By Joe LaGuardia
I did not preach much Sunday, September 3. I tried, but all I was able to do was give testimony. When we preachers have nothing to say about a biblical text, it is just best to testify. It does not have to be scholarly or well-organized, but it does have to be true.
My week was like that: A cycle of trying and failing, of finding words to say and confronting silence instead.
I began the week excited about joining my sisters in Orlando for a few days. It was the first time our families got together in years: Three days with nieces, nephews, and the big Mouse at Bueno Vista.
Over the weekend, however–the weekend before my vacation–I received word that one of our parishioners fell victim to cancer and passed away. I was heartbroken for the family. It was sudden. The man had one son, so when I met with the family and he spoke about his father, I was reminded about the loss of my own dad.
Funerals have a way of keeping us preachers nimble. Instead of having one sermon to write before I went to Orlando, I now had two: one for Sunday and another for the funeral, which was scheduled for the day after my return.
I did something a little different for the funeral sermon: I wrote an outline. I always write manuscripts for funerals to insure that each word is intentional, thoughtful, sensitive and concise. But I did not want a complicated sermon. I was co-officiating and eulogies were planned, so what more needed to be said?
With sermons out of the way, I went off to Orlando. My trip went well except for the fact that, now, every time I get together with my sisters, there exists the lingering absence of my father who had passed four years ago this August 5th.
My sisters and I had fun. We laughed. There were no conflicts, but our father was missing. We didn’t have anyone to complain to about our jobs, our finances, about one another. My dad was good about that, he absorbed everyone’s trials and tears and hardships.
I was quiet most of the trip as a result of my melancholy. Why was I so quiet? I hadn’t seen my sisters in ages, there must be more to talk about.
After I returned from Orlando, I headed to the funeral for our parishioner, but another oddity happened, although I am not sure if anyone noticed: I did not finish preaching my funeral sermon. No, really–literally! I literally stopped short in the middle of the homily! I blanked out and I left off the conclusion before stopping mid-sermon and calling the congregation to join me in a closing prayer.
Later that afternoon, home with Kristina, I broke. My wife and I had a long discussion about my anxieties and stress, about missing my father, and about how my words kept failing me–on my trip, at the funeral, in expressing a cloud that followed me all week long.
Sunday morning came, and off to church I went with two services to preach. But as I mentioned already, I did not preach. I testified. I did not speak of my trouble with words. I did not confess that I blanked out during the funeral sermon. I only told a story about trying to find joy in unexpected places and about how one person from church with whom I met the previous week (who had lost her husband three months ago) ministered to me in the midst of my own hardships this week.
This evening I continued reading a book that I can never read for long sittings. Its one of those books where you savor a sentence or two (or a whole page if you’re lucky), and then you have to stop and pray and reflect or wipe tears to see more clearly. Its When God is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor, and what I read tonight resonated. In fact, it sums up my emotions this week perfectly, although the situation is different:
I met a man last summer–a preacher–who nursed his wife until her death, at fifty-something, from cancer. When she stopped breathing, he said, the silence in the room destroyed all language for him. No words could get into him and none could get out. . . Months and months later, his voice is still raspy. . . He did not sound angry when he said that. He sounded like someone who had been scorched by the living God and who knew better than to try and talk about it.”
I think that is my problem, one that Taylor sums up well. There are times when I encounter God and I, along with many others, expect that I can put that into words. I don’t blame anyone–that’s my vocation, after all. But sometimes I need to know better. Sometimes I need to stop trying so hard to talk about things that I can’t talk about.
My only regret is that I had some collateral damage along the way: A funeral sermon brought to a screeching halt, an online prayer I since deleted because it turned into a debate that was a waste of time anyway, and a Sunday sermon-testimony I hoped did not ramble on as much as I had feared.
Sometimes we are scorched and it just best to let the Holy Spirit speak in the silence instead.