Better Words, Sometimes Fewer Words

We’re drowning in words. And this is a crisis because we need good words more than ever. I think that those of us who work with words are a big part of the problem (I am, I know). We need to roll up our sleeves and put in the serious sweat.

Anytime we can cut three words and replace them with 1, do it. Anytime it’s possible to turn a 30 minute sermon or lecture to 15 minutes, then by God make it happen. This is not always possible, and sometimes beautiful, truthful language needs lots of space to breathe. But if we writers or preachers or teachers don’t have the fire-in-the-gut that leads to that magical ingredient: piercing clarity, then perhaps our work is not finished.

Now, we don’t need to be perfectionists about this, and God knows there’s more than a few times for me when a Sunday or a deadline’s rolled around and I just have to go with the best I can do. But let’s make that our dead-level aim: to do our best. And our best, I’m convinced, is almost always going to be less/smaller/quieter than what our first impulse suggests.

I also think we’re drowning in nonsensical, eyes-glazing-over words because some of us just really like our words (a lot) and they somehow signal (or lead to, we hope) validation. So the more words, the more we feed that frenzied quest to be noticed. I get it. I want to be noticed. I want people to give me the thumbs up. I want people to think that what I have to say is worth tuning in for, and I cringe to think of how often I’ve offered sentences that were really just me jumping up and down for attention. But that’s a soul-killing game, let me tell you. And it never pays off. And in that lustful glut, we end us saying all kinds of things that we don’t even really mean or understand, all in our attempt to sound clever or catch the attention of the passing parade. Exhausting. For everyone.

And if you’ll allow me a moment more (am I not heeding my own advice here?), we have piles of superfluous words because some of us are working out our every anxiety on paper for the world to see. I’m all for honest writing (please, give us more), but there’s a difference between writing that’s human/real and writing that’s exhibitionist. The former is a gift to the reader/listener. The latter is selfishness masquerading as courage. And I fear we’ve created an entire industry out of this masquerading bit. If we’re going to claim honesty, then let’s get really honest about this.

At any rate, for those of you who work with words, I’m your brother-in-arms. Thank you for bleeding on the page. And for those of you who read or listen to our words, thank you for keeping us honest. We’re in perilous times, and I’m with Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” And words, I believe, are (at their best) a crucial part of this beauty.

A Pastor’s Picture

Being a pastor is often a joy, but like every vocation, it’s far from peaches and cream. Stanley Hauerwas once said that being a pastor is like being slowly nibbled to death by ducks. Thankfully, I’ve never been in a church like that, but there are days when it seems like I should have stayed a stockbroker or tried my hand as a backcountry guide or maybe become one of those pro Minecraft gamers on YouTube.

There are days when you watch someone you love walk away or you are riddled with questions just as it seems like an answer’s what everyone needs, days when your pastoral energy’s flat as a pancake, days when you feel like you had something really worthwhile to offer in a sermon – only to crater that baby with a class-A nosedive. There are days when you know that all you really can do – all you’ve really ever been able to do – is invite people to Jesus’ Table, to proclaim the good news of God’s love, to remind us of The Story, to hold your hands wide and break that bread and invite people to come on home. And though you know this is all you can do, you hope it is enough.

And then one day, a child gives you a picture they drew of you in that moment. And your heart swells with gratitude. And you whisper to yourself, “It’s enough. It really is enough.”

Speaking Amid the Pain

I believe that if we happen to be one of those folks who make it our work to attempt to say something helpful about God, someone who seeks to offer some light or clarity in this confusing world, then we must move into the pain. Sometimes we will speak with boldness. Sometimes we will whisper with a tremble in our voice. Sometimes, this ruin we encounter, the stories we enter, these heartaches, require only our silence.

If a preacher knows only principles and ideals and theological maxims but never goes silent… If a pastor refuses to wade into the dreadful terrors… If a pastor is too fearful to acknowledge the uncertainties, the oppressive fog… If a pastor never weeps with her people… If a pastor never wrangles with the weight covering one he loves or the sorrow pressing upon his own soul…

If a writer attempts to speak on questions of faith but never lays down the pen to wipe away the tears… If they seem certain of their cause or their position but they forget their own humanity — or the humanity of those they are writing to (or especially the humanity of those they are correcting or cajoling)… If a writer never comes up short, never finds their words paltry, never joins me in my quandary or sadness…

Such people, no matter how well intentioned, may provide me with insight or instruction, but they will inevitably leave me alone. And worse, despite their language, they will not offer me God.

It’s important for me to return to Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko’s description of his sobering first days in seminary:

I entered St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1957. The school was housed in an apartment house in New York City. Our professors were refugees from communist lands, mostly Russians. My first lesson in seminary was that I was never to say anything about God that I could not say over a furnace of burning babies.

I don’t know what to say about Hopko’s words here, what could I possibly say? But I believe I would trust a man who would write such a thing, a man who would know such a thing. I believe he would have something to say to me, something that would penetrate my heart. I believe he would offer me God, and I believe I would not be left alone.

 

Good Ol’ Words: Preach

pulpit-bible

I grew up in a world where parishoners referred to their pastors as preachers. I understand why some folks these days dislike the word, evoking for many grainy images of fire-belching crazies sweating like hogs and literally scaring the hell out of people. You don’t have to read too many stories, like Dennis Covington’s wonderful Salvation on Sand Mountain (the true saga of the snake-handling preacher of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following who tried to murder his wife with a crate of his rattlers), before you get the idea that preachers can be crazy coots.

This is too bad. In its truest sense, to preach means to announce (to declare) good news. To preach is not to blast wild, thoughtless words or to pretend to own a private hotline for divine truth. Rather, to preach is to refuse to stay silent when a soul is weary or a body undone.

A preacher believes we are starved for a good word, but the preacher will not surrender to the cynical belief that all the good words are gone. A preacher speaks up when the silence deafens, when we are desperate for a bit of light or hope. But a preacher also knows when to stop the talking, when to surrender the floor and let the quiet speak. A preacher tells the old story, and a true preacher simply lets this story stand, bearing its own weight, fully aware that the truth will both console and confound. The preacher does not use the Story or the Good Book (or words like gospeldisciplebiblical) as artillery or to build a following. A true preacher will not stand by when God’s grace or God’s mysteries suffer at the hands of boisterous, angry rhetoric or are desecrated by cliquish Christianity.

A preacher courageously opens her mouth when she sees how parched we are for words of life. A preacher weeps like Jeremiah when words will no longer do. A preacher sings a Psalm when darkness threatens to snuff out the hope. A preacher grieves when our foolish choices steer us toward death. A preacher gets riled when the poor are trampled or the powerful mock mercy. A preacher gets feisty whenever arrogant buffoons tarnish the stole.

To preach, in the old sense, is not a theatrical display or the opportunity for a polished speaker to wow the crowd. A preacher speaks to the very people surrounding him, the ones who need God’s voice in this one moment and amid these unique details. A preacher offers whatever he holds within his soul, whether born in travail or in joy, then gives that true thing fully, and humbly, to the people he loves. The preacher listens before she speaks, and afterwards too. Preaching is, as Marilynne Robinson says, one side of a passionate conversation.

If a preacher rarely laughs, or never cries, I do not trust him. Are we paying any attention at all to our world, to our God, to our own heart? Do we see the beauty, or the weariness, of those who receive our words? Do we have any inkling of the vast generosity and holy love of the One in whose name we speak? A preacher does not have a bully pulpit, but a meeting place from which to say again and again: God is here.

Karl Barth said that when he stood behind a pulpit, he assumed there would always be at least one person listening who, when hearing the story of scandalous grace, would surely be asking themselves: Could this possibly be true? “Then,” Barth said, “I preach to that person.”

Barth offers as good a description of preaching as I could muster. Preach to that single soul, to that one who’s desperate for a fresh possibility, a truly good word. This kind of preaching, this kind of life, will never grow old.

Good Ol’ Words: Pastor

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There are many ideas out there of what a pastor should be, and most of them make little sense to me. For many, a pastor should be primarily concerned with managerial duties, with charisma and fundraising, with crisis management or motivation or chaplain care. As I understand it, a pastor is one who lives with God and with the people, one who knows their names and carries their hurts and reminds them that God has spoken love and goodness over them. A pastor does not throw out a ceremonious prayer before big events, like the mayor tossing the first pitch on Opening Day. A pastor sits bedside in the dark hours and begs God for mercy. A pastor walks into the ruins, fully aware of her own threadbare soul, and announces wholeness.

A pastor does not only tend to the big visions, the big ideas, the big people. A pastor knows his own lowliness and walks into the ordinary places and with the ordinary people. A pastor, with a voice steady and true, hallows the ground and the rain and the marriage and the purple blooms of Spring — because this one thing we know: God gives life, and this makes every inch of life beautiful and good.

Jim Casy, Steinbeck’s broken preacher in Grapes of Wrath, knows this terrain:

“I’m gonna work in the fiel’s, in the green fiel’s, an’ I’m gonna be near to folks…Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear ’em talk, gonna hear ’em sing. Gonna listen to the kids eatin’ mush. Gonna hear husban’ an’ wife a-poundin’ the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with ’em an’ learn.” His eyes were wet and shining. “Gonna lay in the grass, open an’ honest with anybody that’ll have me. Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear the poetry of folks talkin’. All that’s holy, all that’s what I didn’ understan’.”

Michael Ramsay, former Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it together in a sentence. “The priesthood is to be with God, with the people on your heart.” We listen to God, and we listen to Mrs. Jenkins down the street. We pray to God, and we laugh with those who are struggling to ever say a prayer. We live love, and we live it with actual people who have actual names and who live in a specific place with very particular fears and hopes and longings. Some of it annoying. Much of it mundane. All of it the stuff of pastors.

 

more reading: (1) an intro to Good Ol’ Words (2) Good Ol’ Words: Blessing

 

image: Giotto

Good Old Words

Language matters. God came to us as the Word. Our holy book offers us the Living Christ amid words. Words are woven into our God-crafted humanness. It’s hard to imagine how we could know ourselves or encounter our world or even begin to give ourselves to love without sharing language and symbols, without words.

This is why the Church needs poets and storytellers. We need folks who plant a disruptive seed in our imagination, who flip us topsy-turvy with their playfulness and their unguarded revelations. We need poets and preachers who brush past the cynicism, refuse fatigued dichotomies and fashion words like handcrafted dynamite. These happy subversives light the fuse and calmly set the short-wick sentence in our midst.

“That’s why we must be wordsmiths,” says Dallas Willard, “You use words to ravish people with the beauty of the kingdom.” Once words become a commodity, merely one of the tricks in our church-building bag, we wither. If words function only to help us hawk our wares, I promise you that sooner or later, no one will care. No one will ever be ravished with the beauty.

Writers are our friends here. Annie Dillard reflects how “writing is like working with wild horses…you have to go down and catch it again every morning.” To be a people of alive words is to be a people who believe that God has not gone silent, that God always has a fresh word for the beleaguered soul. In the church, our rhetoric may grow tired or cliché, but our God doesn’t.

I’m not suggesting a faddish chase for always newer, always more relevant, words – God help us, no. Rather, I’m asking if we could simply let these good, old words breathe again. Could we sit still and allow them their power? Could we sit with young king Josiah who dusted off the books of God’s Law, long forgotten? When Josiah heard the words, unfiltered, he ripped the clothes from his body. His heart thumped with fresh fire. We need the fire. We need the words.

The older I get, the more I become an advocate for church words, that peculiar language our foremothers and forefathers have passed to us. Some folks envision upgraded titles for their ecclesiastical functions (Sr. Vortex Visioneer or Missiological Brewmaster). I simply want to be known as a plain pastor – and then I want to enjoy the long, unpredictable path discovering what that word pastor might actually mean.

Many of these words sit patiently in the corner, unobtrusive, collecting dust. They are sturdy, rooted. These words know they’re not going anywhere, that sooner or later we will need them again, as we always do. Words like priest and glory, membership and doxology. Words with fire. Words that both singe and succor, if we’ll only let them burn. In the coming days, I may tinker with a handful of these good, old words, listen to them anew.

Tom Conlon, a friend and soulful songwriter, knows this terrain well. “People ask me how the music business is. I always say I have no idea. I’m not in the music business. There are older, better words – with much more of a history – for what I do. Troubadourminstrel, maybe. There are older, better words for most everything we do.”

Yes, there are.

And I have to tell you how after Tom said these words, he paused for a silence. Then added: “I hope we’ll be true to who we are.” This is what the good words do – they help us be true.

Speaking to Dead Bones

Thomas noted Ezekiel’s question with peculiar attention, as he did with so many of the good book’s odd words, whenever the reading landed in the lectionary. The line’s literary quality and the apocalyptic images it evoked made the prophet’s flourish a bewildering favorite. What preacher or Hollywood producer worth their salt wouldn’t lean forward with such a prompt: Can these dead bones live? 

This time, however, there was no theological curiosity. Thomas had no energy to paint the scene in imaginative detail. He could summon no voice to scratch around the narrative with poetic spaciousness. Ever since the letter arrived in November, Thomas had descended into numbness. Only questions. No one would accuse Thomas of being one of the the chipper clergy who answered every perplexity with tidy conclusions and a flurry of rhetoric. Still, a resilience persisted in Thomas, mere stubbornness perhaps. Though he freely acknowledged that the evidence often tempted otherwise, Thomas consistently refused a surrender to the grim path. Thomas comforted others in their grief and their fear. He encouraged his parishioners and friends to borrow his faith, or their neighbor’s faith, to carry them for the next spell when their own hope flagged. But now the question settled into him with an ache. Can dead bones live?

For days, he fumbled over the text, but on Sunday only blank emptiness poured over his heart and his notes. Thomas considered calling in sick. At least once a month after the church service, Don Barber would exit the church, stopping to pump Thomas’ hand while cuing a very tired joke. “Well, Rev, I guess you’re done working for the week. That’s quite a setup if a fella can get it.” At this point, Don would pause long enough to break into a Cheshire grin before delivering the weary punchline. “I have my own fiery sermon worked up. I just might make a run at your cushy gig one of these days.”

Thomas felt a hint of pleasure at the prospect of Don receiving the call and Don hearing how today would be his moment to give it a whirl. But then Thomas knew there was no way in hades he would miss a perch on the front pew whenever Don’s decades-old harassment fizzled amid nervous laughter, awkward pauses and great beads of sweat.

What did it say about Thomas when the one bit of lightness he’d known in weeks required the image of him pumping Don’s hand at the church door, him handing Don the line he’d fantasized hundreds of times. Don’t beat yourself up, Don. I wouldn’t have the first clue what to do with one of your backhoes if I ever landed in the driver’s seat. I’m certain I’d look the fool too.

But Thomas did not make the call. He put one foot in front of the other, carrying himself and his empty notes up to the lectern. Thomas did not show up out of duty or because of an overblown sense of indispensability. He had no idea what he would say in regard to Ezekiel and the dusty bones. Thomas simply knew he needed to speak the same opening words he spoke each Sunday. Even more, Thomas knew he needed to hear the words offered to him in return.

Thomas stood behind the wooden pulpit, taking longer than usual to gaze over the half-full pews. Thomas caught the faces of friends and a couple strangers. Scattered among these rows were the ones who knew his story, as he knew theirs. In this space they blessed their dead and baptized their young. Of course, there were one or two among the number who provided steady annoyance and agitation, even as there were many who brought regular delight and laughter. This was the blessed community, wobbly as it was. This was the community that bore the one distinction that matters in times like this: Thomas could call these people his own.

Thomas watched over the worshipers until their nervous fidgeting told him he best release them from their discomfort. The Lord be with you, he said. And also with you, they answered.

Sermon Born of Cold

The 12º chill did not stop him, though if he had even a lick of sense, it would have. The run was long and frigid, and the hot shower and hot coffee could not wrest the cold from his bones. Still, these were the hours he’d been given for writing his sermon, the words he listened for each week, the words that sometimes arrived as a slow burn but sometimes limped in with hat in hand, apologetic for their plainness.

So he settled by the fire, with his grandmother’s worn, patchwork quilt. He watched the flicker and curled his toes toward the warmth. Whatever comes will come. And it will all be a gift.

The Anxious Church

The Martha and Mary story will not leave me, particularly Jesus’ tender concern for the burden Martha carried. An anxious heart will bury the soul, this I know.

I see a lot of anxiety these days. It’s tricky business to locate because anxiety can appear so helpful, so “concerned,” so righteous, so radically Christian. Most anxious people are not cowered in the corner biting their fingernails. Most anxious people are working like mad, intently focused, advocating, pushing. We rarely call a spade a spade here because anxious people get stuff done. Anxiety is a mighty potent fuel.

We’re anxious that we’ll louse it up as parents, so we frantically read and worry and jump expert to expert. We’re anxious for the injustices of our world, so we charge from cause to cause with no space for life or laughter or human frailty. But some day, these anxious fumes will burn out; and even if they blaze eternal, could we stop to consider the kind of life we’re burning to the ground in the process?

A great sorrow to me is that the Church (the very people to whom Jesus said, Go live, free as a lark and My burdens are light and Don’t be anxious. For real, don’t) is often the most anxious-laden place I know. We’ve got budgets to raise and mission to accomplish, a city to save for crying out loud. And anxious rhetoric gets stuff done.

An anxious church may be a prosperous church or a socially engaged church or an exciting church, but in the end it will prove to be a hollow church and a tired church. When the Spirit is active, our work is not a burden that buries us but a dance that invigorates us.

Whatever else we might accomplish, if our churches never guide us into places of deep rest (those green pastures the Psalms speak of), then we have surrendered the very life God has given us.

Preaching

The idea of ‘preaching’ has fallen on rough times, often tarnished by those who claim to be friends. Perhaps I’m a hopeless idealist, but I think it’s a mistake to surrender a good word to the wolves.

At the same time, I also feel like Reinhold Niebuhr who confessed, “There’s something ridiculous in a callow, young fool like myself standing up to preach.”

At any rate, I continue my Church Words series at Deeper Church today, pondering the old, out of favor word: preaching. This subject gets me stirred up.