Pastors and the Writing Task, Part 2

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In my last post I argued that pastors should write. Pastors and ministry leaders should learn to write a good theological sentence, and, after assembling one good theological sentence, should go on to write successive sentences to accompany the first. Ministry leaders should also master various conveyances of the written word (memos, sermons, letters, notes, etc.). Why? Because good writing reflects good thinking, and the church is in need of a sharpened mind.

There are a handful of books that have helped me to write a little more clearly, compellingly, and concisely. These books are:

The first four selections include technical aspects of writing and inspiration to write.

The last selection may strike some as an odd choice. “The Bible?” you say, “I thought you were listing books that helped you learn how to write. The Bible is not a book about writing.”

But the Bible is a book that is written and that has had lasting power. It contains language that has resonated across multiple cultures and in various translations, now in multiple eras and ages. It has shaped language, culture, and the human imagination. It is a piece of writing that, in the reading of it, offers a masterclass in communication both human and divine. It contains parables and pericopes, aphorisms and anthology, narrative and history, law codes and ethical treatises, letters and memos, prophetic utterances and sorrowful lamentations, prayers and petitions, agreements and dissents; it conveys the full range of human emotion and contains powerful arguments about human nature, a holy God, and the purpose of human life. If you can set aside your biases and prejudices against this book, if you have them, you cannot help but marvel at the Bible’s power as a work of writing.

Maya Angelou, the American author and poet, said this about the Bible: “The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.”

Pastors and other ministry leaders would be wise to read Zinsser or Lamott or King, and to learn a thing or two about craft. But they should be readers of the Bible, and not only for sermon or lesson preparation. The Bible’s cadences, rhythms, images, and turns of phrase, its variety and its diversity, are incredibly instructive for the writing task. And often, what comes out in writing is the result of what has been put in through reading, experience, and conversation. You cannot pass on that which you do not possess.

The words of the Bible should be hidden in hearts so that by God’s grace they might take on flesh and find fresh utterance through the witnesses and servants God appoints for a new telling of an old story in the present age.

Take up and read. Then, write.

Pastors and the Writing Task

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Writing is a skill that comes in handy in every discipline, every trade, every endeavor of life. Why? Because writing crystallizes thought. Most of us avoid writing, not because writing is hard (though it can be), but because writing requires us to order our thoughts. As William Zinsser observed, “The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.”

I wasn’t very good at writing when I began, which means I wasn’t very good at thinking. I had not yet begun to work out the ideas that were swirling in my mind. In middle school and high school my parents had to help me complete more than one research paper. I was overwhelmed by large assignments. I struggled to develop a thesis. I had a hard time establishing structure. My attention flagged. I was easily discouraged. I was plagued by self doubt.

Things changed when I discovered that writing was a way I could share ideas. I could write to connect with friends. Chat rooms and email and bulletin board forums were settings for exchange. I shared a thought and others responded. Some of those thoughts were dumb or rude or ill considered. Many were underdeveloped, immature. Maybe something I wrote was occasionally bright or touching or radiant. My early writings could be juvenile. Of course! I was a teenager. I like to think I’ve grown since then, but old habits die hard.

I eventually discovered blogging. I had a friend who worked for a media company that was starting a magazine. I asked to contribute. I learned that a denominational publisher accepted devotional pieces. I submitted, was accepted, and I was given a small check for my efforts. I wrote devotional guides for larger curriculum bundles. I like seeing my stuff in print.

I found other reasons to write. As a church leader, I wrote pastoral letters and developed curriculum. I wrote discussion questions. I put together leadership training guides and wrote job descriptions. I wrote proposals for committees. I wrote memos. I wrote sermons. I wrote more emails. I wrote hand written, short notes. I used writing to reach out, to communicate, to build a bridge between minds, to coordinate, to lead.

As time has gone on I have become more and more convinced that writing is a skill that is useful in every field, for every person. But I have also become more and more convinced that it is a vital skill for ministry leaders, for pastors.

Why? Because a well written sentence reflects a well ordered mind. Ideas, when they are clearly expressed, are more easily grasped. Christian people claim their convictions are true. If they are true, they are true regardless of how well they are articulated. But if they are articulated poorly or opaquely, they will not be accepted. If arguments are made poorly, they will fail. If reasons are not compelling, they will not persuade. If invitations are not clear, they will not be heeded. If warnings do not pierce, they will not be considered. If good news does not penetrate the heart, hearts will not yield.

The best way to learn how to write is to write. The best way to learn to construct arguments is to put pencil to paper. The best way to compose a sermon is sentence by sentence, line by line, bathed in prayer. By God’s grace, there will be clarity on the page, and clarity in the mind of the reader.

That, finally, may be the key to good Christian writing. The technical aspects by necessity should be mastered; one must use the language well. But there is a divine dimension, an illuminating presence, the in-breaking of the holy, the gift of grace, going between writer and reader, allowing for transmission, communication, and transformation, new ways of seeing, perceiving, and being.

We make our offerings. God does with them what he wills.

If You Get My Posts in Your Email Inbox via FeedBurner, Please Update Your Subscription

My website has had several iterations. My first blog was on Xanga, then I migrated to WordPress, then moved to Squarespace, and finally returned to WordPress. I may have tried to post some stuff on MySpace, too.

A few of my early readers signed up with FeedBurner to keep up with my writing. There are 51 people who are listed among my FeedBurner subscribers. When you signed up to receive my latest posts with FeedBurner, you were added to an RSS service. Every time I published a new blog entry, my content would deliver to your inbox.

Looking down that list, there are friends from the FirstLight era, my time at University Baptist Church, folks I met at Institute, and people I got to know while living in Kansas. There are a few Waco friends, too, and some family, and one or two friends from Tyler.

FeedBurner is undergoing some changes, and to better manage my subscriptions and to centralize my contacts in one place, I want to do two things:

  • First, I want everyone to know I’m closing down my FeedBurner account on September 15, 2021. If you are an RSS subscriber through FeedBurner, after that date you will no longer receive my content via email.
  • Second, I want to invite everyone to subscribe to my blog via email through WordPress. If you’ve been on FeedBurner and want to stay in the loop, please visit my website (pictured above) and enter your email in the box underneath “Updates to Your Inbox.” You’ll find the form in the right hand column.

To everyone who continues to read anything I write: thanks. My website is a place to think in public, to note things I want to remember, to argue for things I think are important, and maybe to share a laugh or two. I’m grateful for your readership.

If you need help or have questions about making the switch, contact me. I can scroll my list, find names, and offer directions on where to sign up. It might be a chance to reconnect, too. You can reach me through my Contact page.

I hope you’ll keep reading. Blessings.

The Hard Part is the Thinking

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Writing is a tool that enables people in every discipline to wrestle with facts and ideas. It’s a physical activity, unlike reading. Writing requires us to operate some kind of mechanism–pencil, pen, typewriter, word processor–for getting our thoughts on paper. It compels us by the repeated effort of language to go after those thoughts and organize them and present them clearly. It forces us to keep asking, “Am I saying what I want to say?” Very often the answer is “No.” It’s a useful piece of information.

William Zinsser, Writing to Learn: How to Write–and Think–Clearly About Any Subject at All, p. 49

This is why I have come to prefer writing sermons, and many other things I want to communicate. So much of what I say, at least at first, is not what I want to say. I would not be able to discover what I want to say apart from writing. Those first thoughts can prove to be fluff, inconsequential, inexact, unclear, distracting, misleading, or false. Unclear writing stems from unclear thinking, and unclear thinking manifesting itself in speech or on paper can not only misinform, but do harm.

Zinsser later says, “If you force yourself to think clearly you will write clearly. The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.” That’s why so many of us shy away from it. Thinking clearly can be hard work.

Prevailing Orthodoxies

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At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press

Unfashionable opinions can be wrong; prevailing orthodoxies can be right. I don’t know what Orwell expects here, but I do know that he is correct regarding the power of ideology to silence, the need to cultivate environments that allow for the free and open exchange of ideas, and the establishment of a public discourse that encourages speech, civil disagreement, and the possibility of reasoned argument and exchange.

Nick Cave on the Writing Process

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I also have an affinity with artists who treat their craft as a job and are not dependent on the vagaries of inspiration — because I am one of them. Like most people with a job, we just go to work. It never occurs to us not to work, there is never a moment when we don’t work because ‘we are not feeling it’ or ‘the vibes aren’t right’. We just do our hours, as I am doing mine now, writing to you, Jake, and to you, Freya.

The most important undertaking of my day is to simply sit down at my desk and pick up my pen. Without this elementary act I could not call myself a songwriter, because songs come to me in intimations too slight to be perceived, unless I am primed and ready to receive them. They come not with a fanfare, but in whispers, and they come only when I am at work.  

Pen poised, I sit to attention, in my suit, on the edge of my imagination, prepared for the beautiful line to arrive. Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not — either way I am powerless to influence the outcome. So often we stand bereft before our ingenuity, with nothing to show for our efforts. Yet at other times we are ushered in.

Once inside the imagination all manner of inexplicable things occur. Time gets loopy, the past presses itself against the present, and the future pours out its secrets. Suddenly words behave in ways they shouldn’t, but wonderfully do, our pulse quickens, yummy butterflies explode in our tummies and songwriting becomes a collision between the pragmatic and the completely gaga — transcendental, outrageously religious, bananas — and then God appears, there He is, with all His cross-dressing angels and demons and other things, I don’t even know what, spirits muttering unspeakable things, and chubby, pink muses tumbling about, and child-small shapes with outstretched arms, calling, instructing, and the beautiful line begins to take shape, gently emerging — there it is! — falling lovely from the end of your pen.

And then your working day is done and you step away. It’s Saturday night and time for dinner and your rider’s name is Irfan. Goodnight, Jake. Goodnight, Freya.

Nick Cave, “Issue #156, “What’s It Like to Write a Song?

Addressing Your Tribe, and Addressing Everyone Else

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Back on March 16, 2021 in his newsletter The Tuesday, Kevin Williamson of National Review made the observation that among conservative political activists and commentators, there are two fundamental audiences: conservatives and everyone else. Most of the well known pundits address their tribe principally and primarily. After all, that is where the money is most easily made, the clicks most easily obtained, the views most easily secured.

But there is a great deal of good that can come about by writing and speaking to everyone else. Williamson writes:

[T]he everyone else approach…is directed not at rallying one’s own partisans but at persuading people who are not already self-conscious conservatives, engaging with people as they are and with mainstream institutions. This irritates and enrages tribal conservatives, especially if you’re any good at it. I quote the New York Times fairly often, because it is one of the newspapers to which I subscribe, and I write from time to time for mainstream publications such as the Washington Post. And I hear from my fellow conservatives: “Why would you want to read the New York Times? Why would you want to write in the Washington Post?”

[ . . . ]

The answer to the silly question, of course, is that I read the New York Times because I live in the United States of America, not in the People’s Republic of Konservistan, and if you want to effect change in the United States and in the world, it matters what other people who read the New York Times and the Washington Post think. It even matters, a little bit, what the people who write for them think.

The value of this used to be obvious: William F. Buckley (who lived and worked “a long time ago,” I am informed) criticized what he called “the Playboy philosophy,” but he also wrote for Playboy. Rush Limbaugh wrote for the New York Times. (His byline was “Rush H. Limbaugh 3d.”) Ronald Reagan didn’t change the country because conservatives supported him — he changed the country because he ran a sensible conservative administration on big-tent principles and won 49 states in his reelection campaign.

Stated differently, not everyone is a partisan. Some people are not a member of either tribe. And they can be persuaded, even convinced.

The principle translates to the Christian world fairly easily. You can preach and teach and write in order to connect with your own tribe, to fortify your constituency, to secure your place in a certain ideological ecosystem. You can do this by pitting yourself against heretics and nonbelievers. The lines are drawn pretty clearly, and are easy enough to discern. I’ve seen people do this on left and right and everywhere in between.

Or, you can preach and teach and write in order to address those outside of your tribe while firmly remaining within one. To do so, you’ll need to read broadly, and listen. You’ll need to sharpen your arguments while maintaining epistemic humility. Charity will be high among the virtues. You’ll need to concede the strength of another person’s position. You’ll need to engage in nuanced, boring conversations. You’ll need to actively seek out others who are different than you; you’ll also need to strengthen bonds with those of like mind, those who can bear burdens alongside you. Those who bridge divides take arrows from all sides. Go ahead and concede that some will declare you an enemy because you refuse to deal in polemics.

Lastly, you’ll need to leave the realm of theory from time to time and get down to the level of practice. You’ll need to try out your ideas in the “real world,” and see if they actually do anything.

I think there is a lot of ground to be won by addressing people with words that match their lived experiences and then helping them see how the claims of Christianity address those experiences and then guide them in ways resulting in a life that works, not because Christianity is relevant and practical, but because it is true.

Thomas Aquinas’ Prayer Before Study

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After offering his praises to the “Ineffable Creator,” Thomas Aquinas writes in his “Prayer Before Study:”

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul the twofold darkness into which I was born: sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants; refine my speech and pour forth upon my lips the goodness of your blessing.

Grant to me keenness of mind, capacity to remember, skill in learning, subtlety to interpret, and eloquence in speech.

May You guide the beginning of my work, direct its progress, and bring it to completion. You Who are true God and true Man, Who live and reign, world without end. Amen.

This version is quoted in Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler’s Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words [affiliate link]. This prayer serves as a frame when approaching the writing task.

If you were to write a prayer for your work, what would you ask for? What do you need? What do you hope for as outcomes? Where could you use help?

Artifacts and Internet Writing

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My data I own, my internet presence I rent. It’s interesting to think about how this situation differs from that of my published books and print essays. It’s possible for anyone to download this entire site — that’s what wget does, and I’ve used it to download my old Text Patterns blog to my hard drive — but I’m sure no one else ever has, so if anything were to happen to shut down this site or that old blog, then anyone interested in what I’ve written online would have to hope that the Internet Archive and its partners have the whole thing crawled and saved. 

But if you’ve bought one of my books, or a journal in which one of my essays appears, then even if I were to suffer Damnatio memoriae, you’d still have those texts, and it’s impossible for me to imagine a world in which anyone would go to the trouble of taking them away from you.

So does that mean that I should focus my attention on writing for print publication instead of online venues like this blog? That would make sense if I wanted to ensure that people are still reading my work after I’m dead — but that would be ridiculous for a writer as insignificant as I am. As I often say, it’s quite likely that I will outlive all my work, and I’m just fine with that. So I’ll write in venues that give me pleasure, that seem fitting for whatever interests me at the moment. And then, one day, if I get the chance to set my affairs in order, I’ll hand over to my family a stack of notebooks and a hard drive full of text files, for them to do with as they please. 

Alan Jacobs captures something of how I feel about writing on the web. Amazingly, I’ve been messing around with a website since spring 1998. I designed something on GeoCities. My web presence has had other iterations, more than I can count. Maybe at some point I thought that work would endure, but I don’t think that anymore.

I write for pleasure and for the same reason a lot of other writers write: because I have a desire to connect with other people, a desire to do the work, and a desire to discover what I think through what I write.

As for artifacts, I won’t be handing over text files, but I will leave behind notebooks. As for whether or not there will be anything in them of interest of value, that will be for others to decide.

Talent Is Where You Find It

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I recently finished reading Helen Rowe Henze’s translation of The Odes of Horace (University of Oklahoma Press, 1961). I found this inside the book jacket:

Helen Rowe Henze is the author of four published collections of poems and of many individual poems published in periodicals and newspapers. A resident of Kansas City and in secretarial employment there, she confirms the truth of the adage, “Talent is where you find it”–in Venusia or Missouri.

You job and your vocation are not always the same. You don’t always earn regular pay from your life’s most important work. People are deep wells.

There are many translations of the Odes. But I’m glad my public library led me to this one.