During a funeral at which I officiated a couple of hours ago, the grandsons of the deceased, all 20-somethings in a Metallica band that is on the rise, paid me the highest compliment a preacher can receive. They gently tilted their heads while I delivered the sermon.
Now that I’ve delivered somewhere around 500 sermons, I’ve learned to watch for some non-verbal signals the listeners give that help me understand if they are engaged with what I’m saying — or if they’re making their shopping list in their head.
A good head-tilt is way on top of the list of positive feedback. Inevitably, when someone tilts their head, and particularly if they leave it there or do it more than once, they will follow up with me later wanting to discuss what I was saying.
And voila!…a conversation begins about the big questions in a way that is natural and non-threatening and thoughtful. To one who proclaims the Gospel for a living, this is akin to a professional deep sea fisher landing a 25′ Swordfish, untattered enough to be mounted on Cherry Wood so that it forever arcs over a bronze plaque inscribed with the date and the place it was caught.
The Gospels tell us that we who follow Jesus Christ are called to fish for people. But in what lake…and with what bait?
My experience has been that people are hungriest when they are struggling, and they are most likely to reach for a lifeline when they feel like they are drowning in the traumas of life. Whether it is while waiting for a loved one who is having brain surgery, or attending the funeral of a beloved friend, people are most hungry when they are hurting.
Unfortunately, too many people in our congregations think that when people are hungry in these ways, what they are most likely to do is COME TO CHURCH.
Now. Perhaps if coming to church is something you’ve done in the past. Perhaps if it is something that you associate with peace and comfort and hope, then you might find your way BACK into a church in your darkest hour.
But for those who do not have that frame of reference? Not likely. For these people, if we are serious about spreading the Gospel, we need to go where they are. In visitations at funerals. In waiting rooms at hospitals. In beaten down buildings where good samaritans serve food that have been donated by restaurants and grocery stores who would otherwise have thrown the food out.
Preaching the Gospel begins with the stories of the people in need of good news. It begins with their stories, it continues with our story, and sometimes, God’s story is told with or without words.
It’s an art. But you don’t have to be an artist to do it. All you have to do is show up and listen, and watch, and help them navigate through a maze of emotion that renders them unable to do even the most ordinary tasks.
And sometimes when we do this, we are treated to the purest response from the person who is hungry, that tells us that intentionally or not, God’s story just broke into the space between …
You will especially know this has occurred, when the one who is hurting nods ever so slightly, then tilts their head as if to say…please…more…