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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ask the Matriarch — Knowing Whereof Ye Speak

Our question this week comes from someone who is concerned about giving a sermon on infertility, but she broadened the question to include any of those situations where we are talking about things we haven't directly experienced or had close proximity to.

I am due to preach during Lent and am considering a topic and issue that I have no actual experience with but rather have been an observer of others in this experience. This particular issue is a painful one for many and already causes many people to feel alienated from the church. So my question: Is it possible to preach a meaningful and sensitive sermon without a true understanding of the experience? At first I would say yes of course, but the more I think about this particular issue and talk to those who have actually experienced it the more I question whether I would be able to do it the justice necessary.

~Lenten Preacher

Well, one thing I have learned over many years of parenthood is that everyone, regardless of their experience with kids, wants to tell you how to raise yours. I realize that's only tangentially related, but this busybody syndrome is a common one and we applaud your thoughtfulness on this issue.

Jan just preached a series on The Twelve Step programs without ever having been in one. "So I have a tiny idea of the awkwardness here," she writes. "I had talked with lots of people about the spirituality of the 12 Steps, and read the books they suggested. The whole [sermon] series was a result of their request, so maybe this is a different situation."

You're not alone
But, truth of the matter is, we don't all have direct experience with every situation. I'm raising a teenage boy despite never having been one myself, as he's so fond of pointing out. But that doesn't mean I don't have wisdom to share. Same goes for you. "No one gets into the pulpit knowing everything about a topic. No one. Not W. Brueggeman or Barbara Brown Taylor," writes St. Casserole. After all, she continues, you're at least aware that you need to be sensitive about this subject and you are concerned that you do not harm your listeners.

Your sermon is an opportunity to help people make a connection—in this case, between infertility and spirituality. St. Casserole notes: "Please talk about infertility! Please make people aware of how difficult an issue infertility is! Please help people understand the connection between infertility and spirituality! Your sermon will be about 12-14 minutes long so you can't handle the entire topic, but you can raise the questions. Leave your listeners with hope, if you can do so genuinely."

Honesty, still the best policy
"You can certainly speak about something you don't have personal experience with, but be honest and say so," says Jan. "Don't pretend that one of your losses in life was 'just like' your sister's infertility if that wasn't the case. Being authentic is key. And those who are sitting in the pews who do know what it feels like to want children and not be able to have a baby will appreciate it."

Here's another approach you may be able to work into the process. Jan did a Lenten series about various foms of loss some years back. "While the sermons dealt with biblical examples, we had a breakfast speaker prior to worship each week that offered a speaker who directly worked with those personally affected (people with loved ones in prisons, AIDS patients, infertile couples, etc.)."

I'm sure our fellow RevGals have been through this from time to time. Any other thoughts you'd like to share? Post them in comments!


  1. Hmmm. It goes without saying to proceed with extreme caution.

    Church is often so much about "family". So the widowed, orphaned and childless can be reduced to tears at any old baptism, etc. A sermon about infertility would have been very hard for me to sit through a few years ago. I can imagine that I could have become very upset with a preacher who did not handle the topic with extreme care.

    I myself preached a Xmas Eve sermon while going through a miscarriage a number of years ago. Talk about getting through to the other side.

    If anyone is interested in some resources about adoption issues (somewhat related), I'm your gal.

  2. I'm not a preacher, much less a matriarch, but I am a survivor of the infertility wars. May I just suggest that if you have a trusted friend who is infertile, you might want to let that person take a look at your sermon first, to be sure that you are being as sensitive as you intend to be.

  3. While it's impossible for any of us to have experience with all manner of life's challenges, and while I agree with St. Casserole in that talking about infertility is good, I think caution is going to be the better part of valor on this one. I'm finding that even my very sensitive, gentle, astute, observant, spiritual, prayerful friends have no idea what it's actually like, no matter how much they listen to me and no matter how many books and blogs they read.

    Infertility is this deep and pervasive hurt, and I'm finding that it stays bubbling about right below the surface, such that all kinds of things can bring it to the surface but quick.

    Acknowledge that you haven't been there. Acknowledge other people's pain. Offer encouragement, avoid platitudes (and know that some of what you think of as encouragement is actually platitude).

    I bet there are several revgals who would be willing to read your sermon or at least give some thoughts in response to your thoughts. I think if it were me, I'd find someone who had walked in those shoes to advise before I spoke word one from the pulpit.

    But I also recognize that I'm coming from the perspective of one who has been trying to get pregnant for a year and a half and whose priest was an insensitive turd in chapel this morning about it. So that just-below-the-surface has been just a shade bitter today. I'm working on it.

  4. I'm not a matriarch, nor have I had this particular struggle. I'm approaching this srictly from the perspective of a preacher.

    For me, I wonder what a sermon about infertility might sound like. In my particular tradition and stemming from my training, the subject of any sermon is always the gospel, and the task for me would be to find where the gospel intersects with the various experiences of life as a flawed, frustrated, finite human being.

    What does the Good News say about infertility? I'm not sure, but I do know what it says about our pain, and The Comforter. It offers hope to the hope-less. I can imagine myself starting there--in the place where we all sit needing hope and a balm for our hurts. (I definitely agree with anonymous about the platitudes.)

  5. Cheesehead,

    That is certainly the question -- where is the Gospel? I would be hard-pressed to give any specific examples of what is "good" for those experiencing infertility.

    I am curious as to why the preacher would be preaching on this particular topic? Is this for a general congregation? A women's group? A grief group? I think the audience would inform the focus and function quite heavily.

  6. I have a pastor who says that to understand how good the Good News is, you have to gain a certain appreciation for how bad the bad news is.

    From my standpoint, infertility is part of the bad news. There's this beautiful design of God - marriage, love, intimacy, sex, wonder, joy - and I have to watch it not work quite the way it should. I feel like a failure and I wonder why God won't give us the children he obviously designed me to bear, and I wonder whether it's because of my failure or my sin or my general defectiveness. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, and maybe I will never know why. All I can really know for sure is that infertility is part of living in a fallen world where things don't always go according to plan. That's part of the bad news.

    The good news is that I am not alone. I can be mad at God for my empty womb and empty nursery, shake my fist and swear and rant and rave - and then collapse into his arms and weep and he will catch me. And God is in the business of redeeming things. I don't know how he'll redeem this, not yet, not from my perspective in the trenches like this. But he can and does and will redeem my pain somehow. (That's very different from there being a purpose or a reason, of course.) This is just one of the ways in which God is the answer to the question even when I can't see the scope of the question right now.

    I can't come at this question with confidence in anything but God. I don't always know how to make that be enough. My need for comfort points at a deeper need to rely fully and utterly on a good and gracious God - pressing toward the heart of God more than pushing to find answers to my questions.

    FWIW, those are my (lengthier than expected) thoughts from where I am right now.

    -Sarah (of Contradictory Notions)

  7. Hi, I'm in the insensitive clod thinking about talking/mentioning/preaching about infertility. I just wanted to comment that the way this came up is two fold...

    1. I'm not a pastor but was asked to do a sermon for our Wed night series. They are taking an old testament man and women, a new testament man and women and finally Jesus and talking about "being still and knowing God" in the storms of life. I have the Old Testament women - Sarah.

    2. Of my closest friends 5 or 6 have dealt with infertility in the last 3-4 years. Some have babies now, some don't and some are pregnant, and I've watched their stories closely and with care and concern.

    And that is where I'm coming from. For more you can check out my blog on this question.

  8. Lutherliz - I commented on your blog about this last week, so I won't repeat myself. I just want to say that the "anonymous" comment above yours in the lines of posts here says exactly what I would want to say myself. I think it's worth considering that saying nothing is sometimes more hurtful than at least acknowledging the struggle. If you do want people who are struggling with infertility to read your sermon beforehand, I'd be glad to volunteer - let me know on my blog.

  9. LutherLiz,

    I hope you didn't feel that anyone on here was accusing you of being an "insensitive clod". This is just such a hard topic...

  10. Sorry about that. I'm not feeling attacked here, I'm just having a rough week ministry-wise and it is making me feel a bit sarcastic and snarky.

  11. There are certainly other angles to preach on Sarah, if that's a possibility for you, LutherLiz. She is used ruthlessly by Abram as he passes her off as sister. And she does not hesitate to exert her own power once she has a child. Her infertility is not all there is to know about her. How's that for an angle?

  12. on a broader note here, I think it's important to remember that we should probably approach most subjects with this much care. We can't all have experienced everything...especially those of us who are young-ish. At 26 I've not been married, I've not had kids, I've not lost a child, I've not done a lot of things. I have done and experienced a lot of things, but not everything. When mentioning, discussing, preaching "about," or using as an illustration I have to be aware of that.

    The thing about listeners, too, is that they will often hear either what they want to hear or what the Spirit needs them to hear that day--and it may not even be what we said. We can't know how people will hear things--we can only be aware of how we say them.


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