One of the great temptations of a pastor is the greedy pull to say too much. We get so enamored with the sound of our own voice that we interrupt every silence and chatter over every mystery, spraying our neon pronouncements where sparse and hallowed words would do. We grow accustomed to being the first to pick up the mic, the first to have an authoritative or conclusive word. In an enflamed, issues-driven culture, this temptation prods with unrelenting aggression. Perhaps we fear irrelevance or fear losing our following. If we no longer scratch people’s itch, who are we then?
Of course, pastors no longer hold a monopoly on this narcissistic seduction. Technology has made it so that anyone with ten minutes and a couple fingers can unload a screed or a 140 character denouncement. If there’s an opinion to be had or an opportunity to show our intellectual (or theological or cultural, what have you) superiority, we’re quick on the draw.
Some of the best – and most troubling – advice I received from my pastor was when I asked him how he would have handled a particular hot-potato issue if he were still shepherding his parish. “My position,” he said, “would be to not take a position.” This is not at all to say that those of us who write or preach or craft lyric or verse never say anything with bite and commit only to accepted talking points. God help us, no. I’ve certainly never known my pastor to back away from a stout word when the moment required it.
This is, however, a suggestion that we refuse the pernicious allure to stay on top, to grab the momentum, to make sure we’re heard, to maintain the admiration of our tribe (or the attempt to build a tribe). It would do our souls well to, every once in a while, abandon speaking and get comfortable with silence. We might get comfortable shrugging our shoulders and saying, “I don’t have the foggiest.”
My suspicion is that a fair bit of our prattle (and perhaps I should only speak for myself) comes from fear. We fear uncertainty. We fear being left out. We fear the important people and important ideas (whoever and whatever those are) will move on without us.
One of my favorite sections of dialogue in Marilynne Robinson’s Home is when Congregationalist minister John Ames and his best friend, the aging Presbyterian Robert Boughton, have another roundabout concerning predestination. At one point, feeling a tad testy, Ames says,
I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s what people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.
These days, it may be the way of things to catch whatever fire’s blown up and add wind to the flame, but I suspect we’re losing something vital in the exchange. I also believe this blabbering posture hurts the poignancy of those moments when we do have something true to offer, some true fire burning in our gut. A poet who keeps me piqued with razor-edged vigilance will ultimately lose me. She may have sold me her verse for a bit, but I will not have found myself amid her one-pitch offering. And I will be unable to follow her into this world that knows too narrow a space for the whole of me, the laughter as well as the siren, the unsettledness as well as the dogma.