Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Preaching – An Encounter With Weakness

Preaching is an essential part of Franciscan life.  When St. Francis encountered the love of God in Jesus Christ his life was radically altered.  Almost overnight Francis went from a man of this world to one in pursuit of the things of heaven.  He traded in his fancy clothes for those of a poor beggar.  He said goodbye to his earthly father, who could not accept his son’s transformation, and embraced God as his Father.  He abandoned his middle class Italian life, with all of its pleasures and luxuries, and went to live with lepers and those estranged from society.

St. Francis did all of this, not because of political or economic motivations, but because he wanted to imitate Jesus who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6).  Francis’ desire was simple: to live the Gospel and share with the world that “pearl of great price” he had received.  The rich, the poor, young, old and even animals listened to this “troubadour of the Lord,” as he went about proclaiming the Gospel to all of creation.  The whole world was not only his cloister, but also his audience.

I too share the same passion that St. Francis did for preaching.  When I first heard the Gospel it was like fresh spring water washing over me.  It was purifying, refreshing and humbling.  For some time I simply bathed in those waters, not trying to understand, but just enjoying its freshness and vigor.  Fairly soon, however, I would realize, this good news was not meant only for myself.  I needed to share it.

My own Franciscan life is not an ordinary one.  I am a part time hermit and a part time preacher.  In my community we have a few full time preachers, called itinerant preachers, but no hermits.  I am somewhere in between.  I love the silence and solitude of hermitage, yet I also love the opportunity to preach the Gospel.  Like St. Paul I believe, “an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it” (1 Corinthians 9:16).

Whether it is a retreat, a parish mission, a day of recollection or some other preaching event, I am generally excited and anxious to share, what I believe, is the heart of the Gospel: that no matter who you are, where you are from, or what you have done, God is deeply in love with you.  Jesus is the proof.

Perhaps I am a bit naïve, but every time I venture out to proclaim this message I expect a smooth takeoff.  Within moments, however, I encounter turbulence.  Traffic jams, car problems, flight delays, headaches, stomach pains, difficulty sleeping, and miscommunication are just some of the commotion that I encounter along the way.

Followed by this is what I like to call “mind turbulence.”  It begins with questions:  Why am I preaching here?  Why did I choose this topic?  Did I really discern this properly? Are my talks too long, too short?  Are they too theological? Next comes an endless array of thoughts plagued with doubt and insecurity.  Nobody is going to come.  The pastor thinks I’m too young.  I shouldn’t have left my hermitage.  I’m such a hypocrite; I shouldn’t be preaching on something I’m not living, etc.

Finally, there is the “environmental turbulence.”  Like clockwork, as soon as I arrive for the event something goes wrong with the sound system, electricity, air conditioner or heater.  Coupled with that is a whole group of enthusiastic people waiting to tell me their hopes and their expectations for the event.  Somewhere inside this crowd there is that one person who does not hesitate to tell me everything that is wrong with this place, its people, its pastor, its programs and that my being there, despite good intentions, will not really change anyone.

By this point my head is usually spinning, my stomach is in pain and I am convinced this event will be a disaster.  Clearly this cannot be God’s will.  I turn to prayer for confirmation.  There is no consolation, no affirmation and no sense of God’s presence.  If God does “speak” to me in these moments, it is often with the same words he gave to St. Paul in the midst of his own struggles he encountered in proclaiming the Gospel.  "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness"(2 Corinthians 12:9).

When the time has arrived to begin preaching I approach the microphone with a deep awareness of my own poverty.  I have been completely stripped.  I have no confidence, no wisdom and no strength.  I am not exactly sure what I will say or how I will say it.  I feel alone.  I open my mouth and suddenly it happens: everything disappears.  The turbulence ceases, and I feel, quite literally, as if I am floating, being carried by a Presence much stronger than anything of this world.  Somehow the words flow and most importantly, in a way my audience can understand.  The Gospel, despite all these difficulties, is being proclaimed, and strangely enough, I am its messenger.

After the event is finished I go to the door to say goodbye to people and thank them for coming.  Most people shake my hand, nod in appreciation and say thank you.  A few approach me and look directly into my eyes and say, “thank you, I really needed to hear that.”   A few more people come forward with tears in their eyes, “I really experienced the love of God in your words today.  I can’t thank you enough for coming.”  Humbled and somewhat embarrassed, I simply respond,  “God bless you.”  Occasionally, someone will say, “This event has changed my life, thank you.”  I am left speechless.  I simply smile at them and embrace them, while tears of my own begin to well up inside of me.

I have often used the words of St. Paul, “When I am weak, it is then that I am strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:11) to encourage people in their own ministry when they become overwhelmed by their inadequacies.  God can do a lot with nothing, I tell them, if you are willing to surrender even that to him.  St. Francis stripped himself of his clothes to become utterly dependent on God.  I too, when I preach, am stripped of any self -reliance so as to learn the same message:  God’s grace covers our weakness.  

+ Fr. Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR
Monticello, NY
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