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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Preaching Hope in the Midst of Despair

Our question this week comes from a colleague who is struggling to preach hope in the midst of many difficult situations. In addition to the challenges her congregation faces, the stress in her own life is also mounting - it all adds up to quite a lot. Read on:

I’m a solo pastor of a 120 member PC(USA) congregation in rural Indiana. I feel as though I’m fighting a Demon(s) of Despair…and the Demon is winning.
·         I’ve several greatly loved elderly people who are facing changes in their health, and they are …. all over the place in terms of emotions.
·         I’ve large farmers who are working through a second drought in as many years.  Some are already thinking of plowing some fields, damaged by a recent wind storm, under.
·         The heat and drought have been oppressive to everyone.
·         I’ve an aging Organist that makes worship very difficult. She is a member of the congregation and has served for 50 years…and people just want her to quit so they don’t have to hurt her feelings. She isn’t quitting and people are frustrated within worship.
·         I’ve young couples dealing with financial crunches and uncertainty in the economy. It is taking a toll on relationships.
·         I’ve three families working through cancer of a loved one.
·         The evening news on TV is oppressive! 

I have anywhere from 6 – 20 children each Sunday for the Children’s message. With them, I’ve been focusing on living with an attitude of Gratitude.  I know many adults hear the Children’s message better than the sermon.  Yet, I’m beginning to feel like a rose-colored-glasses Pollyanna!

My own situation, I’ve nerve issues from a car accident in ’98 when I broke my neck and ended up with spinal cord issues. Stress only intensifies my physical issues. I’ve a mother-in-law living ¼ mile up the road dying with cancer and is now in beginning stages of dementia. I’ve aging parents facing the same issues of elderly at BPC. We farm as well! We lost 100 Acres to wind yesterday and received 2/10 of an inch of moisture. One of my daughter’s marriage is teetering, another daughter/husband struggle with financial/labor issues.

How do I preach a message that brings hope? The gospel should bring hope to all!!!  But it feels as though I’m fighting demons.

Jennifer responds:
You have a full plate, both personally and professionally. For all of us, preaching hope in the midst of despair requires good self care.

I hope you have someone great to talk to—a friend in ministry, a spiritual director, a counselor, a doctor, someone trusted near or far, who can listen to you and be helpful to you as you process and stay true to your calling. The Board of Pensions/Cigna can be very helpful in locating physical and mental health resources…and some of them are free!

I hope you truly take your day off and that you attempt to observe Sabbath—I’ve benefited from both (and they’re different!) Engaging in time away, as you are able, and being away even when you’re home, when possible, can be truly restorative. 

You owe it to yourself, your family and your dear congregation to take good care of yourself. You will reclaim the hope that is in you, and it’s a good thing to ask for help!

And also, don’t be afraid to voice some lament to and with your congregation. Your transparency will reflect the Psalms, and God is expansive and receives all of our thoughts and our prayers. Your congregation (and you!) may be refreshed to hear that you struggle and lament all that is transpiring in your area right now. Lament sounds like a pretty faithful response to the magnitude of all that’s going on.

Muthah+ writes: 
If you are a follower of Walter Wink, you ARE a demon-fighter.  With that said, I would not suggest you pull out your crucifix and your incantations.  You have your plate full of what is pretty normal for a congregation your size in the present economy of mid-west farming communities.  Add to that your own family issues and I would suggest you are over the top on stress producing incidents.  And any therapist worth her salt would say  "get some counseling."  But also I know that in small town ministry those resources are not always available.  So here are some suggestions.  Pick some of them but most of all find some things that work for you:
  1. Take some time for retreat.  Take a few weekdays to go and just sleep, eat, rest, read and pray. Get out of town. Usually your parish will understand--and your family should too.  Get a colleague to cover any parish emergencies.  Spend some prayer time just sitting with open hands and a quiet heart.
  2. Have you taken vacation time?  Farmers are not good about getting away but you owe it to yourself and your parish to get some down time with your family.
  3. You say nothing about your personal devotional practices.  What are you reading for spiritual growth?  What is feeding you spiritually?  Pay attention to your own spiritual care.  This is one time I would not suggest reading with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  Get some good spiritual nourishment.
  4. Do you have good care for your aging parents?  I know that that drained a lot of energy for me until I knew Mom was in a good place and being cared for.
  5. The organist is a problem I have had in several parishes.  It is perhaps the most difficult and re- occurring situation I had in parish ministry.  Does the woman have any self-awareness at all?  If you can talk with her, she already knows that she isn't doing her best, but it may be the only place where she has any control of her life.  Remember you are a mere 'whippersnapper' in a long line of pastors she has 'whipped into line.'  But if you have the support of the members of you board, take someone with you and talk about retirement. And do a big retirement party. Also, find something important that she can do in the parish that isn't on the organ bench.  But first do you homework and have someone waiting in the wings to take over!  Especially if it is someone who is good.
  6. Because I am such an extrovert, I found that talk-therapy really helped me.  Find a spiritual director, a therapist, a counselor, a fellow cleric who will do that work with you.  You need to take an hour out of the week for yourself anyway.  And the drive there and back will give you some private time just for you.   I would guess you have some mild depression and it would be better to treat it than try to ignore it.  (It is the same advice you would give your parishioners if they came to you with the same list you have shared. 8>P)
  7. But Hope, the Hope that is provided by God is not just a feeling.  It is part of the hard work of faith.  Hope is what we have when EVERYTHING is going wrong.  Hope tells us that things will get better.  My parents lived through the Great Depression as a young family and no work.  I am sure that there are those in your parish who did too.  Start talking to your elders and listen to the stories that they have of the 1930's--especially those who were children and who watched their parents despair and how they were able to live through it.  It was this bunch who also lived through WWII.  They are your patriarchs and matriarchs.  (Get your organist to tell you stories!)  The hope will be in their stories.  Just like matriarchs who have been through parish ministry, you have people right there in the congregation who can tell you of the hope that sustained them..
  8. And remember you are a Demon Slayer!  You were ordained for that.  Because the hope is not that the church will get through tough times, the hope is in Jesus Christ as the one who liberates us from our fears.  There is nothing that can assail us if our trust is in him.  And as they say in AA "fake it till ya make it!"  Keep preaching that hope until you are back on track and can live into it again.  This is the REAL hope of the Gospel.
And kathrynzj writes:
Prayers ascending, my Friend. 
Thank you for serving your Call with faith and conscience. Your list reminded me of a psalm of lament and I think that is okay. The thing we love and respect about the psalmists is that even in the deepest lament, when feeling totally separated from God, they still cried out and expected God to answer. I think it is okay to not always have a peppy word of hope and promise and to admit that you are feeling it too. It makes you human and accessible. And therefore your hope will become more accessible for those who are around you. When you walk through Good Friday together, the alleluias for Easter are all the more full of praise.
Peace be with You...

--Thank you, Matriarchs, for your warm and wise responses! So many good thoughts here!

Our questioner wrote in later to add:
I wrote earlier saying I felt as though I was battling Despair Demons.

Putting my “thoughts” out there, I was blessed. I wrote about my discoveries on my blog.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity, the place, to say, “I need help!” because God listened and sent me help.

A good reminder that sometimes just naming our despair can help put it in perspective.

Our matriarchs have made wonderful offerings of hope and counsel. I wonder what the rest of you would add. Let's continue our conversation in the comments. As always, if you have a question you would like the matriarchs to discuss, please send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.



  1. Dear Demon Slayer: There was something that I left out of my post: Remember you are not there to "fix" things for your parishioners. You are there to bring the Gospel so that they can hear the hope of Jesus. God will do all the 'fixin'. Just be faithful to speaking God's love to the world.

  2. I've written before about the preaching aspect of this: "Preach ahead of yourself" became my mantra after my son died of suicide while I was in seminary and other truly awful things dominoed through both my immediate and extended family (unbloggable as they are primarily the stories of others before they are mine).

    As far as the whole life and community feeling as if it is sinking fast, all the other advice is terrific. I haven't been called to a church yet, but I have realized from my own circles of family and friends and home church that communities really need someone to articulate both their reality and the possibility of hope during desperate times. Unfortunately, some of that task fell to me at a time when I could not possibly have done it. I hope that you can find someone to do it for you personally so that you can turn around and serve your church in the same way.

  3. I am a lurker more often than not, but have experienced a situation with many similarities in my current congregation. I read a lot about lament, and found it helpful to preach and teach the practice of lament as we did our grief work together.

    Some helpful resources were Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew and PUblic Square by Sally Brown & Patrick Miller and Lyrics of Lament by Nancy Lee. Walter Brueggemann also has a DVD-based study called Psalmist's Cry, but while I usually like Brueggemann's stuff a lot, I didn't feel like that particular study translated well to my people.

    We did much of our work in this area during Lent, which fit well liturgically, but coming into fall as we are I would think Advent could also work well - use those weeks to spell out the longings for salvation that the people are experiencing, like the longings God's people experienced in exile waiting for the Messiah.

  4. I recently read a quote from Emily Dickinson about anger that I think applies to many of these "difficult" emotions we feel. I can't remember the exact words but they were to the effect that "Anger grows through neglect, it is only when we take it out and look at it that it loses its power." As others have pointed out, you are lamenting, and it seems that is an appropriate response to the circumstances you are in. I'm wondering if perhaps your congregation needs to lament as well. The pattern of the Psalms often reveals how our awareness of God's faithfulness, presence and care often comes through the times of lamentation. Even though it seems counter-intuitative, I have found that it is when I, like Job, lay it all out before the Lord, I usually find myself saying; "Yet, you are the Lord, forever I will praise you, you are my strength and salvation, in you will I trust."

    And then there are your own personal struggles. I agree with those who have suggested finding others to talk with, but I realize that there may be too many barriers to overcome to make this possible. Sometimes, it takes more energy that you have to get past them, so if this is the case, perhaps using some guided imagery would help you find a place of peace and hope. In my mind I've constructed a beautiful garden chapel where I can go and meet with Jesus. Over time, my picture has developed and become quite elaborate and now I can go there simply and easily whenever I need to. The really cool thing, is that I can reconstruct it to be wherever and whatever I want it to be. In times of drought, I've sat in the chapel listening to the sound of a steady rain, in the middle of blizzards, I've felt the warm breezes of a summer day. If you are at all visual, this might help you find the quiet place you need to recharge and find hope in the midst of the despair.

  5. Thank you so much for all your wonderful contributions to this discussion! So many great thoughts and resources here.

  6. I can't remember what the circumstances were when I wrote this, but it can easily be changed to include local circumstances. The Corinthians reading at the end is an affirmation of faith. In our liturgy book, lament is followed by a piece of scripture affirming our faith. feel free to borrow and alter.

    God, we come to worship today, wondering why? Plane crashes, and cyclones, illness and death, pain that is shared by many and pain that is shared by few. We hear the cry of people: how can God let this happen, why are we being punished? And you come and sit with us in our confusion and anger and pain.

    We come to worship this morning, wondering how? How are we expected to live in this world? How can we possibly follow the demands of the gospel? How can we be expected to do everything? And you come and sit with us in our confusion and anger and pain.

    We come to worship this morning, wondering what? What is happening in the our world? What is being asked of us? What were you thinking in coming as a vulnerable baby, in dying on a cross? What did you think you would achieve? And you come and sit with us in our confusion and anger and pain.

    We come to worship this morning, wondering when? When will peace come to our world? When will your presence translate into wholeness and holiness? When will you come and be Lord of all? And you come and sit with us in our confusion and anger and pain.

    We come to worship this morning, wondering where? Where is the peace? Where is the joy of discipleship? Where is the hope we crave? Where are you in our times of distress? And you come and sit with us in our confusion and anger and pain.

    Because of who God is, we can ask why and how and when and where and what. Because God comes and sits with us in our confusion and anger and pain.

    1 Corinthians 1 (New International Version)
    22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

  7. One of the best questions for ATM ever!
    I love the responses.
    Peace be with you all.


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