faith, tragedy and extemporaneous speaking

4 Mar

I will upload my sermon outline and the audio from this Sunday later in the week.  But in the meantime, I wanted to share my experience of this Sunday, because it was one of those days when the mystery and wonder in the universe leave me in awe.

This month, our ministry theme is Faith.  And so I prepared my sermon, based on the book Faith by Sharon Salzberg.  It is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it.  One month ago, I began speaking extemporaneously, but I noticed that my outline for this sermon was more notes than outline.  I felt a bit anxious about it. Had I not processed the material enough?  What was going to happen?

Then, on Friday, tragedy struck my area of the country in the form of multiple tornados.  One of the families in our church suffered devestating losses to their farm, though thankfully the massive EF4 tornado that went by did not cause very much damage to their house.  This same tornado leveled two towns.

I began to wonder about changing my sermon topic.  Perhaps the congregation needed something of me in this area. But I did not know what.  I thought about what I would say, and I felt utterly bereft of any theological reflection on the topic.  We don’t believe in a God that points his finger and causes some people to suffer and others to get by unscathed.  Unitarian Universalists are pretty practical that way.  It was a terrible situation, but there was no cause (other than, perhaps, climate change, but I was not going to preach on that).  I knew that if my congregation wanted anything, it would be something honest, from my heart.  And they would want to feel useful.

When one of the members with the damaged farm suggested we do a second collection for the Red Cross, I thought it might come together.  Rather than do a second collection, we decided she and her family would tell their story, and that this would be the introduction to the main offering – we would give away the entire plate to the Red Cross.

Coming in this morning, I was feeling like I had a bit of a handle on what was going on.  And I proceeded to lose that handle.  One thing after another went wrong, or went differently than I thought it would.  I had totally forgotten that it was a multigenerational service and the kids were with us the whole time.

I warned the congregation before the prelude to just put down their orders of service, and to have faith that all would be well.  We were going to play it by ear.

And we did.  And it was.  One member gave a heart-filled testimony on what the church meant to him (we are kicking off our yearly stewardship campaign).  We had many joys and sorrows.  And then it was time to introduce the offering.  I learned that a good place to get shelter during a tornado (if you are out and about) is one of those car washes that I have behind my house (and which I now have more appreciation for).

And I heard about what it was like to be seperated from your loved ones during a tornado.  One of the mothers was picking up their daughter while the other mother was texting constant weather updates.  The mother who was still at the farm shared how hard it was to be seperated from her family as the freight train sound came through.  She said she thought she would die, and that what got her through it was faith: faith in the love that she has for her family and that they have for her.

I sat there, silently weeping.  When their story was told and the offering collected, I was left wondering what place a nicely outlined sermon had after such a testimonial.  That had been faith, stripped of all pretensions.  I decided to jetisoon the reading, put down the iPad (on which I keep my outline) and go with it.  I prayed to the mystery of the universe to help me find the right words.

And I did.  I used some of what I had planned on using, some that I didn’t. Some in a different order.  I spoke purely from my heart.  I encouraged us as Unitarian Universalists to become reacquainted with faith.  The kind of faith we had heard about: the kind that grounds us, inspires us to keep going.

I had faith in my ability to give a sermon, to go with the flow.  Thankfully, I had given a few extemporaneous sermons already which helped increase my trust in myself.  I don’t know if I could have handled it so gracefully if I had felt bound to a text.

I also had faith in my congregation, to go with me on an unplanned journey.  And it all worked out.  Beautifully.  It was, truly, one of those magical moments that I will look back on in times of difficulty to remind myself that sometimes, not always, but sometimes, all will be well.  That you just gotta have faith.

2 Responses to “faith, tragedy and extemporaneous speaking”

  1. Mickbic March 4, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    I had only a short period of being a minister and that was 20 years ago..I used an outline and tried to preach off the cuff. One sermon on forgiveness was so well liked that the congregation wanted to hear it a second time. I liked to use a few scripture verses, some current events and something from my own experience. Keep the faith! —Mickbic

  2. Nancy Tepper March 4, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    And so truly you are a minister in the fullest sense of the word – able to minister to your congregation in a crisis situation – to hear them, to set the stage for the best response, to give them faith, hope, and courage, to let them feel your love, to share in the pain, to engage in a dialogue. To let them know that things can be all right again. You have been preparing for this for years (though you may not have known it); and you rose to the challenge. I am not surprised at all but I am full of admiration! – Nancy

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