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Preaching in the Midst of Tragedy

In four years of pastoral ministry, I’ve had to preach through four national tragedies.

Moments before Sunday service, I received a knock on the door of my study. An usher peeked her head around the door and said, "Your father wanted me to give you this message: After you left for church the news report revealed that the death toll has risen from 20 to 50.”

Then she closed the door.

At 10:55 AM, I put my head on my desk and began to weep.

At 11:00 AM, I, like thousands of preachers in America, stood from my desk, wiped my tears, and steeled myself to face the congregation after another national tragedy.

I am in my fourth year of pastoral ministry, and Sunday was the fourth time I had to look into the eyes of my congregation after the nation experienced mass destruction. During my first Advent season as a pastor, I preached light in the midst of darkness after a man forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, shooting and killing 20 first-graders and 6 adults—robbing them of their lives and making Christmas a time of mourning and grief for 26 families. That day, too, I spent time weeping at my desk.

One year later, I had to face my congregation with a message of hope after bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon, killing 3 and injuring 300. These athletes started the race celebrating the strength of the human body, and sadly 14 people ended the day receiving amputations as a result of the explosion. That day, too, I spent time weeping at my desk.

Only last year, I preached a message of love after a man walked into a prayer service at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot and killed nine people, including the senior pastor. That day, too, I spent time weeping at my desk.

This week, I had to preach a message of peace after a gunman walked into Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, fatally shooting 50 people—including himself. Four national tragedies in four years of preaching.

The Trauma of Preaching in Tragedy

There is only one word to describe preaching after the recurring violence that is shaking the nation: traumatic. It is a trauma for the nation, for the Christian community, and for the pastor. We ask ourselves: How am I going to do this again? And again? Why does this keep happening?

In moments like these, preaching is not glamorous or fun. Preaching is painful. It’s painful because in moments like these, a preacher very clearly feels her limitations. She is ill-equipped to provide the right words. There are not enough words in the English language to make sense of something so senseless. She is also limited in that she needs to hear hope as much as those she has been called on to express hope. And yet the task to articulate hope in the midst of darkness remains before her.

In moments like these, preaching cannot be a list of accepted platitudes like "The Lord will make a way." It cannot be a string of personal affirmations found in self-help books like "I will make today my best day."

The Power of Preaching in Tragedy

It’s in moments like these that preaching is stripped to its rudimentary parts. In moments like these, we very keenly see what we are called to do when we are called to preach. For so many, preaching is but an act of celebration, a time to invite the congregation to shout praises of joy and to be glad. But the call to preach is more than a call to celebrate with the people.

The call to preach is a call to weep with the people. It is to cry out to God with and on behalf of the people in the words of Psalm 6: "How long, Lord, how long? We are worn out from our groaning.”

The call to preach is to wail with the people. It is to respond with wailing, anger, and rage to someone walking into the sanctuary of a black church in Charleston and shooting the congregation and the pastor. It is to respond with wailing, anger, and rage to someone walking into a gay nightclub, for many a sanctuary of a different kind, slaughtering innocent people.

The call to preach is to witness prophetically God's will to the people. It is to stand in the same place as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and to express to all who will listen that God is displeased. To call out the truth that the same prejudice and hatred that led a man to purchase an assault rifle and shoot innocent people in cold blood is the same prejudice and hatred that makes its way into public policy, church polity, and even into the congregation. The congregation is still one of the most segregated places in the country, and it is one of the most frightening places for people in the LGBT community. The call to preach is to name prejudice and hatred for what they are—sin. It is to name the need for repentance.

The call to preach is a call to wait with the people. It is to embody what the community is called to do. The task of the preacher is to stand in the midst of hope and uncertainty, legs shaking, hands clammy, and offer what little words she has, letting God do the rest. And it is to lead the congregation to do the same corporately, to say as a community, "Lord, we don't know what to do. We don't know what to say. We look to you."

This is what it means to preach in moments of tragedy and pain. When God calls you to preach, he calls you to preach even in moments like these. So no matter how ill-equipped you feel, keep preaching. No matter how many tears fall, keep preaching. No matter how few words you have, keep preaching.

Keep preaching, and God will do the rest.

Tiffany Thomas is a native of Columbus, Ohio. She earned her BA from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She pursued her MDiv from Duke University. She is currently serving as senior pastor of South Tryon Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

June15, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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