The Spiritual Landscape
Preaching on Suffering and Loss: Some Further Advice
Two weeks ago I wrote a column cautioning against flip, cheap, and easy approaches to suffering that some preachers take to the subject—if and when they preach on it at all. In response, one of my colleagues at LinkedIn said, "Thanks for the tip! I found this a useful article, if a bit snippy at the end. Do you have any pointers on what to do, rather than what not to do?"
What follows below is an expanded version of my response. I hope it's helpful:
LOL. I admit it. It was meant to be snippy. I heard two or three simplistic sermons in the year after my brother's death and the only thing that kept me in the pew was the fact that I'm a priest and a theological educator. I listened to my own anger and frustration with what was being said and concluded that if I reacted that way to this kind of preaching, then people with other life-commitments would find vapid preaching on loss even more frustrating and alienating than I did. (I could at least take refuge in my own thoughts on the subject that I committed to paper for lay readers in The Dave Test.)
There is at least one positive in the column:
First, preach the Resurrection. I think that's profoundly important and often forgotten. Far too much preaching on loss (and, in particular, on death) is about remembering endearing things about the person who has died. It's important to connect in meaningful ways with the life of the deceased (if for no other reason, for the sake of family and friends and the attendant pastoral concerns), but a funeral sermon is not a stroll through the family photo album. It's about declaring the reality of the Resurrection and the durable hope that offers. Without that affirmation there is little to be done in church that couldn't be done at home with the aid of family and friends who share a love for the deceased.
Second (and hear I find myself resorting to some of what I've said in The Dave Test): Be honest. Don't sugarcoat loss. Without slipping into a narrative of hopelessness, it is possible (and necessary) to register the reality of loss. If we are going to offer people hope from the pulpit, then our congregations need to have some sense that we understand the nature of the loss that they've experienced. That requires honesty or (as I put it in The Dave Test), the ability to say that sometimes, "Life sucks."
Third: Use illustrations that invite people to examine their own loss and their struggle to trust God in the middle of their loss. Illustrations should be authentic, they should connect with the losses that people have experienced (or will), and they should be used in a way that doesn't foreclose on that self-examination, but invites it. Loss has to be unpacked and often the event that precipitates our struggle is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Job loss isn't just job loss, for example. For many it also represents a loss of independence, self-worth, control, and hope.
Fourth: Remember to reach out imaginatively to others in their need. If you have had experiences that are helpful to your congregation, don't camp out there too long. Move off of it, offer the love of God, offer spiritual wisdom, and offer hope. Clergy can offer nothing that can't be found elsewhere if they don't offer the possibility of that encounter.
Fifth (and finally): Include sermons on suffering and loss before it happens. Effective pastoral care (or what used to be called "the cure of souls") isn't done just when tragedy strikes. In fact, the best pastoral care equips people to face losses ahead of time, helping them to frame the whole of life in ways that are durable, reliable, and thoroughly Christian. When tragedy actually strikes, people take into life's hardest places as much or as little wisdom as they already have in hand. More may be learned in the middle of a loss, but it is hard-won and slow progress.
It's very hard, if not impossible to say to someone who is grieving, "Let's talk about your theology." But people can be taught ahead of time, that God is not the author of their suffering, but is the first to grieve with them.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/