Friday, July 18, 2008

Wonderful Words of Life

From where do words come? Where do we learn the words that we use to express ourselves?

We learn our first words and many other words from hearing people talk. I don’t know what the first word I ever spoke was, beyond the ubiquitous “MaMa” or “DaDa.” I do remember hearing my mother say that the first two words that I ever put together were “Papa’s pipe” and that makes sense; I can still see Papa sitting there, the ash stand beside his chair, the can of Prince Albert on the table beside him, the cloud of smoke over his head. I imagine that I heard a lot of references to “Papa’s pipe” when I was small.

I don’t suppose that I learned every word that I heard every person say; after all, some of my family members and some of my parents’ friends were quite loquacious. My young mind could only take in and process so much.

Some words stuck because they struck me at such a visceral level. I still remember the day that I first heard the word “divorce.” My mother was watching As the World Turns while she ironed clothes—she was the kind of person who would watch her “stories” but only while she was doing something productive. I walked through the den just as one character—I think it was Don—said to another character—I think it was Peggy—“I want a divorce.” As Peggy wailed, I asked Mama, “What’s a divorce?” Mama said, “That’s what people get when they don’t want to be married to each other any more.” That was the first time I ever heard that marriage had an out clause besides death. Even though my parents had a strong marriage, things in general felt much more uncertain after that.

We learn some words along the way—they tend to be big words— that are good words because they say in one word what we would otherwise need many words to say. For example, I can say that she is “loquacious” rather than she “uses a lot of words” or I can say that something is “visceral” rather than something “hits me at the gut level” or I can say that an idea is “ubiquitous” rather than “lots of people say that, don’t they?”

We learn many of our words from reading. I’ve loved to read ever since I started reading and for the life of me I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read although I suppose there was such a time. My good parents, neither of whom were big readers, bought lots of Dr. Seuss books for me, like The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. My favorite Dr. Seuss line was from Hop on Pop: “My father can spell big words, too, like Constantinople and Timbuktu.” So could I. I was becoming erudite; I also was learning quite a lot.

I’m thinking about words because I’ve just returned from a Writers’ Workshop. I had the privilege of joining eleven other ministers—most of them younger than I, most of them more gifted than I, but none of them more eager than I— in a week-long workshop at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota entitled “Putting it on Paper: Effective Writing for Congregational Life” which was led very effectively by Mary Nilsen. We worked a lot on writing technique, on things like writing balanced sentences, writing in series, and especially making good use of metaphor. I had been there one day when I realized that no one had really worked with me on the craft of writing since Dr. Leitch in Freshman English at Mercer University in 1975. I’d better not wait 33 years for the next refresher course!

I realized something else, though: I realized that the most powerful words, the most meaningful words, come from somewhere deep in your own life. While we did work on craft in the workshop, we also worked on letting our imaginations lead us into our memories so that they might inform our writing. Our last assignment was an “On Essay,” which is an essay in which you write on an abstraction, trying to use a controlling metaphor to make it more concrete. So, for example, I wrote “On Change” and used the metaphor of exchanging one wardrobe for another to attempt to concretize the abstraction. Some of the essays written for that exercise by the class members were very powerful, not so much because of good technique or because of excellent vocabulary but because the writers drew on their powerful memories of critical experiences in their lives. Their words were excellent because they sprang from deep in their own life experiences.

“Write what you know” is one of the oldest pieces of advice given to writers. My week in Collegeville caused me to realize again how good that advice is; it made me think about how necessary it is that my words come from within me and from my experiences.

Perhaps “writing what you know” is the key to effective preaching, too.

When I was a Ph.D. candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (pre-Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist takeover), someone posted a sign on a bulletin board in the campus post office that said, “Writing a dissertation is like moving bones from one grave to another” (that’s a pretty good metaphor, by the way). Sometimes I feel that way about my preaching, too. Now, it is necessary to “excavate” the words of the Bible and to transpose them to and translate them for our time and our place. There is a tyranny of the text from which I do not want to be liberated—good preaching is biblical preaching, I believe. But too often I write my sermons as if they are academic treatises. I try to read as much as I can about the passage with which I am dealing; I try to examine as closely as I can the various angles of interpretation that can be taken; I attempt—and I believe it is a noble and necessary attempt—not to do harm by saying something that is wrong and to do good by saying what is right. And I do produce, if I do say so myself, some pretty sound and insightful and accurate sermons.

But some of them are pretty uninteresting.

The interesting ones, both to me and I think to my congregation, are the ones in which I can with integrity talk about my own experience with the truth of the biblical text. When I can write and talk about how the truth contained in the text has been experienced in my own life, then the sermon comes alive. Of course, I have to be careful; my preaching canon cannot be limited to those texts that have spoken directly to me and my preaching cannot deteriorate into “this week’s story about Mike.” Still, the good news of Jesus Christ is meant to transform lives; the most powerful preaching comes from those places where the preacher knows firsthand what the transformation is like.

The Bible contains the wonderful words of life, but I am coming to understand that the most wonderful words I have to share about those words are the wonderful words that come from deep within my own life and that thus might connect with the wonderful words buried deep within the lives of my readers and listeners.


Drew Hill said...

Mike- Your thoughts reminded me of Fred Craddock's metaphor. Every person has a long hallway with pictures hung all along the walls. Those pictures represent all the memories of life experience. Our job is to use our words to help our people name those experiences and understand their significance.

Sounds like you had a great time at the conference. I always appreciate your writing.

Mike Ruffin said...

Drew--thanks. That is a good metaphor, but then Craddock is an exceptional writer/preacher.

Scott said...

It does seem that at every level, the ability to write well is assumed. One of my complaints about my current program is that profs rarely take the time to offer constructive criticism of seminar papers. Not until I took an independent study did a professor start to work with me directly on my writing style. So a writing workshop such as the Collegeville Institute sounds like a valuable experience indeed, whether one writes for fun or professionally.