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.
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!