Thursday, February 08, 2007

Speaking from Non-experience...

Ok, help my with my pastoral dilemma.

(Disclaimer: I'm not an ordained pastor nor really a preacher, just a lay church worker)

I've been asked to do a sermon for Lent during our mid-week noon service. The theme of these sermons is going to Being Still and finding God in the storms of life. So a tie-in to Psalm 46 with a each specific sermon being about a biblical character as well as real life experience. I'm assigned to do the Old Testament woman.

In looking at my options I find myself drawn to the likes of Sarah, Rachel and Hannah because they are certainly representative of the major issue for women in the OT: having children. These are women who were faced with Barrenness and ended up having children. Their stories are hopeful and inspiring and real.

Now, most of you know that Chris and I are not at a stage where we are trying to have kids yet. But, I have been a witness and supporter of many friends who were and are trying to get pregnant. Many of these friends have had trouble concieving for a variety of reasons and have gone through a wide variety of infertility treatments during their process. I have seen their pain in this process and the more I go through adult life the more I see people struggling with this on a daily basis.

The Bible has stories that relate to this. It isn't an old problem or a new one but a continuing issue of women: trying to get pregnant, trying to stay pregnant, having children. It is a defining role and have seen my friends feel broken by this pain - physically, emotionally and spiritually.

So part of my would like to be able to preach on these women during lent. To bring up these pains in church and maybe even try to determine where God could be in these storms. But, this brings me to the question: Can I relate in a meaningful and sensitive way to an issue I don't have real experience with?

I sent an email to Mel of Stirrup Queens a blog about infertility and miscarriages and a resouce for many areas and issues relating to it. I asked her a few questions and she agreed to post my questions in this post. So far it has been a mixed result about whether I would even be able to preach in a meaningful way to many of these women. But it has also been extremely telling to see how hurt the church can make them feel.

So I am posting the main question here too, to those who may know me or to those who know the pastoral call...Can I take on something like this with compassion?

Part of me feels called to talk about this pain having witnessed it...and part of me is fearful that I will alienate people further. I know that is a risk with every sermon, but I don't want to make it worse for those who are already in pain.

So what do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


liz said...

Okay, I'll bite. :)

Liz, I think it is really, really wonderful that you want to do this and see this as a worthy story to tell (which of course it certainly is). My immediate reaction, though, is that there is a big difference between acknowledging another’s pain and actually helping them. I struggle daily with this. Since I can’t relate to the infertility example, I will share my own experience (about which you are already well aware). Having lost my beloved only sibling in a violent and sudden way, I cannot put into words how offensive and painful it is when people tell me they know how I feel because they lost their 101-year-old great-grandma, loved one who lived a full life and had a peaceful death, dog, goldfish, next-door neighbor whom they didn’t really like, etc., etc., etc. (I know we’ve talked about this and I’ve blogged about it, too.)

If you plan to do this, I'd tread very lightly. I think that at times the wrong words are worse than no words at all. That’s hard to say, and it puts a lot of pressure on people to say the right thing, but it’s true and many of my days have been nearly unbearable because of thoughtless remarks, blogs, e-mails, or letters from people who meant well, but broke my heart instead. Having said that, it is a marvelous gift when someone acknowledges the pain of another. It is very difficult to suffer in silence. And while the church has a lot to say about grief and loss in the form of death, it is largely silent on the topic of infertility (except for the charming references to “barrenness”) and I imagine that is very isolating and painful, so even mentioning it might be welcome.

Still, it makes me nervous… I’m not sure how I would do it in your shoes, having been the recipient of so many well-meant but heartbreaking words myself. I realize that’s a hard line to navigate and I probably haven’t been helpful! The comments at Stirrup Queen’s post are thought-provoking – I would let them be your guide. You are a very sensitive and well-spoken person and I know that if anyone could do justice to the topic without being hurtful, you could. Still, you asked, so there's my .02 (closer to about $2!). ;)

Rev Scott said...

Beloved miscarried our first baby at around 8 weeks last March. We were amazed at the men & women who came out of the woodwork to share their own stories of loss and heartbreak.

I definitely agree with your friend who counsels caution, but I also think that a gentle revealing of the universality of loss would do good for the church. No cliches, no syrupy sweet "God never gives you more than you can handle together" crap, but if you are honest about God's presence within suffering (and look to other psalms for how the psalmists struggled with that as well) you will do well.

Emilie said...

Hmm, this is a tough one, Liz, and I'm not sure I have my own thoughts sorted out on it.

One of the commenters on Stirrup Queen's blog said something that's so true: "On the one hand, it's painful not to be acknowledged. On the other hand, it's also painful to be misunderstood." I do know that I would have LOVED to have heard some acknowledgement of infertility in my church. It just would have had to be the right words, not anything sanctimonious or "this is God's will" ... you know what I mean?

Of course, in my church, the only people allowed to preach do not have any firsthand experience with sexual relationships, marriage, parenthood, or other situations that are common to many of their congregants, but they still have to be able to preach in ways that are relevant. Sometimes, they do a really good job of making their topic universal. Other times, I find myself muttering, "How would you know?" when a priest goes on about a topic like that.

Personally, I think you've been given an opportunity to acknowledge it. And I think it's OK that you haven't experienced it yourself — as long as you don't speak as if you know what it's like to be in the shoes of infertile women. (But don't go on and on about how you DON'T know what it's like, either ... that only drives home your lack of experience with it!) So that's the challenge.

I did like the comment from the woman who was moved by the sermon about the donkey in the well. She wrote:

"The moral of the story, the Rabbi explained, is that we have two choices when we're stuck at the bottom of a very deep, dark hole. We can sit there and do nothing, and suffocate, or we can shake it off and take a step up.
I sat there with tears rolling down my face (the story still makes me cry) because even though the sermon didn't specifically address infertility, it spoke to me and to the desperation I felt at the bottom of that hole we call infertility. I made that moral my motto from then on-- I knew I had a choice: I could wallow in self-pity and suffocate, or I could shake it off and take a step up.

Maybe using the elements of storytelling to get your point across might be a good way to do it. And if you're addressing the Old Testament women, maybe they can be your story. I don't have any ideas for how you'd do it, though I'm' sure I'll be thinking about it!

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

Okay - being a pastor and struggling personally with the long wait to become a mother... (the wait goes on)... it is vital to be honest to the text. Yes these women waited. Yes they had children in "the end"... but is having children what truly or solely defined them enough for their stories to be included in scripture?

I agree w/what others have said in that I would be #$%L if I heard a pastor say something cheesy and sugary like "so ladies there is hope and you just have to wait and of course pray." puhhleeez.

I would urge you to wrestle with the text(s) more and I think you'll discover that although bearing the children in each of these cases was important... what other factors are there about these women that shapes them and what other factors are relatable to the folks in the pew. Infertility is one possibility... but I would go for more rather than centering everything on that.

Mother Laura said...

As a bereaved mom of a toddler I too had had my fill of preaching from people who thought they knew what I felt, either because they had a dead child themselves or imagined what it would be like--equally offensive...I too would recommend treading very lightly, acknowledging that you haven't experienced this personally, and checking your text first with someone who has.

Maybe focus on preaching to the other people who haven't experienced it, i.e. how not to dis or cause further hurt to infertile women the way that people did to the biblical women facing that struggle. I would have loved to hear someone telling others what idiotic things not to tell me: she's in heaven--isn't that great?, we don't understand God's plan, you'll have other children, have you gone to counseling/x support group? (someone suggested the best response to this last one was "Have you ever gone to counseling for your lack of appropriate boundaries?", but I could never get my guts up to say it). Had to write an article about it myself instead.

LutheranHusker said...

What if you came at it from the point-of-view of the church? A mea culpa, if you will...a realization that this is such a painful issue, and the church is supposed to be a place of healing, and in so many ways we have NOT been that place of healing for infertile or bereaving women (and men).

In the penitential spirit of Lent, what an opportunity to acknowledge past wrongdoing on the part of the church as a whole, and to ask forgiveness and to re-invite people into journeying together.

I'd re-echo the advice to tread lightly, but maybe this angle might make it possible to speak without sounding like you're trying to say "I know how you feel."

Just a thought that hit me as I read the other comments. Feel free to take with a grain (or an entire shaker) of salt. =)

Shalom said...

As someone who is a preacher and struggling with infertility, I think it's very good that you want to bring up this issue in a sermon. It's funny how actually having the experience of the struggle still doesn't make me feel like I know what should be said about it, so the fact that you haven't experienced it isn't necessarily a reason to stay silent. The other comments are very helpful, especially (for me) about God's presence in the midst of our struggle. Yes, I'd caution against wrapping it up too neatly - "look! These biblical women had children! you will too!" - but part of seeing ourselves truly before God is seeing and hearing our struggles related in the pulpit. I know I preach all the time about things I haven't experienced; it's just part of the job. And you can do that with humility and grace, I think. Best wishes.

Sally said...

So much good advice there- so I add my prayers for your preaching- and one thing- you are not "just a lay worker"- your ministry is as valuable and valid as any ordained person!

Anonymous said...

It's good that you are considering dealing with these issues in your sermon. A lot of women deal with them and almost nobody ever talks about it. There's a group called Compassionate Friends that might give some insights and suggestions as to the do's and don'ts and might be a good resource. I've read some of their stuff in the past and it has been great. There are also several Christian books written about it. There are also national infertility support groups as a resource for information.

I had trouble getting pregnant so I understand some of that. I also had a stillborn son who strangled on his cord, another baby later that I lost second trimester and a third miscarriage that happened early in the pregnancy. Sometimes this can be life threatening and leave physical problems. I have come across women who have been through it 8 or more times. It's devastating. (I have 2 living children.)

We need to remember to cut those who are trying to comfort us some slack. They don't understand and they want to help. They are doing the best they can. You can help the helpers by getting the resources and talking to women who have been through it, then giving the congregations suggestions on what to say and do. Most want to be loving to the grieving mom and dad, they just don't know how.

With the stillborn baby there is the knowledge that parents aren't supposed to outlive their kids. It feels terrible. There's also the knowledge that no matter what you do, you cannot protect your kids from everything. Not everything is under our control. For every child, it was the loss of a dream and a future. You always wonder what they would have been like. Your arms and your heart ache. You think of them on their birthday, on the day they would have started school, Christmas, and all the other milestones. In this sense, the deaths are like other deaths where you do the same thing, thinking about them on special days. There really are common elements in loss. Only you can't talk about miscarriages to most people. They can't understand.

There are people who use the death of an unborn child or their infertility to make a positive impact on society with some project. That is a good thing. The feelings do have to be dealt with in some way.

I've lost grandmas, babies, dogs, cats, friends and relatives of all ages. They all leave a hole in your heart, each in a different place. But I look forward to heaven and seeing all of them again in my greeting committee. Then I get to meet the babies I lost face to face and hug my loved ones once more. Until then, I live my life to the fullest here on earth, doing the work the Lord put me here to do.