Questioning God in the Pulpit

This week as I sat listening to a friend share devastating medical news, I found myself unable to come up with any helpful or even appropriate response. Thoughts flashed through my mind as if on loop on a big movie screen: this is not fair; why is this happening?; this person is good and kind — not a person who deserves this.

One after another, they came, pulling me into a cyclone of increasing outrage. Why do bad things happen to good people?

All of the sudden I realized that I am currently preaching on assigned lectionary texts from the Book of Job.  I have been getting up in front of hundreds of people every Sunday to parse the text, draw on every ounce of theological depth I can possibly remember from seminary, then tie it all together with a bow so that everybody who asks questions like I was asking earlier this week would feel a little better on their way home from church. Those questions were my questions, but when I planned this sermon series, I didn’t know I would be asking them.

There are many things wrong with this, including but not limited to an apparent disconnect between theory and practice in my own experience, and whatever pastoral fantasy I’d been nurturing that there is some way to tie a bow around the question of human suffering at all.

Preaching on the book of Job is a new sort of preaching for me at this ministry assignment. I work in a context where a strident gospel is generally the word of the week, Jesus’ perpetual call for us to do the work of ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth. The Job texts caught my attention for a bit of variety — what if I worked with these texts for a few weeks and preached more theology and personal faith? I wonder how messages of a more personal nature would sit with my people?

The response I’ve received from my congregation has been a bit startling. Hearing the suffering and injustice of the human experience voiced in worship seems to have opened a floodgate of connection. I’ve received the most beautiful emails and been approached for deep and thoughtful conversations, each detailing struggles to keep believing in the face of suffering, tales of well-meaning friends who have damaged faith, and that sinking, lonely feeling that God, if God exists at all, has totally and utterly abandoned us.

Turns out I’m not the only one asking these questions. And, strangely, this comforts me.

This week at the intersection of my own experience and the life of the community, I realized again what I have learned over and over along this adventure of being human and trying to live with faith: we do it all so much better together.

We need each other to witness stories of doubt and fear and pain, to listen when we need to voice the suspicion that God is unaware of our pain, or uncaring, or even non-existent. We need each other to remember we are not alone in our questions.

And some of us even need each other to listen and say, “Hey, haven’t you been preaching on that topic lately?”

 

This column appeared first over at Baptist News Global.

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4 Comments on “Questioning God in the Pulpit

  1. Yes, have come to the conclusion status, religion and gender are all secondary to seeing the humanity in each other. Until we get there compassion is only make-up, not skin-to-skin. So happy you were open to the higher message was hidden. Help them get to inner peace on a higher level of perception. Perception is everything. Those who have made wrong choices deserve inner peace even moreso… Cool work, eh?

  2. Dear Dr. Amy Butler,

    I surf and swing from one website to another to get my spiritual fill. When I feel depressed and dejected, I listen to Joel Osteen. He is this friend that tells you its going to be all right when all around you is falling apart. Confidently, he assures you that God is like an eagle who will snatch you out from sure danger. God is like superman who scoped up Lois Lane midway from falling on top a building. But deep within me, I tell myself, this is not going to happen to me. I have seen this movie before. I am going to get clobbered, I am going to get whacked, figuratively of course. Although I am hoping against hope that maybe just maybe those stories are not made up. They did happen to real people and it’s going happen to me. The guy does not run out of stories of miracles after miracles. Joel Osteen does not run out of jokes either, in his opening statements. Those jokes are definitely made up. Whether made up or not I get encouraged by the stories of God intervening in people’s desperate situation and wish that somehow God would give me pass this time.

    When I want to look at life with disinterest to borrow your word, I listen to Dr. Michael Brown of Marble Collegiate Church. A lighthearted look at life is what I gain from listening to him. Stuff happens but in the end things will work out. For the most part, that is. That’s his thing, I think. His sermons are also interspersed with stories not about miraculous events but people dealing with their crisis the best way they can with the simple faith they have. That’s battle cry at Marble Collegiate Church, simple faith, not fancy, nor earth moving faith. It is a simple prayer for God to provide their daily bread.

    When I am really confused, I listen to you or more accurately, I read your sermons. They do enlighten me but more importantly, they remind me of a mystical presence of God. The mystical presence does not give me an answer nor perform miracles for me, merely an assurance that he is. It is the stunning brevity of your sermon that clarify for me that God is in the midst of my crisis. He is here with me not to solve the issue or even comfort me but to make a connection, a connection to someone who will be there especially when I don’t make the right call. God’s presence does not get lost in your sermon. Sometimes its hard to figure out God’s answer to your question when you are listening to a dissertation. You are only preacher I know who can talk about a monumental topic such pain a suffering in less than twenty minutes and in less than 2000 words. I am guessing. I did not count. Christianity is extremely verbose religion. The sacrament of the word can get lost in mountain ideas, words, and arguments. As you can see, I am one of those extremely verbose person.

    Sincerely,
    Danilo Reyes

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