Word Under Glass: Preaching to the Fragile-Hearted

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, August 2012
– PDF version –

My jaw is often tight and sore. For years, I have sought help to ease the joints in my face. My bite has been realigned and now my teeth fit precariously together. When I speak for long periods of time, I feel the strain in my mouth, shoulders and head. Preaching is always a reminder of the Spirit’s presence in the human and tender apparatus of my body.

Some years ago ministering in a suburban parish, I shared with a parishioner how difficult it was to preach at that point in my life. The stress of projecting my voice and the movements of my mouth produced much pain on Monday mornings after preaching five times on the weekend. He remembered my preaching dilemma and wrote a note upon his leaving that parish to move to a different city. He said, “Thank you for your preaching. You speak to us with a glass jaw that is fragile and graced. Does this mean that we all need to listen to the Gospel and to your preaching with glass hearts?”

His question remains with me as I reflect upon liturgical preaching among God’s glass-hearted people. Connecting the real message of the Spirit and the reality of life is a fragile endeavor in any parish community, a life long art form of making both the Gospel and life transparent and real.

For the past ten years, I have preached among a different community of fragile hearts. These hearers of the gospel are people who face the daily battles of survival on the streets and struggles with sobriety, of making ends meet and medicating mental illness. Other people come to our small chapel from the suburbs because they are aware their children are being raised with privilege and entitlement, and they are uncomfortable with the degree to which it is possible to avoid facing the reality of other people’s suffering. Some social workers and caretakers come to weekday Mass on their lunch hour to regain solace from their work among the marginalized. These believers nestled on the dark pews in our chapel teach me that life and scripture must remain transparent and connected. The Word is still being made flesh in the lives of people surviving poverty, heartache and loss.

I stand on the stained wood of our sanctuary holding tightly to the Gospel book. I sink soul deep into the message that rises from the pages of the scriptures. I hear the echoes of my voice through the speakers of the sound system above me. My finger slowly glides on the page to keep my place because sometimes my throat closes up with emotion and my eyes water with the desire to be an instrument of grace among people standing on the concrete floor of the assembly. I learn here to root my soul in the message of Jesus because I cannot change people’s experiences or find a deeper, lasting way to heal people besides the Spirit working in the sound of my voice.

I can only describe this moment of proclaiming the Gospel as profoundly lonely. These words that rise in the assembly like incense reveal to our people whether or not I have come to believe in God or remain in my own human ego. There is a moment of insight every time I proclaim the Gospel, a split second decision to continue Jesus’ love in the world or short circuit that love with my own fragile conviction that my education and life is what people need.

The Gospel is proclaimed from my tight jaw. However, this is a profound reminder that I am not in control of the grace, challenge or consolation of how the Word makes a home among people. I feel in my emotionally naked body the first place where the Word is real, in my own aching heart and gradually loosened tongue and jaw.

I walk with intention down the two steps of the wooden floor to the concrete floor of the assembly to offer a homily. I gaze into the eyes of the people with the grace of the Gospel proclaimed and the fact that I have come to know many of the stories of poverty. This intersection is where I long to speak, where I ache for human life to receive the miracles of divine love.

Last Ash Wednesday I welcomed people at our noon Mass into the safe shelter of our chapel. As I spoke with people and circled the aisles with greetings, I felt a profound pain in my body. There were three young men who do not know each other who each have attempted suicide several times. Each man has his own stories, each feels suffering so profoundly that attempting suicide is the only way to get attention and ease the pain.

This is the place of suffering, the way to Christ Crucified. This is the common ground for every assembly and every preacher, the place where we have the opportunity to present God as the Divine Healer. Our faith is a rich consolation. Our words must not be trite or flimsy or sarcastic. Our preaching must not degrade the liturgy. Our words may not alone heal.  We desperately need to preach and practice what we believe.

I preach from my own glass heart knowing I am also powerless over outcomes and voiceless over people who will never receive God’s care or consolation. However, I still speak anyway. I still offer what I know best, the mission of the divine longing to enter the hearts of the poor. My words can be a rich source of blessing or put people down. My words can shame or lift up. My words combined with ministry will either reveal that God cares about people or that the church may be only worried about doctrine, surviving scandal or people who have money.

So many people are so emotionally broken that they will never be able to realize God’s love. These are the stories that often stop me on the concrete floor and challenge my jaw to move beyond the pain. These stories reveal to me how to speak to people in need and how to get out of the way of grace.

Hilda sits patiently in the last pew waiting for Sunday Mass to begin. She huddles under a heavy raincoat and the burden of her past abuse. She sits in the chapel to escape the noise of the streets and the uncertainty of her aging body. She longs to hear a message that will set her free. She feels overwhelmed from the inner demons that tell her she is no good, that her life has been a waste of time and that her abuse was actually her own fault. Hilda aches for the Word of God.

Hilda tells me that she wishes she could nail the grace down to the concrete floor that she feels when I preach the healing Word. She feels a moment of safety from the waves of self-doubt and insecurity that flood her soul. Hilda comes to Mass to hear something different than her parents taught her as a child, to hear someone say that God could take her life seriously. God is still invested among people who long to realize in this life that love is possible. Hilda tells me that she will never really feel love on this side of the grave. I wish I could tack down grace on the concrete floor for her and so many others.

Jess teaches at a college about an hour away from downtown Portland. He is tormented by many forms of mental illness and has a hard time telling his real story to people at his school in fear that he could lose his job. Last Christmas, I spent an afternoon with him just listening to his search for healing. He told me that when he hears me preach that healing happens inside his mind and heart for even just a split second. He told me this is more comfort than he feels with his psychiatrist, or with the many medications that he has been taking. Jess tells me that he wishes all preachers could understand that grace is real from the Word and that the liturgy means so much to people who suffer mental illness. He wants to get his word out that God is still working in our prayer. Jess exposes his vulnerable, glass heart to me every few months and I listen with all of mine.

I stand on the concrete in the center aisle opening my tight jaw and speaking words of faith. This is my vocation to live fully in this moment. I trust God’s activity within the liturgy when I rely on the Spirit to give me words and insights. In this liturgical act, I come face to face with the energy and power of the Word that longs to live within people’s fragile and fearful hearts.

I am converted to a deeper understanding of my life and God’s presence in the world when I realize that life is what it is. I cannot preach my way into providing housing for people or adequate health care for the elderly man who comes to us with cancer. I can be as present as I am able to God and the needs of any community with a jaw and an imagination that l stretch into even deeper love.

There are also prevailing issues that I face as a preacher among people.  I preach in the Church that is drenched in alcohol. Every aspect of our Universal Church, leaders and clergy, is affected by the numbing of alcohol. I open up the gifted Word among people who struggle with issues of codependency and tragic outcomes of parental and sibling relationships. These relationships that are the result of generational alcoholism remain difficult to heal. So many people do not feel worthy of any attention by God. They cannot bring themselves to the power of God who faces them with goodness and kindness. Many of our parishioners and weekly guests in our hospitality center are active alcoholics or struggling to survive recent sobriety. Alcohol keeps the heart hidden and opaque, rigid and lost in selfishness. I must face my own generational issues of alcohol and its effects in my own life and in the ways I interpret people’s experiences with alcohol and God’s mercy. I find my own codependency on many days in my tight jaw.

As I walk along the grey floor of the chapel, I ache for people to realize God’s love. This is the real heartbreak for any preacher. So many people will leave and go from our assemblies never realizing that love is the answer. God’s love is present even with in a sick child with cancer or a marriage broken with infidelities. God is here in glass hearts and tight jaws striving to make a home in the narrow places of humanity. I finish the homily and realize I need to let go of my words and any realization that they have flown into the fragile and insecure places of broken hearts. I stand in my convictions and I remain a believer that life has meaning in the sacred texts of the gospel. I sit down in the presider’s chair after preaching spent and yet revitalized in faith.

I will not give up on preaching and liturgy and working for justice. This is a daily tension that I witness by so many people who are working for change, creating new systems of justice and struggling to create a new world. Many people either are devoted to prayer or committed to work for justice. Few people are able to make and keep balanced a connection between the two.

After my years in the arena of poverty, I am convinced that systems will only change when all people finally experience the love God has for them. Nothing in the world can change without grace, mercy and love. We must create a Church that is of the poor, not just a Church that serves the poor. I listen to battle-weary, seasoned justice workers who have given up on prayer and I listen to young, naïve seminarians articulating that faith is all about the sanctuary. The connection of faith and service is the mission of the Church and I will keep preaching from the ground of suffering as long as my jaw holds out.

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