I have brother and sister cousins named Farris and Ann.
Not long after I entered college to begin my studies for the ministry, I received a gift from each of them.
Ann gave me a copy of the Greek New Testament. I had been studying Attic Greek for a whole quarter by then so I had no idea what the Koine Greek of the New Testament said. Had it been written in Attic Greek, I still would have had no idea what it said! I was mesmerized by it nonetheless. For the first time I was holding a part of the Bible in its original language. I had the sense that, if I could and would learn to read it, it would put me more in touch with the eternal truth that I believed and believe it contains. It is still my life’s calling to understand that Word.
Farris gave me a copy of Edwin Newman’s book A Civil Tongue. In that book, as in his Strictly Speaking, the veteran newscaster and commentator dealt with the various misuses of the English language in public discourse. I shudder to think what Newman would say about these sentences that I am writing. If all the preachers whom I admire were to gather one Sunday to hear me preach—if Billy Graham and Barbara Brown Taylor and John Killinger and James Forbes were all to come to The Hill this Sunday—I would not be as nervous as I would be if Edwin Newman showed up. But his book reminded me of the importance of trying to use the language correctly in public speaking and in writing for public consumption.
Don’t get me wrong—the Lord can still speak through all the split infinitives, dangling participles, inappropriate metaphors, and misused words that a preacher can accumulate under one sermon title. It is his Spirit, after all, that finally does the communicating. People have told me and all other preachers that they were blessed by some of the biggest messes that we ever made in the pulpit. And some of the most polished pieces we’ve ever presented have been the biggest duds.
Still, I remain convicted that when we are preaching the Word we should use the best words that we can muster. The quality of our language should reflect the majesty of the Word. The integrity of our language should match the truth of the Word. The wonder of our language should match the mystery of the Word.
But the most important thing about our words has nothing to do with sentence structure or vocabulary or pronunciation: the love in our words should match the love in the Word. Such love can come through our words only as it is practiced in the lives we live.