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Thank you for the time together yesterday. It is always a gift to be with you. And congratulations on completing your first year as a pastor! I can tell that you love your people, and that they love you. I expect you’ll have many years of fruitful ministry together.
Thanks for also sharing so vulnerably about the pain you are carrying. Family dynamics are so complex. I see how much you are hurting. What I didn’t share yesterday is that I’m carrying some deep pain of my own, and perhaps we can figure out how to sit with each other in these tender places.
You asked me a really honest and practical question: “Brian, how do you get up to preach on Sunday when you’re in pain?” You were lamenting that so many people in our churches put pastors on pedestals and forget that we are human beings too, with real struggles and sorrows. I think this is true, although I suspect there are more people in your congregation than you realize who don’t expect you to be super-human and who want to love you well. Still, it can be so challenging to live out our vocation, tending to the pain of others, when we’re carrying our own pain. And yes, I agree. Getting up to preach is one of the hardest moments–especially when you feel like you have to be “on” and, in your words, “deliver the goods.”
I’ve had a little more time to reflect on your question, and here are some thoughts (you be the judge as to how helpful they are). First, it’s important to acknowledge your pain, as you’ve done. Everything in our culture, including the church, wants to avoid pain or minimize it or, when we’re in it, find a way out as quickly as possible. But the truth is that God so often meets us in our pain in such profound ways; and the only way beyond our pain is through, not around it. My question for you is this: What do you need right now? I know you’re set to preach this Sunday, but maybe what you most need is to rest and have someone else preach. I’ve seen too many preachers whose pain came out sideways in the pulpit, and that’s not helpful to anyone. If you need the Sunday off, let your elders know. That’s not weakness, it’s wisdom. Embrace your limits.
If you feel like you’re able to preach this Sunday even though your hurting, then my second piece of advice is to intentionally make the time and space going into Sunday to lament. I recently discovered a wonderful resource called Every Moment Holy, two volumes of beautiful liturgies and prayers for all occasions. The second volume deals primarily with loss, grief and lament and I’d highly recommend it. These prayers are saving my wife and me right now. Of course we have the best collection of laments right beneath our noses in the Scriptures (particularly the Psalms). Lament is the path to renewed hope, where our shattering and God’s shaping meet. But if you’re anything like me, you are much better at preaching on lament than actually doing it yourself. This is so important.
Third, I wonder if you can allow the Holy Spirit to minister to your own wounded heart in the act of corporate worship. This is difficult when we’re doing so much of the worship leading and it feels like we’re “on the job”. But is it possible for you, in your pain, to enter into that place of worshipper with the congregation? Through the music, the prayers, the sacraments, even the ministry of the Word? Can you allow yourself to receive the gift of Christ’s body, gathered around you, and not put so much burden on yourself to have to be the one to lead and serve and be “on”?
Along with this, remember that preaching is a communal act. Our individualistic and consumer-driven culture puts so much pressure on us preachers to “deliver the goods” (again, your phrase) and make something happen. This is where I urge you to lean into your theology of preaching: God speaks in the Son through the Spirit. Again, it’s not all on you. The preaching moment happens in the context of the gathered assembly. The sermon is something that we, preacher and congregation, always do together. This is where we have so much to learn from the black church, where preacher and congregation hum and move together, a rhythmic cadence of call and response. Where the congregation spurs the preacher on, strengthening her heart and buoying her up, evoking something together. Are there people in your congregation whose sheer presence gives you strength? I have people like this. I look for them on Sundays when I’m preaching, their faces open to me, their kind eyes and smiles and nods, as if saying, “C’mon, Brian. Keep going. We’re in this with you.”
Lastly, be gentle with yourself. If you decide to preach this Sunday, you don’t have to hit a home run. Just get on base. Offer what you have, to the best that you are able in the Spirit’s strength, and let God do with it what God desires. Remember that it is a preaching life, and while every sermon matters, the Spirit’s work through the ministry of the Word happens over time. I once heard a celebrity preacher say, “Preachers should speak because they have something to say, not because they have to say something.” Okay, I get that. But when Sunday comes (and it always comes), we preachers are called to speak, whether we feel like we have something to say or not. Our real confidence is that God has something to say. And so we crawl into the pulpit, wounds and all, and open our mouths with humility and in faith that this moment is so much bigger than us.
One more thing, Matthew. There is a marvelous essay by Frederick Buechner in his book The Clown in the Belfry where he talks about stewarding our pain. Buechner brilliantly uses Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents” (Matt. 25:14-30) and talks about pain as a gift. Instead of hiding or burying our pain, what if we stewarded it for God’s glory and the good of others? I confess, I’m not always sure how to do this. But maybe we can learn together. It seems to me that one of the gifts we might offer our churches, as preachers and pastors, is to model how to steward our pain and suffer well. Our suffering somehow participates in the very suffering of Jesus and, in the end, can serve a redemptive purpose.
I’m eager to hear your response and talk more together. For now, know I’m holding you in my prayers. Let me leave you with these words from one of my favorite liturgies:
Even if this pain expands to fill all of
my awareness, so that I can hardly move,
or speak, or form a coherent thought—even
then fling wide your doors and draw me into
your place of refuge, O Lord, or, better yet,
seek me and find me where I have collapsed.
There gather me into your arms, carry me to
your hiding place, and tend to my distress.
Where can I go, but to you, Jesus?
And who but you can come to me?
Either take this pain away, O Christ,
or enfold me in the embrace of your Spirit
and cradle me through it.
For I cannot bear it alone.
I cannot bear it alone.*
Yours in Christ,
*”A Liturgy for Those Enduring Lasting Pain” by Douglas McKelvey, Every Moment Holy Volume II (Rabbit Room Press, 2021).