Preaching, hypocrisy and triteness

It was a bit of a shock to see myself described as a “more experienced priest” by Lesley on Lesley’s Blog, even though she qualified it with “than me.” Even after 10 years in ordained ministry I still feel like a newbie! Mind you, six years ago when I first moved to the Forest, several things happened that even my area dean with 25 years experience had never come across before. There is always something new, however long we have been at it.

However, I digress. The subject of Lesley’s post was “Anxiety, preaching and hypocrisy,” and in the course of comments she asked me:

“…as a more experienced priest than me, how do you deal with knowing the tremendous grief and pain that some of the lovely people that you preach to week by week carry? And what words are there to say at tragic funerals? ‘Do not worry’ seems trite at a Sunday service…”

After some thought, my response included the following:

“Preaching week by week is an enormous privilege and often one is aware of the pain and difficulties that some members of your congregation suffer. At the same time, there are other people and situations which call for celebration and rejoicing. Keeping the balance between these two aspects is necessary, and I think it is important not to let your awareness of either dominate in preaching and leading of worship. Not for nothing does the writer to the Ephesians (4:11 – my evangelical slip is showing!) link the roles of pastor and teacher. Preaching and teaching are very pastoral acts.

I am always amazed when people give me feedback to find exactly what has spoken to them individually. Often it is something that I thought was only a throwaway comment (so be careful with these); sometimes it wasn’t even anything I actually said, but something that sparked a connection with something else in the hearer’s mind. So I try to approach the task of preaching in a prayerful attitude, and trust that the Holy Spirit will use whatever I say in a positive and constructive manner.

I try never to be glib or to give trite answers. I don’t know to what extent I succeed. It doesn’t hurt to be honest and to admit occasionally that you struggle with something in a passage; indeed it can be quite encouraging for some to know they are not alone in this. However, I think it needs to be done sparingly. If it happens too frequently otherwise it leads to discouragement in the congregation. I am not here just to share my own angst, and if I have a lot of big issues then there are other, more appropriate places and people to deal with them (spiritual director, chapter if yours is one that takes the mutual support role seriously, close colleagues and friends).

There is no “one size fits all” approach to tragic funerals. Each one is different depending on the exact circumstances, the background of the family etc. Sometimes there are no words to say, and what is required is simply to be present. It seems to me that the biblical writers struggle with the issue of suffering and theodicy. And none of the texts gives a clear, coherent answer, simply pointers to aspects of the problem. For me, as I deal with these situations, the incarnation and passion of Jesus are key. God is not an onlooker, but present alongside and within the situation to support and empathise. I am also glad that the book of Job is in the Hebrew bible, as it knocks on the head any idea that pain and suffering are part of some cosmic reward and punishment system (which I hear expressed quite often).”

I don’t know quite what type of response Lesley was expecting. I wanted to do justice to her question but I don’t know if I have done really. It is just one priest’s attempt to make a bit of sense of it all. But I would be very interested to know what others think and how they approach these situations.

How do you preach without triteness or hypocrisy?