Early on a Friday evening, I received a call from a parishioner, distraught about a developing situation in her family; it was not a circumstance in which the situation would change at all in the next few days, so we made an appointment to talk after church on Sunday.
As with many pastoral interactions, I saw how this meeting could be rife with heresy (that is to say, how easy it would be to slip into seemingly therapeutic and comforting speech–since this is what we’re shown on tv shows and what’s plastered to the walls of hair salons, coffeeshops, grandmas’ houses, etc–and to let wrong assumptions about God, propagated by banal cliches, run away with the interaction, leaving the parishioner with little to hold on to (other than that empty cliche) and even less understanding of God in light of his or her lived reality). I fingered through my mental files of my favorite and wisest pastors (mostly Sam Wells, who himself carefully steered me away from sad, empty cliches at pivotal moments more than once!), and I gathered wisdom from J as we held the problem in our hands like play dough, forming it into one thing, and then into another, testing directions of conversation, trying to figure out the balance of truth and gentleness.
By Sunday morning, having mentioned it in my laundry list of prayers throughout the weekend, I refocused on performing my duties as deacon for the first time in my new church home. When I met with the family after services, I spoke with them for a few minutes, but our talking (more like, my questioning and their shifting eyes and feet) wasn’t going much of anywhere, so I shifted myself and suggested we pray. In that prayer, I saw all the wisdom I’d been gathering–adding to the play dough–come out. It reminded me of what my mentor here said to me about preaching (though clearly it relates to prayer, too): People hear better when they over-hear (which is to say that if i tell you, in front of your hygiene-deficient sister, “You know, when you take a shower, you just look so much happier!” –it will probably lead the sister to shower a bit more). In pouring out all the good and true things I’d been mulling the last few days, desperate to avoid slipping into platitudes, in the prayer, I enabled some over-hearing. Affirming to God those truths He has given us, the family and I were able to overhear and accept the grace of God’s truth in a gentle way, a way that I hope allows us to continue chewing on the rough edges or dense bits of truth in the days and weeks to come.