Saying “I love you!” to a crowd does not make any individual feel loved. Most assume it is meant more for others in the group rather than for ourselves, or it would be if the speaker really knew us well, even if the speaker is presumably the Holy Spirit.
So even in a church where we regularly hear “God loves you no matter what!” it can be isolating to deal with mental illness, pregnancy loss, adoption/foster care, cross-cultural relationships, care-giving, addiction, discrimination or other big challenges. It gets worse when there’s bad theology intertwined in church people’s well-intended support. Preaching that gets specific, with solid theology about the issues that shape our lives, is the best kind of “life application” we can offer.
Perhaps you’ve already noticed a new series of Working Preacher articles, under the umbrella “Preaching + ___________,” which highlights when (in the Revised Common Lectionary), why and how preachers can do this kind of vital theological reflection on such issues.
Once you’ve begun preaching about one of these challenges, you may also initiate a conversation on how your faith community can pro-actively assert its safety for someone who is struggling. Someone determined not to express the turmoil inside of themselves or in their household will stay silent unless it seems like people really want to understand or get into the midst of it with them. They might even, consciously or not, camouflage the situation by putting on the best show possible for church. After all, in some congregations, being at our “Sunday best” is expected. So many just stop coming. Negotiating what makes us different and being honest about how we are treated when we are different can be excruciating, but reduces isolation by exposure. Vulnerability creates space for genuine caring and meaningful relationships. Lectionary preaching that addresses issues deeply imbedded in our identities — not only our theology — helps all of us to see the Bible as relevant to our lives, and ourselves as valued within the Body of Christ. It is like unlocking and opening a door, through which people’s stories will flood in.
It is not just in the interest of those who are hurting, that we talk about uncomfortable issues from the pulpit. The truth is, my theology has some serious gaps around many of my neighbors’ struggles because I haven’t thought to address them, and I am not alone in that. I have so little concept — for example — of how our God is experienced differently by a person on the autism spectrum, that I don’t even know what to predict I might learn, in my head or my heart. (Of course, even the implication that the experience of faith is one way for a whole group of people is misleading.) I want to connect insights to my own experience, but I have to pay close attention to when a comparison could be belittling. Being near-sighted does not mean that I understand what it is like to have a disability. Having dark hair and thus being initially assumed to be Latina does not give you much insight into racism. Having strong feelings sometimes doesn’t mean either of us fully understand people who have bi-polar disorder. If anything, making minimizing comparisons could make a preacher less trustworthy, because our small insights into what it might be like to live with a significant challenge don’t take into account the impact of discrimination. How people react can leave a much bigger impression than the issue itself. My friend Kate’s wheelchair bumper sticker says it well: “Attitudes are the real disability.”
I am not qualified to preach with authority on someone else’s experience while interpreting Scripture. Yet, I am absolutely qualified to ask questions; to seek out people with that authority connected to our community or theological tradition to talk about it; to read accounts and analysis; to find a voice in Scripture that could have a similar perspective and ask: “What might the Holy Spirit be saying?” I am completely qualified to search for voices we’ve never heard in our space before, and amplify them. After all, if we can speak only about what we ourselves have experienced, then not only can unmarried priests or pastors never do pre-marital counseling, but none of us is qualified to talk about the sacrifice of Jesus. Some of us, acknowledging our privilege, will have to admit that we do not know the weight of any real discrimination. It is not the responsibility of those who are oppressed to teach others how to do better, but when we confess the gaps in our own understanding, we can open the conversation for questions like: “How does your experience affect how you live within our community? Or how do you understand our faith?”
Genuinely asking to learn could change the answers to those very questions.