I must admit that I was in deep depression after seeing the violence at Newtown yesterday. I had written a blog on keeping silence after such a horrible incidence. We’re preachers. We do not keep silent! That’s precisely the problem each preacher has to face tomorrow. I breath a sigh of relief that I do not have to preach tomorrow. Many of us are in the midst of changing our sermons for tomorrow due to the Newtown incidence. After reading a few pontificating blogs from several famous preachers, theologians and pastors today, I’m forced to break my silence. Some messages are just counterproductive and hurtful. I still recall having to preach after the week of 9/11. It did not feel good. Here are the lessons I can share with fellow preachers. I’m sure many more can add to this list. Feel free to add to this list if you so feel led.
First, try not to come up with gospel pet answers about divine sovereignty, sin, evil and suffering in the world. In preaching, timing is everything. Timing at this stage simply is bad for focusing on such “grand themes” of theology. I beg you, my readers, don’t let political agenda hijack your sermon by discussion about gun control and public safety or any other theme that’s politically driven (no matter what your opinion is at the moment). People have a real needs, and most are probably not looking for the tired old answers or argument, not even as a reminder. In this case, less is probably more. We risk saying too much in times like this. Even with the right doctrine, the wrong timing still makes the preaching pastorally wrong. The aftermath of such bad timing is not what a busy pastor needs in the Advent season.
Second, try not to avoid the complicated biblical passages that speak hauntingly of suffering without any answer. Acknowledge the problem with honesty. In times like these, people are not looking for “objective truth out there.” They’re looking for biblical empathy “in here.” The Bible is realistic about the complexity of emotions in the midst of suffering. We often avoid reading angry Psalms from David in churches because after all, going to church is really about feeling good, right? Wrong. The raw emotions many victims feel also exist in the Bible if we look for them.
Third, if you have nothing to say, don’t try to say much. This advice is similar to the first. Not every preacher has all the answers and not every preacher has dealt with this kind of issue. Nothing is worse than saying, “I know what you’re going through” when the preacher does not. Make the sermon short if possible. Sometimes the mature thing is to know our limits and work within them. Some will inevitably not know what they do not know and blurt out more emotional distress, but hopefully, tomorrow is not that day.
Fourth, since we’re in Advent, I think this tragedy reminds us that not everything about Advent is rosy and happy. I’ve already blogged about it in my other blog. In fact, if we read carefully the Advent story, it is full of angst and pressure. We’ve been conditioned to think of Advent as some kind of pet answer to all of human’s problems and perhaps, ultimately it may be part of the answer, but within those stories, Mary and the Holy Family faced a lot of unwelcome pressure when Jesus was about to be born. Here is where we can make our faith connect to a suffering world that has no answer to the tough situation. Perhaps, the Advent story itself also does not have all the answers. That is the precise point I’m trying to bring up. When Jesus was born, there were more questions than answers, but somehow everything is going to turn out. We don’t know what road we’ll travel ahead, but we trust somehow in faith that everything is going to turn out. However it “turns out,” we don’t need to know now.
Fifth, since we’re human beings first and foremost before we’re preachers, I would advise the preacher to be “real.” Don’t try to put on a brave face and appear cheery. If a preacher can still appear cheery after what happened yesterday, I suggest that s/he either seek help or consult a psychologist. We need to stop avoiding our emotions when we address something this tragic. At the same time, we must also control what we say in the heat of the moment. Don’t be afraid of your own anger or sadness, but don’t vent on your congregation. They’re not the enemy. Just be sensitive that others feel the same way. Affirm their emotions. We can walk with them as fellow pilgrims just as we can walk ahead of them to lead. Ultimately, the good shepherd is not the preacher but the Lord Jesus, at least for Christians. He led with compassion. So should we.