I just preached a sermon for my congregation about how they needed to treat each other better and that starts by listening. I preached it right before a scheduled parish meeting so that they’d actually treat each other better, dialogue, ask questions, and listen to each other.
Instead, the divisiveness in the meeting was as thick as smog. I just shook my head and asked myself, ‘What happened? Did you people stuff cotton in your ears during the sermon?”
This conversation did and didn’t happen in real life. It’s a composite of the lament of many preachers who have reported to me the same general bewilderment:
“I preach. They listen. But they don’t hear.”
Are we wasting our breaths?
The people we preach to and the world around us pretty much look the same week after week. It doesn’t often look like the Good News has caught fire in people’s hearts. It doesn’t look like the reign of God is being built.
For all our efforts to preach the Good News, how come it looks like nothing much is changing?
Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, in her marvelous book Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope (Eerdmans, 2003) offers insights to help us understand why it may seem like our words return void.
Change is an active, at times uncomfortable process. Consider all that change requires to understand why change may be slow in coming.
Change Requires Opening the Heart to New Possibilities
What is it we hope for? Change, to be sure.
Change from one place to another. Change from one perspective to a new one. Change from sin to graciousness.
But for change to occur we need our imaginations to be widened.
“Conversion is the opening of the heart to the grace of new possibilities….Change converts me from the narrowness of perspective that trapped me in the small confines of my former self to a more expansive, more flexible citizen of the world. It calls me to imagination” (p. 25).
Rather than believe we’re stuck where we are with the “way things work”—or stuck believing the way we see the world is the only right, proper, and correct way—we have to see new choices. We have to see new possibilities.
We have to open our hearts to the possibility that there just might be more.
And God will guide us through that hope to the unknown until we discover it.
Change Requires Learning AND Un-Learning
When learning a new skill, are you able to execute it perfectly after hearing the instructions just once?
It’s rare indeed for this to happen for me. How about you?
Even harder is when I try to learn a new skill and discover that I have developed a really bad habit I must also un-learn. For instance, in my fiddle lesson, I learned my bow hold isn’t quite right. I’m gripping it instead of holding it lightly.
Unlearning deep muscle memory must happen before a new habit can re-form my hand. My hand must agree to, then learn, to be reshaped.
Truthfully, it’s so frustrating to unlearn something that I often give up and resort to the old, bad habit, thus, reinforcing the bad habit which will require now even more time to unlearn and relearn.
And so it goes with our hearts, too.
The muscle memory of impatience, selfishness, competition, patriarchy, racism, fear, etc. is deeply wired in our beings from childhood and a lifetime of exercising certain reactions.
To change, we must agree to let them be re-formed, to be replaced with softer, more open, more relaxed, responses.
Then we can move on to the long slog of letting them be reshaped to look more like Christ’s heart.
That can take a very—very—long time.
“Conversion is not always immediate. It can even be impossible, sometimes for years. But the longer we put it off, the longer we resist change, the longer it takes for us to become more than we were when the struggle began” (p. 25).
When we preach and don’t see the effects of the conversion we hoped for, it doesn’t mean the conversion isn’t underway. It may well be working its slow, gracious “magic” to untangle old habits of self-protection that die hard.
Take heart: without your preaching the Good News, the conversion might never even get started.
Possibilities might never have been presented. Imaginations might never be widened. Ever.
To preach conversion is to preach possibilities, not outcomes.
Change Requires Lament
Chittister quotes Peter Medawar:
“‘Today the world changes so quickly that in growing up we take leave not just of youth but of the world we were young in….Fear and resentment of what is new is really a lament for the memories of our childhood.’”
Conversion may be about changing the present for a better future God hopes for us. But it’s also about letting go of the past. A past we may be reluctant to release.
The past holds who we are, what made us, and our identity.
The past, even if awful in some ways, still “works” for us in the present. It represents the coping mechanisms we’ve employed to protect, guide, guard, hide, and reveal what we want seen.
Letting go of our past exposes us in uncomortable, foreign ways. It makes us vulnerable. We are acknowledging the need to be reshaped into someone we don’t yet know.
Conversion requires a part of us to die. The death of a former self requires grief just like the death of a loved one.
So acknowledge it.
Acknowledge, name, and call out the difficulty of letting go, of burying the part of ourselves that got us this far.
Then cast a vision for what it will mean to be risen to this new self, a new life in Christ, rather than continuing as the walking dead.
Change Requires Surrender
For all that, listeners may not want to change.
At least not change every time in the way suggested by every sermon.
I know I don’t.
I don’t always want to let go of my past or open my imagination to new possibilities.
Sometimes I like being the resentful elder brother standing outside my younger brother’s party. I like having the father wait with me, wait for me, wait on me.
And yet, change will happen around me, no matter how long I stand outside the party. In addition, change will happen inside me, too, in body, mind and spirit.
Change is inevitable.
Conversion, however, is not.
As Chittister says:
“We cannot not change. But we can refuse to be converted. We can allow ourselves to become dogmatic….We can become the spiritual corpses of a creative God who goes on endlessly creating, in us as well as around us” (p. 26).
So for all our preaching Good News and for its lack of apparent effects, it’s also possible our listeners—like us at times—are simply refusing.
They (we) see the possibilities conversion would bring. They (we) just say no.
God is in Charge of Conversion
Chittister reminds us, “It isn’t that conversion is immediate. It is simply that the spiritual person is open to the possibility” (p. 26).
We preach possibility, hope, and God’s creative, grace-filled potential.
Those who are open may begin the slow process toward unlearning and change.
One thing is certain: there will be far less of all of that if we don’t preach it. Somewhere, the open person needs to hear the invitation to a better way, needs to encounter a vision for a different perspective.
So preach it, Preacher!
Preach what you can and what you must. Preach the Good News!
Let God manage the conversion. And give thanks for the opportunity to do your part in sparking change.
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