On Having Something to Say

I find it very easy to feel as if I have nothing of value left to say.  I’ve been writing and preaching and talking about all manner of things—religious and otherwise—for (what seems to me, at least) so long now.  Whenever I open my mouth or put pen to paper, I want to say something intelligent, important.  Perhaps even more than that, and I am almost embarrassed to say it, I would like to produce something original.  That is to say, I would like to say or write something that is unique to me, something that no one has ever said or written before.  Why do I have this great need to be original?  Pride, I suppose.  We all want to leave our mark on the world, to leave something to prove, not only that we were here, but that our existence made a difference, that it meant something more than the amount of Doritos we consumed or the total hours we spent sitting in front of The Biggest Loser.

Ministers are just as prone to that sort of preoccupation as everyone else—maybe more, because most ministers enter the ministry as a way of being involved in matters substantive (perhaps even eternal), as a way of being God’s agent in bringing about transformation, as a way of making a difference.  Most of the time, though, ministers—like everybody else must content themselves with the mundane, peripheral things of life (i.e., what we shall eat, what we shall drink, what we shall wear, etc.).  It’s easy to believe, after having seen the same faces week in and week out, that what happens in church makes little difference at all in people’s lives.  The everydayness of it lulls us into thinking that the words we say, the songs we sing, the baptisms we perform, the Eucharist over which we preside, has so little power or relevance in our age.

We’re wrong, of course.  As Annie Dillard writes in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely evoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

Anyone with any sense knows that what we do as a church, the rituals we practice, the words we use have in them (due to their proximate relationship to God) the power to heal the sick and raise the dead.  It is no empty thing to say to a person during communion: “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.  The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.”  People have died for uttering words like that, and, just as importantly, the dead have been raised with words like that.  And if things like that aren’t intelligent or important enough to distinguish us, not original enough to help us make our mark—nothing is.


4 thoughts on “On Having Something to Say

  1. At this point in history, it’s hard not to feel like it’s all been said before. We’ve had widespread access to writing and the means of distribution long enough that most big ideas have already been memorialized beautifully, perhaps more beautifully than you or I could say it. (This is known in my life as The Wendell Berry Problem).

    This is not to say that our work is done. Clearly, the values of compassion, peace, justice still need champions. I think what’s left is to find ways of rearticulating those old ideas, old truths in ways that resonate in our lives, in a way that places us inside a long tradition of dissenting against unjust systems and advocating for the marginalized. It’s not original, but it’s still, unfortunately, necessary.

  2. Derek, this is a well-thought out post and will probably speak a lot to ministers but allow me to go another angle, as a writer/creative person. I proprose that the reason we want to right something original is not out of pride but out of the inherent truth that we are unique beings, experiencing similiar experiences and hoping to understand how our universality makes us special… It is a contradiction not for the faint of heart. For me, it’s important to sit down and write not with an effort to be original but with an understanding that what will come from every person is original because every person is original. You are working against yourself if you are TRYING to be original… view it instead in these terms. Does a flower try to be colorful? Does the sun try to be warm? Do the tree’s branches try to grow upward? No. They do it naturally. And so too should we follow their example. Be colorful, be warm, grow. It’s the natural expression of creation and we are in fact, a part of this creation.

  3. I’ve never heard you say anything that was not of value (of course, I don’t have the opportunity to hear you EVERY Sunday anymore). There are far more people in the world who truly have nothing of value to say – but that doesn’t stop them from saying it – over and over and over!

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