed and sang with Shelton as she led them through funny and sometimes heartbreaking stories.
"Let the walls down and take the masks off," Shelton implored the crowd, reminding people it is OK to admit they are not doing fine, OK to stop the pretense and simply lean on each other.
In Shelton's opening message, she challenged attendees to "be real" with each other over the next few days. After all, she said, with authenticity comes a deeper, more fruitful way to experience life - and Christ.
Shelton recounted the time she was serving as a guest preacher and her then-4-year-old daughter, Bailey, disappeared from sight. Loud snickers began to resound, and she was horrified when she discovered her daughter at the Communion table, "double-dipping in the juice." While the congregation took it in stride, she was aghast and tried to salvage the moment by tying it in with a Scriptural lesson about the open table.
"But everyone knew what I was doing," she recalled, shaking her head ruefully at the memory. "And in that moment I realized Christ had salvaged the moment."
Being real with each other
She learned instantly that being real with each other is not only OK but good and well for people's collective soul. "Many times we stay in the embryo position, so concerned about who is looking, that we don't even reach out for help," Shelton said.
"Listen for the constant, empathetic melody of God in everything we experience - then learn to lift up that melody through music and song." - The Rev. Connie Shelton
But God knows our pain. God knows we all suffer. And if we are all suffering, we can lean on each other - if we can be authentic enough to admit what we are going through. "There is something about somebody crying with you that makes a difference," Shelton said.
But in that realness, she said, we need to learn, not only to accept, but also embrace our trials, our pain, our hopes and our fears. Part of that embracing is learning to listen.
Shelton urged the crowd to open their ears and listen for the constant, empathetic melody of God in everything we experience - then learn to lift up that melody through music and song. So many times, she said, music can be a healing comfort when all the words in the world mean nothing.
'Pay attention to songs'
Once, a dear friend called her in panic because her son was very ill far away, and she was torn apart inside by anxiety. Grasping at solutions, Shelton offered a suggestion to her friend: Go to the piano, pick up a hymnal and start playing.
Later, her friend told her that she played through every song in that hymnal, and by the time she was finished, she knew peace.
"Pay attention to songs that bubble up within you," Shelton said.
Flo Johnson, one of the attendees, said Shelton's words especially resonated with her.
"I'm blessed to be in a church where we are real, honest and open with each other, not 'playing' church but truly 'being' church," Johnson said. "Being real with each other is so important, especially as we age. We all need to do more of that."
*Connor is editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].