I heard an analysis of a sermon recently. One commentator said to another, “I shouldn’t leave and walk out feeling good about myself.”
Really? I’ve been in churches like that—where as one of my friends said, you’re just crap on a plate, covered with a veneer of Jesus. When I was clinically depressed for a while, I had to stop attending one church. After a service, I wanted to hurt myself by the time I entered my apartment door.
I’m a sucker for stories of transformation. Not rag-to-riches stories, but stories of nasty or indifferent people becoming kind and invested in community. And that’s what I want in sermons too. I want to know that transformation is possible
Church leaders, preach hope to me.
I’m no Joel Osteen fan who needs a dollop of “rah rah” encouragement to make it to the next Sunday. I don’t want a church like the one Mary Karr describes in Lit as “a Rotary Club meeting where everybody’s agreed on the agenda in advance and is only waiting for the danish to come out.”
I know sin is real. I know it’s a problem, a problem with me. I live in quiet terror that my true self is my inner jackass.
The jackass made her first big appearance in high school. My dad, trying to recover from alcoholism, decided he couldn’t simultaneously take care of himself and my mom recovering from breast cancer. He left for a few months to live in a halfway house 45 minutes away. My twin brother, a freshman in high school, soldiered on, but I spat acid for the next two years. My best friend was overwhelmed by the bitterness I whispered about others and asked me never to talk with her again. I didn’t until my 10-year high school reunion when I apologized.
When I’m not sleeping well or am stressed or have missed my meds or am near my period or just haven’t had my coffee yet, the jackass presents herself, and my words and tone of voice abrade my husband’s and children’s hearts. I’ve had decades of healing and therapy, but in those situations, she’s still there. So, when I go to church, and someone preaches to me to be a better person or tells me my need for sanctification, there are four things I wish for.
1. Be Vulnerable About Your Own Transformation
Give me some wise vulnerability in sermons. My inner jackass tends to think she’s so special that no other parents could yell at their children. There’s also a thought that a pastor who shares about him or herself is distracting from Scripture. How am I going to believe that the power of Jesus is real if it isn’t real in your life? I wonder if you’re scared that your inner jackass is your true self too.
2. Be Honest About How Hard Transformation Is
Visiting a church in a new town, my husband and I heard a pastor tell us that sanctification is stepping into the current of where God’s going and getting caught up in it. My husband nudged me when I whispered too loudly to him, “It doesn’t feel that way!” Repentance may be ultimately good, but the process can suck sometimes, and you need to admit that.
3. Acknowledge That Transformation Is a Process
My disappointment is deep that anger lurks and reappears as my inner jackass. I had hoped before marriage and children that I would’ve outgrown it. God can do miracles, such as an occasional removal of an addict’s craving. But often I need to be reminded that the apostle Paul said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9b, NIV). We’re on a journey of our weakness met by Jesus’s love, and we don’t get to time the final destination.
4. Just Give Me Jesus
When I told a pastor friend the quote “I shouldn’t leave and walk out feeling good about myself,” she asked, “How is that good news?” Tell me about Jesus’ grace, his desire for me and the effective working of his Spirit for change. Tell me about His love for me much more than you tell me about my sin. Tell me that just asking for His help is evidence of His grace happening—that I am a new creature in Christ who hasn’t been made complete.
During Lenten services this last spring, each speaker shared on an Old Testament patriarch and God’s covenant with him. I don’t remember which patriarch was being covered, but one speaker applied his message to marriage. He said that we may withdraw emotionally from our spouse, but we need Christ’s love to keep the doors of our hearts open to each other as difficult as that is. He didn’t say if it was his personal experience, but he was clearly acquainted with this tension in a marriage if not for himself, for someone else.
The night before I had told my husband how disconnected I felt as we survived as a family during a time of unemployment and medical crises. Our inner jackasses made multiple showings. The speaker’s vulnerability, understanding of the difficulty and process of loving another within the bounds of marriage, and emphasis on Jesus’ great love cleaved open my heart, not in fear of the impossible, but in hope that I could reach out again to my spouse.