From the YMI Director: Preach from Our Scars
Dear youth ministry friends,
In seminary, we are taught to preach from our scars, and not from our open wounds. “You don’t want to bleed all over the congregation,” I recall being told.
There are good reasons behind this perspective. I can think of a couple pretty quickly:
1. Too often, ministers have felt as though they own the pulpit, and can spout off anything they please, with all of their emotions just under the surface; this attitude reflects a larger cultural tendency, which allows us to be reactive without being reflective first. It’s not an especially constructive stance. Nor, in my opinion, is there much holiness in it.
2. Worse still, preaching from wounds rather than scars puts pastors in the role of receiving help from their congregation. It turns the tables, so to speak, in a way that can become unhealthy. Of course, we should all be mutually supportive of one another as the Body of Christ… but it is not the church’s job to take care of its pastor. The pastor should be cared for by others outside of the church, and should be shoring up good self-care practices and resources elsewhere, so as to be able to do their job effectively.
Generally speaking, I agree with the wisdom to preach from places and experiences that are well thought-out, well-lived. And, if the story or experience was a painful one, some distanced perspective and healing is helpful before sharing it with a church.
But for the first time, just a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that there might be some complexity of privilege here:
A Black person who never feels safe might have open wounds that don’t ever really turn to scars.
A person whose marriage or God-created identity is questioned frequently cannot quickly move to “scar” territory.
A young person who is constantly reminded about their “lack of experience,” or an older person who is told that they “can’t keep up”… these people know that the impact of these comments don’t just go away.
Here’s my question, beloved of God: When does speaking the truth matter more than the emotional distance from the event?
And this too: What role do emotions play when speaking about matters of justice?
And this: What are we modeling for our young people in how we minister from our emotions?
I have long been inspired and challenged by a section of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail. And in this Black History Month, I’m glad to cede the floor to his wisdom. He wrote:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
As one who identified as a white moderate for far too long, this remark has hit me like a ton of bricks, over and over through the years. It’s a wound I wish to keep open, as a reminder of my privilege as a white person. I was trained from a very young age to make claims, but to be able to back them up with reasonable arguments. Because of my background, when I hear unbridled emotions placed inside of reason, I inwardly retreat… even if I agree with the person.
But how did King frame these remarks? Was he writing from a tone of lament? Or was he angry? Or both? We do not know, but I’m inclined to think that these wounds of King’s had to be at least somewhat open; he was writing from jail, and white moderates played a role in putting him there (or, more to the point, stood back and let a lot happen). Certainly he had more than enough cause to feel these things… and certainly that deserves no judgment in return from the likes of me.
Over the years, I have come to a place where I believe that, while scars are best for pulpit speak, sometimes wounds can take us somewhere holy, too… particularly, the wounds of historically oppressed groups of people. When one member of the Body suffers, all suffer with it… and then, does that not galvanize all of us towards helping to heal the wound that causes mutual suffering?
For youth ministry, I’m persuaded by the idea that emotions matter. Emotions can spur us towards deeper listening, and ultimately towards holy action. May we be attuned to such things as we minister to our young people, and as we endeavor to be good models and advocates for them.
On the journey with you,
P.S. If topics like these interest you, sign up for Feb 6th’s RACE To Be Human screening! We’ll look forward to seeing you there!