Is Anybody Listening?

A parishioner walked into my office one day and began the conversation with: “I remember how you said in a sermon once that God never gives us more problems than we can handle.”

This gentleman took a great deal of comfort from that nugget of wisdom dispensed from my pulpit and it helped him to make sense of his world. That is exactly the kind of thing that should fill a preacher with a sense of accomplishment, if not pride, in having guided a parishioner on his spiritual journey.

Problem was, I never said it.

Worse yet, it’s not something I would ever say. In my theological understanding, there are so many things wrong with that statement about God that it’s like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard whenever I hear it. I can look back at my sermon manuscripts and find arguments I have made opposing that statement.

That may have been the low point in my pulpit ministry. Here I spend all these hours carefully crafting and honing the message that I proclaim from the pulpit so that it will have the maximum impact and clarity, and the one thing that somebody seems to have gotten from all that is something I never said and don’t even believe.

Hello! Is anybody listening? Anybody out there? Am I wasting my time, deluding myself into thinking I’m getting through to anyone?

I imagine that all preachers at some time ask those questions. I suspect we’ve all had that great feeling of accomplishment when, at the end of what we thought was a particularly insightful and powerful sermon, the only three comments we receive relate to the particulars of a humorous anecdote we used to illustrate a point.

Feedback is hard to come by in this business. It seems to be largely restricted to capsule critics–people who tell us at the end of a sermon whether or not it was “good”, or whether or not they liked it. Exactly what they got from it, who knows? It’s like playing a game of Battleship, only the guy on the other side of the screen never tells us whether we’ve hit anything.

Even this column is part of the enigma; I have no idea whether anyone out there is reading this. If they are, are they getting anything useful from it, or just the impression that I’m a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal?

There are two ways in which I try to come to terms with this frustration. First, I recognize that preaching is, above all, an act of faith. Pastors who require instant cause-and-effect results are probably in the wrong profession.

We are called to proclaim the Gospel and so we do it. We trust that if we faithfully work at this task to the best of our ability, the Spirit will be set free to do what it does and lives will be impacted, whether we see it or not. I can remember several sermons from the distant past that continue to impact me to this day, and I am sure the preacher has no idea of that impact.

We act in faith that the words of Isaiah are true, that the Word of God “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”

Secondly, I recognize that meager feedback can be a good thing. It keeps me on edge. It reminds me that it is God, and not I, who speaks those words from Isaiah. I cannot assume that just because I open my mouth in God’s name, I am God’s gift to the ears of the world.

All writers have to find the balance between confidence and fear that produces good results. I have to believe in myself and what I’m doing or I get nowhere. But it is that underlying doubt, and fear of failure, that drives me to work hard and to improve.

More on this next month . . . if anyone’s out there listening.