Sermon Notes for Cynics

In my On Fire for God days, I never met sermon-note-outline that I didn’t fill out.

Entirely.

Every Sunday morning, I sat in the front row and opened my church bulletin and took notes. My loopy teenage penmanship filled the margins, and my Bible cover (black, embroidered on the cover with the words Jesus Freak) was stuffed full of annotated church bulletins and conference programs.

In those days, I implicitly trusted those on stage speaking the Word of God. It never occurred to me to question or to weigh the words before I absorbed them. I didn’t recognize the whispering sound of my fledgling sense of discernment, so I listened attentively and absorbed everything; I wrote in the lines and in the margins so I wouldn’t forget.

“Take it with a grain of salt,” we say about things that may or may not contain incongruences, mistakes, untruths. The phrase, apparently, comes from ancient antidote for poison that includes “fasting, plus a grain of salt.” Take a little salt, the old recipe says, and you can offset the poison.

But, of course, I didn’t know that at fifteen. I was all soul and sweetness, and I swallowed everything straight down.

I found these stuffed in the case of my high school Bible. Exhibit A.

My journey back toward a local church community has been filled with both angst and healing, with frustration and fruitfulness, everything a bit of a mixed bag.

For some time I didn’t attend a church, and that was good and important . It was, in some ways, “the fasting” at the beginning of the pinch-of-salt antidote. It was a cleaning out of my system, a purging, a letting go.

When I eventually went back, I sat there most weeks, arms crossed, my body reflexively moving into a defensive posture. For years I took nothing in, regarding every pastor or speaker through slit eyes, filtering everything through my own pain and anger and cynicism.

But where a grain of salt is good, is an antidote, too much has the opposite affect. Too much salt, and our bodies don’t function correctly. We become unresponsive, lethargic, weak. Too much salt, and the body shuts itself down. I had not learned in those early days to “take things with a grain of salt,” so in those angry days, I swallowed everything with several heaping scoops of salt, just to make sure nothing toxic survived.

In the end, though, all that salt mostly just made me thirsty and a little sick.

*

As I began the season of Lent this year, I was encouraged by my spiritual director not to try to muster up any kind of emotional response. Rather, she suggested, pay attention.

I don’t know how pay attention became make a rubric in my mind, but it did. (#nerdproblems)

I think it happened by accident. In order to stay present during Lent-themed sermons, I began jotting down things that rubbed me wrong. If something troubled my spirit or caused my cynic voice to holler, I wrote it down in my notebook. When a worship song lyric made me cringe and shiver, I’d sit and note it, right then.

In time, I began to take it a step further. Instead of just noting the cringe-worthy phrase, I took a moment to sit with it. Could I pinpoint what about that line hit me wrong? Did it bring up a memory or hook some old painful theological wound? Did it seem to oversimplify or overcomplicate? Did it strike me as being at odds with the God I know?

I continued to do this through Lent, and the most surprising thing happened.

By honoring the questions and concerns that rose up, by giving them a very physical space to “live,” a new space opened up in me too.

I had worried that if I began to write down the things that made me cranky, I might never stop. Instead, the opposite happened. When I honored my cynic voice and noted what she had to say, she stopped shouting so loudly, and I could hear those other things.

Beauty. Hope. Maybe even the voice of God.

During a sermon on the parable of the sower, for example, an off-handed phrase about having a “productive spiritual life” struck me wrong and made me fidgety. So I wrote it down. Later, I wrote the resonating word “cultivate” along with some questions: “What makes real soil healthy? What makes it unhealthy.” The subsequent blog post I wrote, which reflected some significant shifts I made toward my feelings about productivity this past few months, came from both. Phrases that made me fidget, and words that made me wonder.

I don’t know how to explain it. For the first part of my life, I sat through church in wide-eyed, bobble-headed agreement, and for the next part, I sat there filled with anger and suspicion. And all of this sudden, in this Lenten season, it felt like my whole heart showed up with all of its myriad voices: cynicism and optimism, hope and hurt, doubt and faith.

It occurred to me during that time that perhaps this is where we find the voice of discernment – not in cynicism or in belief but only in the harmony between them. Perhaps wisdom is found in the tensions of all of those voices, the way the rich sound of the violin is found in the tension of its strings.

*

For those of us who have burned out or been burned by faith, the local church is often where all of our baggage and angst and hope and heartache collide.

There is no church with a perfect theology. There is no pastor or priest so eloquent that she won’t say something that hits us wrong. Our “triggers” are many and varied and no matter how careful they may be with language, someone is bound to step on a land mine.

I love my little church; I believe it is vital to my healing and to my becoming. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t feel fraught to me a lot of the time.

It’s painful to stay when I’m feeling twitchy. My first instinct upon an inadvertently triggering statement is to sneak out and go hang out in the bathroom until the whole thing’s over. But I’m starting to believe that this twitchy, complicated place might actually be where the healing happens.

Letting ourselves feel and notice the places where we are still raw and hurt and angry and not to run – this might be what it looks like to clean the old wounds, to reset the old breaks, to move on.

*

Of course, you don’t need a fancy rubric. Just some paper, a pen.

But if you want a rubric, I created one for you. I created a couple of versions: a big one in case you have lots of things that you need to get down. One small enough to tape into a bullet journal or notebook or to stick in the front of a book or, if you still carry one to church, a Bible.

I also created a set that’s a little more subtle — without words or prompts — in case you’re not ready to share the fact that you’re rife with churchy baggage with the stranger sitting next to you.

You’ll get access to each version of Sermon Notes for Cynics, and you can print whichever one best suits you. Simply enter your name and email below, and I’ll send them your way. (Bonus — you’ll be automatically signed up for my newsletter, if I ever remember to start sending one.)

Grace and peace as you make space for your whole self – the cynical parts, the curious parts, the parts that long for healing. May you find so much more than you thought possible.

24 thoughts on “Sermon Notes for Cynics

  1. How awesome! My version of this is definitely “Sermon Notes for Know It All Seminarians.”

  2. How is that you are again writing All The Things I’ve been thinking about lately? We’ve been going to a new church since October and most of the time it’s good…but sometimes it’s terrible and I end up withdrawing and internally shutting down for the rest of the day. I think this will help. Plus we’re going back to my husband’s old church for Mother’s Day and I think this will help me get through those two and a half hours at a church where I don’t feel like I fit in even though I’m related to over half the people by marriage…

  3. I suspect God LOVES all your questions, doubts, and critical thoughts. As a father I know I find pleasure and pride in seeing my kids think critically, even questioning me or the way I do things. To me, it’s a sign they’re “using their noggins.” 🙂

    I’ve learned through experience that some churches are amazing, some are toxic, and that it’s almost always other believers– not God or the truth– that bug the snot out of me at times. But I trust I bug them too, so it all seems fair in a way.

  4. This is SOOO helpful. I’ve been faith shifting for 6 or 7 years after leaving an abusive husband, who also was a pastor. I lived as a pastor’s wife in super fundmentalist churches. So getting over my ex and the abuse is all wrapped up in getting over a toxic faith. I’ve finally joined a church, and open and affirming UCC. But I can’t FEEELL anything. I hate that. But what you said is sooo helpful. I have another former pastor friend I know this will help too. I”m going to share it with him , and I will take those notes to church with me! Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much Molly. Your faith shift story sounds so complex and painful — no wonder you’re a little numb! I hope this helps a bit.

  5. I appreciate this very much!! Thank you for the practical help and inspiration to give space to the cynical thoughts. This gives me hope that church can be something meaningful and enjoyable For me again in the future.

  6. You had me at ” ……not in cynicism or in belief but only in the harmony between them.” For now I just get irritated.

    I need to merge the value of spiritual growth work and counseling. I experienced much tenderness in a spiritual formation group-yet underneath was deep pain of multiple losses that remained unaddressed. I entered counseling at a time when God seemed far away. What brought me through was a godly counselor who walked w me through my pain grief and fear. Now I find myself resisting the spiritual answers and there is truth in both. There in lie my triggers. It’s like I can’t hear the truth in the truth. I Need both. I could go on but I think you get it. 😀

    1. I totally get it. So glad you found a good counselor and a helpful formation group. Half of it is finding the right people to companion with you on this journey — at least it has been for me. Grace in the tension. xo

  7. I started attending my old church again this week. It’s terrifying and my walls are towering. Thank you for this.

    Question: is there ever something in church that concerns you so much that you don’t want to let it sit? Something that, even if you can process it and let it go, you fear will negatively affect others? How do you navigate that?

    1. That’s a great question, Tessa. I can’t think of any examples in my current church, and in my former churches, my M O was to get out of there as fast as possible. I hope that if that happens in the future, I will have the courage to to work toward dialogue and understanding.

  8. Thank you so much for creating and sharing this rubric.
    You are such an encouragement! Please keep writing.
    Grace and Peace to you!

  9. IMG_6969.JPG

    Thanks for this! We adapted it a bit and it is now on the flip side of the sermon outline in the bulletin at our church. Decided to change “cynics” to “thinkers”.
    Can we give you credit?

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