Lately, I suck at sermons.
I don’t mean I am bad at giving sermons. That wouldn’t be a problem. I’ve spoken from the pulpit in a couple of churches, but I call those “talks” more than “sermons.” No one is calling on me to preach.
What I’m confessing here is this: I sit through sermons with defense at the ready.
This isn’t a problem specific to our current church and pastor. He is not a bad preacher. I have this problem with any sermon. For church-planting research, we have visited quite a number of churches from various denominations and locations. I feel the same for each sermon. One of them was even a preacher I know for a fact I used to greatly enjoy listening to, ten years ago.
I have changed a lot in ten years.
This Sunday, I ran into service late, having gotten lost in the story I’d been working on in the parking lot. I scribbled for almost an hour without my hand even cramping, and that felt amazing. So I settled into the pew in a better frame of mind than usual. My heart was pounding from rushing to get inside, creative energy still vibrating my rib cage.
The scripture reading was from Psalm 95, and this particular verse jumped off the page and grabbed me by the throat: “Drop everything and listen, listen as he speaks: ‘Don’t turn a deaf ear as in the Bitter Uprising…’”
First of all, I felt like Jesus parked his tush next to mine and said, “Listen up, girlie. I’m talking.” Second, the phrase “bitter uprising” perfectly matched how I feel during sermons. The bitterness rises up in my stomach and threatens to spill out of my mouth. Sometimes it DOES spill out of my mouth… and into the ear of my husband sitting next to me.
I did a better job of relaxing on Sunday, actually listening to what the preacher had to say and asking myself how it applied to my own life. I worked hard to not throw up shields against his every word. But I also thought a lot about why I have struggled so much in this area.
It’s no secret that I have been grappling mightily with my faith, with doubt and with a million questions. I am often unsure what I believe about anything anymore. The once-stable ground feels broken beneath my feet. I just can’t seem to reconnect. But why do I feel so bitter instead of feeling hopeful? Why am I not clinging to sermons as possible words from God?
Something Rachel Held Evans wrote popped into my head, and the truth of it washed over me like a wave. I’m going to try to ride this wave instead of letting it suck me under.
Here is the quote from Rachel’s book, Searching for Sunday: “Cynicism is a powerful anesthetic we use to numb ourselves to pain, but which also, by its nature, numbs us to truth and joy.”
I can’t lie to you. This is where I am. When I go anywhere near a church or church people that I don’t already know and have not already catalogued as safe, I pull that cynical blanket tight around my shoulders like a winter coat. I burrow into the downy fluff of it and pretend it will protect me.
I’m still not sure what I need protecting from, but it is clear I am hiding from something. I am avoiding a battle I’m not ready to fight, mostly because I don’t know what side I’m fighting on, and I don’t know who I’m fighting against, and I don’t know what we are fighting about.
In my entire life, I cannot remember being this unsure of the ground I stand on, and I am scared. I am scared, so I wear cynicism like a shield. I wrap it around my shoulders like one of Mama’s handmade quilts.
It isn’t working, friends. Like Rachel said, in the process of hiding from possible pain, I have also been hiding from the good possibilities… the friends I might be making and the love I might be feeling. I am numbing my soul to joy.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving a problem, right?
Step one, taken.
Will you all walk with me? Will you look at your own lives and ask yourself where you are hiding? What shields are you holding up? How can you begin to let them down?
I’m Linus with my blanket right now. How can I begin to let it go?
*originally published on Middle Places