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What on Earth Can I Say?

Preaching in the face of tragedy.
What on Earth Can I Say?

Preaching is challenging enough as it is, but there's a special burden on preachers who have to preach in the dark and confusing days after a disaster strikes. The disaster may be a tragedy on an intimate scale, such as the death of a child, or it may affect a whole region, like massive storms that have devastated states and left scores dead in their wake. It may even be a catastrophe of global reach, such as the 2004 tsunami spawned by a massive undersea earthquake which carried an estimated quarter million people out to sea, the largest natural disaster in recorded history. Such events cry out for some response, however halting.

A new kind of abyss yawns before us when devastation is not the result of natural processes like the movement of tectonic plates but has a human cause like the 1994 Rwandan genocide that left 800,000 dead or the 9/11 attack that brought ordinary Americans forcefully into a world shaped by threats of terror. To say nothing at devastating times is to do more than miss an opportunity; it is to leave congregants with no help at all in bringing together the world of the text and the world they must inhabit. Indeed, it is to suggest that the faith you proclaim has nothing to say to frustration and grief, outrage and perplexity. To not speak is a disservice to our people and to our faith. It is also an evasion of our calling to serve our congregation in days of darkness as well as days of light. Whether we name them or not, questions press themselves upon us.

Name the questions

What are we to do with our helplessness and despair, our rage and desire for revenge, with doubt and the temptation to see life as some kind of savage joke? Who is to blame, and how can we possibly find or trust God in the midst of random suffering? Those are profound questions. If they cannot be asked in church, cannot even be named there, then we have reduced our faith to a shallow diversion that is unequipped to strengthen or sustain us when we are most desperate and lost.

Be honest, invite people to acknowledge their questions, and search for God's answers together.

To be faithful in such circumstances, we must venture some word, even though we may fear that we are altogether out of our depth and know we have no answers to offer. It is better to face the moral challenges head on, to name the questions with their poignancy and pain, even if we can go no further, than to ignore them.

We can have confidence that it is safe to do that because we stand in a long line of people, people of profound faith and intimate experience with God, who were brought up short by demands they did not know how to meet and tests of faithfulness they could not master. They were confronted with their own failures until they were certain God had turned from them forever. They were pressed down by experiences of suffering and loss, by betrayal and the collapse of hope, until God seemed unreachable or unreal, or worst of all, simply unconcerned. They faced guilt and fear, doubt and despair, rage and perplexity. We know all this because the testimony of their struggles runs through the body of writings we call the Canon, the measure of Christian faith and practice.

Wrong approaches

To begin with the obvious, there isn't one "right" approach to preaching after a tragedy and no one faithful message to deliver on the day after it seems the world has crumbled forever. It may be that the best response for a preacher in the short term would be to lead a profound and patient silence in which to pour unanswerable questions and unassuageable grief. (One notes that Job's comforters sat in silence for seven days and nights "because they saw that his suffering was very great" (Job 2:13), and they did not incur God's anger until they spoke.)

There are, however, wrong approaches, things which are wrong to do because they increase suffering unnecessarily or are even more fundamentally wrong because they present an understanding of the world basically at odds with the gospel Christian preachers are authorized to proclaim. There are certainly messages which, even if they are theologically correct, cannot be offered at a particular time or place or to a particular community, at least not otherwise than at the direct instance of God.

Beyond general suggestions, a great deal depends upon particular context: the congregation you are given to care for and the relationship you have developed with them. For pastors in New York and Washington DC after 9/11, everything was set against the backdrop of particular losses, as pastors sat with the spouses and children, the parents and friends of the victims, and dealt with pain at its most overwhelming and raw. For others at greater distance, it was an occasion to talk about evil and rage and how to live in a world where human beings can inflict devastation upon one another. For much of the time after a tragedy of any scale, at the side of the grieving, the perplexed, and those whose lives are newly shattered, the wisest course is to stay close, listen hard, and pray constantly.

Here are some guidelines for how to preach and how not to preach when your community turns to you to speak, the Word of God's presence into what seems an abyss.

6 tips for preaching after a tragedy

Don't say nothing. That is, do not ignore the circumstance, pretend nothing has happened, or try to somehow bracket off from worship the one thing that fills everyone's mind. If there are no words, at least name the event that stuns people to silence, and let the silence last until it carries the shock and sense of emptiness.

Don't offer an explanation. When something terrible happens, we search for a reason, something that caused this event, something that might have been different and prevented it. This is chiefly to assure ourselves that there is some intelligible order in the universe and to hold at bay the fearful idea that violence, illness, or accident can be so utterly random. Yielding to the impulse to offer an explanation only denies the vulnerability that we share by offering a false reassurance. It may also increase the suffering of actual victims who are already likely to torment themselves with regrets and say "If only …"

Don't try to assign blame to either the human or the cosmic. This is a special case of the previous advice, stressed here because it is particularly important. As a pastor, your office is neither to decide who is at fault, nor try to "justify the ways of God to man," as the memorable, but arrogant, phrase of John Milton's puts it in Paradise Lost. Unless you are prompted by a special revelation that compels you to speak, it is presumptuous to suppose that God's purposes, or even the complex web of motives and circumstances that govern human acts, can be read backward from the transcript of events.

Don't pretend there's a clarity, certainty, or resignation that we can't possess. As a preacher, it is important that you control your own emotions in order to speak and to avoid the appearance of manipulation. (The pulpit is not the place from which to seek your own consolation.) Do not hide or deny your own feelings either, assuming a posture somehow above the pain and confusion of the time at hand. Just because we know theoretically that "all things work together for good to those who love God" (Romans 8:28) does not mean that we can feel that in the face of catastrophe, or even say it with a straight face. Real resignation to the will of God is a virtue won at length by those far advanced in holiness, and it is won through struggle, not by evading it.

Make space in the gathered community for the full reach of emotions and a range of responses. When grief is new, shock is still resonating, and people are trying to come to terms with some unimaginable new reality, there must be room for all of the things people are feeling, the frightening and troubling outbursts of rage and despair as well as the orthodox expressions of acceptance, trust, and confidence in God's power to heal. To exclude those whose suffering drives them to question and doubt, or to silence their protests, is only to force those emotions underground, and to isolate people at their time of greatest need. It also substitutes a shallow and impoverished understanding of our relationship with God for the model offered in Scripture where we are invited to cry out our deepest griefs and pour out our hearts without reserve.

Use the common resources of text, tradition, and liturgy. In times of profound loss and confusion and pain, familiarity is powerful. It carries us when we are past thinking and beyond forming words. The most frequently heard stories, best known hymns, most often repeated prayers or affirmations can touch us where no degree of eloquence can reach, even when we are hardly aware of what we are saying. There is a reason Psalm 23 is so often invoked by people in sorrow or fear: The things we know by heart can hold us when the mind is still reeling.

Tell the Truth. This is really the underlying ground of all that has gone before, and here it includes not only the state of your own heart and mind but the true experience of those most affected by the event. It is also the hardest advice to follow when the truth seems like more than we dare admit.

It might seem safer to say what we think we and others should believe, feel, or think, or to quote one of the many Bible verses that affirm the absolute security of those who rest in God's hand where no disaster can snatch them. These are statements of the deepest truth, of course, and the ability to rest upon such affirmations when pain engulfs us is one of the richest fruits of faith long and securely held. Few of us can immediately respond to devastating loss like Job by saying, "the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). In the meantime, on our way to the perfect serenity of the saints, we must not encourage people to lie in prayer, a practice both futile and unnecessary. God, who has heard his own Son cry out in despair, can bear with our anguish and walk with us through the darkness. It is often the only road back to trust.

Search for God's answers together

Guidelines are easy to write, for they remain generalities. Here is one small sample to put a bit of flesh on these bones. Let me hasten to say that this is not my own work, but comes from the ministry of a pastor whose experience, insight, and pastoral instinct I have grown to trust over years of observation. It is the opening of a sermon preached on June 21, 2015, the Sunday after eight church members and the pastor were murdered at a Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The opening to the sermon is offered here as an example of naming the questions and being forthright about our bafflement, our profound fatigue, and the fear we have of their being nothing but silence from God.

I didn't know, couldn't know, what would happen at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina this week when I was planning this sermon series, "Lessons Learned from the Life of David." Nine bodies carried out of a black church in the South, murdered at the hands of a white, young man who wanted to start a race war, who felt that he would be doing the world a favor somehow by feeding the beast that is racism and hatred. It was a terrorist attack. It was a political assassination. He walked into a Bible study in the oldest AME church in the South. He was welcomed with open arms. He would later say that he almost changed his mind because they were so nice to him. Later days have revealed words of forgiveness from the victim's families for this man, in many cases because of their faith in Jesus Christ, who calls us to love and forgive our enemies.
I'm so tired of this particular Goliath, this ridiculous and pernicious evil, this persistent demonizing of people of other races. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of all the subtle and overt ways that this 21-year-old was told, by his culture, his friends, or the Confederate flag that flies over his capitol that this was somehow the right thing to do. I'm tired of the Goliath of gun violence. I'm tired of the Goliath of hatred. It seems overwhelming to address, this "giant" problem of ours. Is there a word from the Lord today? What can David teach us about this—about violence in God's very house, and about this sickness we have in our society that makes it so hard for us to love one another?
[Reverend Mandy Sayers, Covenant United Methodist Church, Gaithersburg, MD. Used with permission. ]

This is a modest beginning, not rhetorically high-pitched, or roaring with confidence. But it has these crucial things: It is honest, and it invites people to acknowledge their questions and to search for God's answers together.

Editor's Note: If you liked this article, be sure to check out Sondra Wheeler's book The Minister as Moral Theologian: Ethical Dimensions of Pastoral Leadership.

Sondra Wheeler is the Carr Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, where she has taught ethics and the practice of ministry for 25 years.

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