Preaching is powerful. It reaches into our souls and speaks to every human emotion when it is going well. Though this will not be true of every preaching ministry some preachers avoid touching on grief and despair except for in funeral sermons. Perhaps this is because the preacher faces enough grief and despair week to week that they want to uplift and encourage instead. Compassion fatigue can so wear down a preacher that even discussing grief is too much for them to bear again. For other preachers a level of fear of getting it wrong or a lack of comfort in talking about these topics drives the dodging of lament. Others simply want to lead their congregations in optimistic faith, in triumphant hope, and make church an experience of celebration first and foremost. Whatever the reason may be, avoiding the breadth of human emotions can create a gulf between the preacher and the congregation.
The problem is partly one of approach. Preachers often offer sermons focused on future hope, which address a deep spiritual need, but is not holistic. There is a serious need for hope that is focused in the present. The world we live in creates an environment of despair, and preachers must offer hope of God’s present hope and love, in addition to future oriented hope. Preaching focused on hope centered on God’s presence in the midst of suffering addresses the immediate need of individuals’ suffering.
A second common mistake for preachers is inadequately addressing the normality of human emotions and their roots. Hope-centered preaching should not rush to optimism without adequately addressing pain. Preaching that ignores or merely mentions suffering inadequately is unfaithful to the biblical witness and can even be harmful if it is the pattern week after week. If preachers refuse to process grief and despair from the pulpit, then hope is robbed of its fullest expression. Hope without lament after all is in danger of being labeled naïve or out of touch. Of course, no preacher should ever drive his or her church to hopelessness, but frequently congregants are already in the valley. The loss of a job, the death of a loved one, PTSD, or a child addicted to drugs are all common situations that need to be addressed. Preaching must meet people where they are. Congregants need to be more than just heard and understood from the pulpit, they need to have their experiences and struggles expressed. Preaching is effective when congregants feel that they and their problems are understood because being heard and understood by someone who also gives voice to their struggles meets spiritual and psychological needs that can provide hope in the present.
Lament, anger, and despair are all natural emotions. Some traditions of preaching tend to imply that we should not feel them even if it is not said explicitly. This creates a stark double standard of emotional expectations and a false dichotomy of faith. Rarely addressing these human emotions from the pulpit subconsciously invalidates their existence and creates an existential conflict between the body and soul. Moreover, it ignores the holistic biblical witness. Jesus wept at the loss of a loved one (John 11:35). He became angry with the money-changers (Matt 21:12). Jesus fell into despair on the cross when he felt forsaken by God (Matt 27:46). He lamented over the fate of Jerusalem (Matt 23:37). The life of Christ validates our feelings and reveals the need to address them. The powerful emotions of grief, anger, loss, discouragement, frustration, and even disillusionment can be seen as normal experience for faithful humans. Instead of seeking control over them or treating them as problems, what if we validated and guided these emotions? It takes more faith to remain steadfast in the midst of enduring pain than ignoring or denying that pain exists. In order for preaching to reach people, it must practically address what they are feeling. Christ, as fully God and fully human, understands our emotions and connects with us on a personal level, as preaching should.
Often preachers rely on the arch of God’s redemptive plan to offer hope. Comments like “this too will pass,” “it will all be worked out when we get to heaven,” and “God has a plan” are helpful for reflecting on suffering in the long run, but they do little to address immediate needs. All of these comments are solution-oriented. They imagine a time in which the problem and pain no longer exist, but in the meantime, the problem still exists. Surely preaching can offer something more than the imperative to wait to those in pain? In order to address the immediate needs, preaching should be problem oriented too. Problem oriented preaching seriously admits the reality of pain and authentically processes emotions. If the pulpit abdicates its role in addressing pain, preachers cannot expect to meet the congregation’s needs. I am not advocating for less hope but for hope that balances the redemption to come with God’s presence now. God is present with us within suffering, not just at the end of suffering. God has something for us in the middle of pain and loss, not just “someday.”
Preachers and their sermons must be “non-anxious.” A non-anxious presence is the ability to explore, process, and empathize without becoming anxious.[i] Being a non-anxious presence requires self-awareness and reliance on God. It has the faith to maintain calm in the midst of storms and to guide others through the storm without waving the existence of the storm away. Christ can say “Peace be still” and the storm ceases. Preachers do not have this power. In many ways we preach to those who, like it or not, will have to ride out a storm, sometimes to the bitter end.
What is it about the 23rd Psalm that speaks to us in times of distress? The psalm does not promise that we will never face difficult times; the psalm does not even promise that difficult times will end. So, how is it that in the valley of the shadow of death someone could find comfort? The answer is simply “I will fear no evil for you are with me” (Ps 23:4 emphasis added). The most comforting passage of scripture offers solace because it promises God’s presence, even in the midst of suffering and despair. Pain and suffering are real, are a normal part of the human experience, and their effects are potent. The psalm promises that in the midst of despair and darkness we are not alone; it is hope for the present that acknowledges pain. God’s presence is hope that can always be offered.
The seriousness and depth of the traumas we face cannot be fully explored in a sermon. A sermon cannot replace pastoral counseling even when the primary focus is appropriately pastoral care. I remember two specific times when the sermon’s main focus was pastoral care—the Sunday after 9/11 and the chapel following the suicide of a college classmate. The collective needs of the community were so great in each of these situations that doing anything but address the trauma would have been harmful. In these times, the homiletical task is not to solve or fix trauma. The task is to address the pain and offer hope, hope that is here now and hope that is to come. If congregants feel that the preacher understands them and is able to address their spiritual needs, they are more likely to seek pastoral counseling.[ii] The light of hope is brightest when it shines despite the darkness of despair, not merely at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Until preaching addresses the present need for hope rooted in God’s presence and grapples with the breadth of human emotions, a congregation’s needs will not be met. People have the need to be heard and understood. Preaching can address that need by exploring and validating negative emotions explicitly and in depth before hastening to hope. Sally Brown and Luke Powery say that “preachers are those who dare to dance on the graves of despair.”[iii] Dancing prematurely is offensive. Suggesting others dance without grieving or lamenting is counter productive. We dare to dance because we know the faithfulness of God’s presence in the present. Preachers can better understand their role by becoming more comfortable with emotions, especially their own as it comes to death, loss, meaninglessness, and other forms of despair. When a person has been heard and understood, they are more receptive to hope and aware of God’s love. Articulating that hearing and understanding takes practice and careful forethought. At times what not to say in relation to grief and loss is as important as what to say.
Preaching is always contextual, and our hope-centered preaching needs to attend to that context. Each congregation is unique with distinctive needs. Leonora Tisdale convincingly argues that preachers have the task of exegeting scripture and their congregations. This means that preachers need to study their congregations. She reminds her readers that the central message of the Gospel always remains the same, but the identity and needs of the congregation should impact the message. Preachers need to consider how race, ethnicity, gender, age,[iv] and the emotional needs of the congregation impact the sermons receptiveness, timeliness, and appropriateness.
Preachers can choose to speak of life in ideals, of the life as it ought to be or will be one day. Sometimes that is exactly what needs to be said; on the other hand, we must speak of life as it is. With all its struggles and adversities, rooted in the reality of the world we live in. The Bible offers a holistic message to body, mind, and soul; thus, preaching should do the same. When death and suffering are ignored or understated, our people are ill-equipped when they come.
By Scott Donahue-Martens
Questions for you to ponder:
- When in the next three months does a sermon topic or text emerge that addresses loss, grief, pain, despair, suffering, or other sources of human lament?
- How can you listen well to those going through these storms between now and then?
- What are your own anxieties related to exploring those topics and how can you work towards a “non-anxious” internal world?
[i] Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family process in Church and Synagogue, (New York: Guilford Press, 2011).
[ii] Preachers must be careful not to break confidentiality or make a public display of another’s pain.
[iii] Brown, Sally A., and Luke A. Powery, Ways of the Word: Learning to Preach for your Time and Place, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), x.
[iv] Leonora T. Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 1997.