Preaching from the gut.

Sunday’s sermon was a difficult one to write and a difficult one to preach in a difficult service to lead.

x-sad-faceI was in my own pain, my own sadness this past weekend. A personal thing, a small one. Very small, in fact, nearly invisible. Nothing that can’t be healed by a day’s worth of tears (okay a day’s worth and a few nights). But I found myself identifying with the people of Israel in Isaiah 61, feeling that life was being more than a bit unfair, and found myself identifying with Jenny, my sermon example. I certainly found myself struggling to whip up some hope and joy this third Sunday of Advent.

There are a limited range of options in such situations. Put on a happy face, for this is the Sunday of joy, and preach yourself into a place where you feel joy. Act ‘as if,’ as Pascal says, in the hopes that the ‘as if’ becomes the actual. But I’m not a very good actress. I think it might have smacked of a little– or a lot of– insincerity. I considered for a moment calling in sick, and asking people to do a hymn sing. This wouldn’t have worked in Plainfield, where our pianist is out and we sing to pre-recorded CDs. It might have been just fine in Montpelier, where we had no heat, and the remaining ‘frozen chosen’ who for whatever reason did not go home, might have been okay with no sermon at all (and yes, I did lead the service wearing my fingerless gloves. No, I don’t think that’s disrespectful; I think it’s warm). But I instead chose to embrace it, to acknowledge the pain I was experiencing and preach from it, preach through it, and let it speak to our need for joy.

They say you never preach a sermon that you yourself don’t need to hear.

Listening to the sermon (which I rarely do, but did this week, because I need to hear it), I think you can hear it in my voice, the little quiver when I say things like “sometimes, we carry around secret pain,” or when I read the psalmists’ laments, or when I pray for the grace even to let go of the things still tangled up in us. I think I made the right choice, the honest choice, and I hope that confronting and laying down my own pain enabled others to do the same.

Your turn, if you like. How do you handle it when you have to go through the motions? Are you good at putting on the happy face? Are there times when you push into your pain or anger or grief?

5 thoughts on “Preaching from the gut.”

  1. Becca, I’m guilty of putting on my piety face when I preach. The great Peggy Way once gave me back a paper that said “Play more.” I am by nature very silly, goofy, playful – and my theological questions are deepest and best when I allow myself to play.

    Problem is, I often “play preacher” (more than I’m comfortable with) from the pulpit and tone down my personality.

    And yes, my central theological preaching point – “God loves you passionately anyway” – is developed primarily around my own battles with depression, my own insecurities, and my fears.

  2. @Preach,

    Playing preacher is a lot easier sometimes, though, isn’t it?! There’s some safe distance there, and sometimes we need that too. How many people in various jobs can lose themselves a little in work and so feel a bit better, a bit more ‘normal’? We do the same! For what it’s worth, I get your sense of play when I read your blog, and I hope that a lot of the reflections you post there make their way into sermons. Why do all that thinking twice? 😉

    Thanks for commenting! Shalom,

  3. Hi Becca,

    I try to distract myself. Sometimes that doesn’t work, and I just say it…say the pain. Sometimes I’ll call a friend and we’ll joke. In fact, I began collecting odd things I heard while leading a a high-pressure project. All of us on that team add to it, and we call it The Project File (eg, “Let’s stop testing while it still works”).

    Could I preach from the dark, sad, place? Maybe, but partly if I had something to argue against. After September 11, I couldn’t do serious work for weeks. I studied “the philosophy of technology” because making technology just seemed useless. Finally, I found myself on a conference call with a group of “partners” from Zurich who intended to make my team responsible for all blunders the Swiss had made.

    It was like being slapped in the back of the head. Under direct attack, I just forgot about people jumping from the World Trade Center.

    That’s cheating a bit. It’s finding ways to trick myself back into normal work, when that accustomed groove of normal work then puts my emotions back into normal channels.

    Could you do the same?

    I wouldn’t expect that. Rather, I’d expect your congregations to embrace your genuine feelings…sadness calls out empathy.

    I haven’t listened to your sermon yet, but I bet you did just fine.


    John W.

  4. Bec, I put on the coach face far too often, and yet I claim to be trying to dig into the dark night experience and understand my own dark nights (big and teeny). I sometimes feel like a heretic and other times just figure it is what being human is all about. The older I get the more compassionate and tolerant I become – it is all just human, and I need just to let it be human and then embrace whichever reaction I may have chosen.
    None of these choices are wrong, especially when we see the reality anyway.

  5. Becca,
    I think you are right that both responses could be appropriate depending on the situation and depending on the leading of the Lord. Sometimes much prayer and trust in the Lord can take care of the situation before the sermon. Sometimes, however, the Lord does lead to use the sadness, the loss, the grief, whatever the emotion to make the message real for whomever He has prepared to hear it. And it will be exactly what they need.
    Thanks for sharing your heart.

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