Trusting Something Enough to Find Your Own Words for It

Speaking of writers using cliches.

…dead expressions, the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts enough to find his own words for.

-From John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, p. 11

Preachers, push the Scriptures enough into your own experience that you demonstrate you’re trusting them enough to find your own words for what they are saying.

If would have gone up the way you came down…

There’s a story told about a brash young Scottish preacher that went into the pulpit with an easily-apparent confidence or swagger. He knew this sermon would be good. Then the sermon bombed and he stepped down from the pulpit dejected and humbled.

An elder says to him, basically, “If you would have gone up the way you came down, then you may have come down the way you went up.”

Don’t Talk About it Unless You’re Excited About It

Recently I’ve started to change the first question I ask of my executive clients who want to become better communicators. In his last major public presentation, Steve Jobs said, “It’s the intersection of technology and liberal arts that makes our hearts sing.” So today I’ve replaced “What are you passionate about” with “What makes your heart sing?”

-Carmine Gallo, Talk Like TED, Kindle Loc. 280.

Is there anything you are so excited about sharing that you can’t wait until you get to that part of the message? If not, you aren’t ready. You don’t have a burden. You may have pages of information and it may all be true, but if you don’t have something that people need so badly that you feel compelled to share it, you still have work to do.

-Andy Stanley, Communicating for Change, Kindle Loc. 1498.

Note to self and to other preachers: if nothing in your sermon prep has excited you, then you’re not done with your prep yet. Keep digging until you find something compelling, then turn your primary attention to that.

 

Don’t be so busy fighting off the world that you forget to feed the sheep (Saved to Starve)

To put it otherwise and more simply: a shepherd is no mere warder-off of wild beasts. To save the sheep from wild beasts and all other dangers is not to feed them; and if they are not fed, what matters whether they are safe or not? What is the good of being saved to starve?

-William Still, The Work of the Pastor, Kindle Loc. 1361

Don’t be so busy fighting off the world that you forget to feed the sheep actual food.

You Too?

Whenever I hear someone say they write to “express themselves,” my first thought is, nobody cares. Life is hard for everyone, some more or less than others, but it’s hard enough that a complete stranger demanding attention in order to express feelings about whatever is significant to them, personally, smacks of entitled bulls**t, aka privilege. I tell my students over and over, the purest way to express an emotion is to elicit that emotion from your reader. I say purest, not quickest or easiest. The expression is purest because the emotions are the reader’s, unadulterated and straight from their own motherboard.

The purest way to express an emotion is to elicit that emotion from your reader.

Conveying an emotion—fear, joy, anger, love, contempt—by eliciting that response from the reader makes the feeling shared. It’s those moments that make reading so worthwhile, those moments when we come across a passage that speaks to us, where the author simply nails it by putting into precise words a feeling, perception or experience that is so fleeting and nuanced we thought we were alone with it, or lacked the capacity to express it, to share it. Those lines that make you stop and think, Yes, that’s it, exactly, those are the moments when the writer and reader meet each other halfway. It’s the shared experience of emotion taking place above some chasm of time, distance, age, etc., that is the very nature of empathy. “Yeah, I get it.” “Me, too.” “I thought nobody else felt that way.” It’s the same note struck at the beginning of a friendship or love affair. “Yes, you get me.”

-Craig Clevenger, from The Safety of Transgression versus the Risk of Honesty (LitReactor.com)

In Jack Gilbert’s poem, Poetry is a Kind of Lying, he says,

Degas said he didn’t paint
What he saw, but what
Would enable them to see
The thing he had.

Preachers, evangelists, writers, people take note: it is not enough to be excited. It’s not enough that something gives you goosebumps. It’s not enough to tell someone that you love it or how it makes you feel, or to tell them that they should feel the way you do. You need to communicate it in a way that will actually make them feel the way you feel and see what you have.

Everything You Write is Autobiography

The good writer/artist/preacher disappears in his work, but that does not mean that he is not revealing himself:

Writing is revealing yourself, not concealing yourself. Revealing yourself does not necessarily mean exhibiting yourself. Revelation and exhibitionism may be the same thing, but not inevitably. If you conceal yourself, you are no writer. You may be a banker, a general, certainly a statesman—but not a writer. Writing need not be an unabashed revelation of the emotions, but when you write you express, even through other characters, what you are and who you are. You cannot repress and express—they are contradictory terms.

and

In everything you write there are two more characters than you think. There’s yourself, and there is your audience.

-Samson Raphaelson, The Human Nature of Playwriting, Kindle loc. 480, 1946

Everything you write is autobiographical. You are always a character. You cannot not work from your own experience and personality. The trick is that you should be on a mission of revelation, not exhibition.

The good preacher (and writer) reveals his heart, but never puts himself on exhibit. In the words of Spurgeon, his own chains clank as he preaches to himself, but the listeners won’t always discern the sound. They’ll think it is their chains clanking, and that he is actually preaching to them.

The Painter Had Disappeared

Chuck Palahniuk has some brilliant essays on writing-craft over at LitReactor. I’ve read through them all multiple times at this point. Palahniuk is giving advice for writing, but it’s amazing how much of it I’ve applied to myself as a preacher as well. I’ve learned as much (maybe more) about communicating from him as anyone else.

In this essay, he is making the point that when the author (painter in this case) applies his craft well, he disappears (I’ll give some counterpoint to that in the next post). I would add that the same is the case for a good sermon – the preacher disappears:

Another Christmas window story. Almost every morning, I eat breakfast in the same diner, and this morning a man was painting the windows with Christmas designs. Snowmen. Snowflakes. Bells. Santa Claus. He stood outside on the sidewalk, painting in the freezing cold, his breath steaming, alternating brushes and rollers with different colors of paint. Inside the diner, the customers and servers watched as he layered red and white and blue paint on the outside of the big windows. Behind him the rain changed to snow, falling sideways in the wind. The painter’s hair was all different colors of gray, and his face was slack and wrinkled as the empty ass of his jeans. Between colors, he’d stop to drink something out of a paper cup.

Watching him from inside, eating eggs and toast, somebody said it was sad. This customer said the man was probably a failed artist. It was probably whiskey in the cup. He probably had a studio full of failed paintings and now made his living decorating cheesy restaurant and grocery store windows. Just sad, sad, sad.

This painter guy kept putting up the colors. All the white “snow,” first. Then some fields of red and green. Then some black outlines that made the color shapes into Xmas stockings and trees. A server walked around, pouring coffee for people, and said, “That’s so neat. I wish I could do that…”

And whether we envied or pitied this guy in the cold, he kept painting. Adding details and layers of color. And I’m not sure when it happened, but at some moment he wasn’t there. The pictures themselves were so rich, they filled the windows so well, the colors so bright, that the painter had left. Whether he was a failure or a hero. He’d
disappeared, gone off to wherever, and all we were seeing was his work.

From Chuck Palahniuk’s essay, Thirteen Writing Tips

Finding a Theme that Gets to the Heart of What was Lost

I recently spoke with a (pastor) friend who told me about a fascinating talk he had heard in person given by an attorney named Morris Dees (of the Southern Poverty Law Center). There is a version of the talk available online HERE. Politics aside, the talk is very helpful.

In it, he makes the point that the job of an attorney is not simply to present facts. Rather, he says, the job of the attorney is to present a compelling story. In order to do this well, the attorney must crystallize that narrative into one clear, compelling statement – a theme.

He further makes the point that the main point of the theme must get ‘to the heart’ of what was lost in the case. He gives an example of what this looks like: a mentally challenged African American man named Billy Ray Johnson was beaten and severely injured at a party in or near his east Texas hometown. As a result of this beating, Billy Ray became physically disabled. The perpetrators of the crime were basically given a slap on the wrist by local authorities.

Dees took up Billy Ray’s civil case, seeking a large amount of money for his injuries. The problem – how could he get a jury in east Texas to give a large sum of money to a man who was already mentally handicapped, had no education, and had essentially no earning power to begin with? What did the man really lose?

After interviewing multiple people that knew Billy Ray, Dees and his team pulled together a common theme that Billy Ray loved to go to parties and dance. In fact, the only picture of him (before the accident) that they were able to find showed Billy Ray standing next to a jukebox. From this, Dees set forth a theme for the case: Billy Ray can’t dance. Witness after witness testified that the one thing Billy Ray truly loved to do was dance – and that his assailants had taken away his ability to do the one thing he truly loved. This argument won the case for Billy Ray, and he was awarded around $11.5 million for damages and future care.

Again, politics aside, though he never intended it for this, Dees’ point about themes is helpful for Christian preachers, and Christians in general. Any sermon, or evangelistic presentation, should have a compelling theme, and more times than not that theme should get at the heart of something significant that has been lost.

As a preacher, I should always be looking for a compelling theme in my text; and I should be asking how that theme points to the heart of our condition as fallen people. This ultimately will allow the preacher to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ poignantly to the lost condition of man in a very clear way. Too often we dance around a text, making points here and there, giving commentary or insights or applications on various verses throughout a passage. But do we develop a compelling theme? This is precisely what men like Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Haddon Robinson have called upon preachers to do. And is this theme compelling in a way that it speaks to the heart of man’s condition?

And this theme, says Dees, should do more than present facts. It should present a narrative. Now I recently spent a lot of time studying what has been deemed ‘narrative preaching’ and have found much of it to be atrocious. However, we must remember that the ‘dogma’ of Christianity is really a ‘drama’ (to quote Dorothy Sayers). Our message revolves around a real-life, dramatic story centering upon the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our own stories must intersect with the story of Christ. In this day and age arguing for the fact of the resurrection is not enough – we must present Christ not just as fact, but as the ultimate centerpiece of the story of the universe, and the very heart of what man must gain if he is to recover what was lost. We have lost fellowship with God; we have become the villains and rebels of the great cosmic drama, and God has entered the story that he might reconcile us with himself.

I know that most of my readers are not preachers; but most of you are Christians; so let me apply this. When you are dealing with an unbelieving coworker, friend, family member, etc. and desire to see them come to the Lord, do not simply worry about stating facts. You must state facts, but that is likely not all. Be sure to present your facts around a compelling theme that gets to the heart of what your friend has lost. That theme will always end up terminating on the person and work of Christ, but it will be slightly different in each case, depending on the needs of the person you are dealing with. What loss have they experienced that cuts the deepest? It’s not that they literally can’t dance, but there is some form of alienation that they feel, some wound that is out in the open that needs to be addressed. Show them that they can’t dance, and show them that, and how, in Christ, they can.

Sleeping in Church (Jonathan Edwards)

This is one of those random posts I do specifically for preachers, though it may be helpful for others. I found this via one of my former (and favorite) professors, straight from the Yale archives of Jonathan Edwards, in a sermon on Acts 19:19, entitled When the Spirit of God has been remarkably poured out on a people, a thorough reformation of those things that before were amiss amongst them ought to be the effect of it. Somehow I find this encourage, though perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Could it be that Jonathan Edwards had folks sleeping during his sermons?:

6. The & the Last thing I shall maintain is sleeping

of [mu ting]. There is a thing that as been

found amongst us in times past, but

it may well be Expected that we should [ma stip]

G. with Great Reverance & Diligence since

G. has P. Remarkbaly Poured out his Sp.

upon amongst us.

________________

if that he may [as is effectual] here [ ned]

there is an assembly that appears to be asleep

in their seats in the time of divine savlation marginal

this will be a thing that strangers will observe

those have had what a time there has been

an in the Town. when they [come] have with

naturally take notice how People appear as

their Publick was [sting] whether they seem

there seems to be an Evident & Remarkbabl

diff. between them & other People whether

they seem to Give better oftentimes & to at-

tend with Greater Reverance & dilig. &

whether they dont sleep as much as they

do at other Places if they observe that men

sleep at meeting as much as at other places

It will doubtless bring much discord it will

them an what they have heard of us Let me

theref. Indicate that this [moving] be laughly Re-

formed amongst us & Let I would desire the

that Persons would avoid Laying down than standing

in their seats in time of Publick

as it [stands]

worship tis a very [Inderant] Perfect marginal

& it opposes Persons to Go to [they] a [Gailva]

the Congregation [P asion] to think they are

asleep. & Let neighbors & [but] makes

[useo] [Redieane] to another as to when [Great]

other when asleep. & Let us rember

_________________________

what it is Like to since G. has been so ab-

undantly mercifull to us Let us Labour

[for] him in a way the most decent &

Reverant manner & in the Becoming of

Holiness.

It would appear that Edwards had folks not only sleeping, but occasionally actually laying down in the pews. Ironically, it is a chapter later in the New Testament, in Acts 20, that we read of someone falling asleep, and falling out of a window, during a sermon of the Apostle Paul.

Always Learning

One thing that is always with the writer – no matter how long he has written or how good he is – is the continuing process of learning how to write. As soon as the writer ‘learns to write,’ as soon as he knows what he is going to find, and discovers a way to say what he knew all along, or worse still, a way to say nothing, he is finished.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.83

It’s interesting to me that so much of what Ms. O’Connor says about writing is applicable to preaching. You never really have it figured out. You are always learning. I suppose that could apply to almost anything that involves the intellect, imagination, and/or creativity in general.