As the below true-life examples illustrate, I’ve been known
to let faux curse words slip in my sermons on more than one occasion:
“The disciples had been fishing all day, and they hadn’t caught anything whatsoever. They probably felt like crap.”
“You’re going to break your wedding vows. It might not be in a big, dramatic Grey’s Anatomy
kind of way, but you will break them. I mean, I love my husband Jeff,
but when I’m pissed at him for eating the leftovers I wanted for my own
dinner, I’m pretty sure I’m not cherishing him.”
“So if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, ‘Well, great, I’m screwed,’ don’t worry; you’re not alone.”
words started making appearances on the smaller, more informal Wednesday night
service, when I was preaching without notes. I soon found myself saying these
kinds of things in my Sunday morning sermons to hundreds of people. I started
to ask myself why recently.
Part of the “problem” is that I’ve always loved words. My poor mother had to carry around this
ridiculously small chatterbox of a child (I was in the first percentile,
meaning 99% of the kids my age were bigger than I) who spoke in complete
sentences but who couldn’t walk yet. When I did (finally) learn to walk, I used
my newfound motor skills to make my way over to any available lap, book in tow,
chanting, “Read the book; read the book.” Soon I was sitting by the back door on my
older sister’s “liberry” day, waiting to relieve her of her latest acquisition. A few
years later, when most of my friends’ parents had rules about how long they had
to read before being allowed to play or watch television, my mom had to make an
entirely different set of rules: no reading until I was ready to leave; no
reading after lights out; no reading at the dinner table.
Ironically, I had a speech impediment; words that began with “r” or “l” came
out sounding like they started with a “w.” My mispronunciations as a toddler
were age-appropriate and thus somewhat cute. In second grade, I went to speech
therapy to find my lost consonants. Talking became a chore; communicating
orally was hard work and, quite literally, homework. I gradually became less and
less talkative. My interest shifted even more to the written word. After years and
years of reading others’ words, I began shaping words myself as a priest in the
To be honest, I sometimes wonder if my life might be just a little bit easier if I didn’t care about
words so much. I still haven’t completely overcome my reluctance to speak; if
someone else is willing to talk, I’ll generally let her, unless I think I have
something worth hearing. If I weren’t so caught up in wanting to express myself well, I’d probably be
less hesitant to speak. With the written word, there are
built-in opportunities, even expectations, around editing that don’t exist with
language in its oral form. If words didn’t matter to me, I’d change my words in
my sermons to be less questionable. However, I sometimes say “pissed” when that’s the best available descriptor. I don’t mean mad, angry, sad, or upset. These other words
may be close, but they’re not exact synonyms. I see part of my job as trying to accurately describe the many biblical stories of pain, suffering, loss, violence, and fear. In other words, I don’t
choose words for shock value.
Besides being a more honest reflection of the experience I imagine people
having in Scripture, I hope that my sermons are a somewhat honest reflection of who I am and how I feel. How I talk inside and outside of the pulpit shouldn’t be totally divorced
from one another. By not pretending to be fully sanctified or uber-holy, I expose myself as the flawed work-in-progress that
I am, just like everyone else.
Divine Details at Fidelia’s Sisters
is supposed to be a column on professional development, not Ann’s random
musings on words. I’m not entirely sure that I’m in a position to be giving advice. However, if I had to write down my own rules about language, they
might be something like this:
- Take some risks when you’re preaching. Play with the words. Use slightly bizarre
illustrations. Give another interpretation besides that given by The New Interpreter’s Bible. As Anna Carter Florence puts it in her book Preaching as Testimony, what would you
say if you weren’t afraid of others’ reactions? At the same time, I tend to shy
away from the real doozies in the pulpit (you know the ones I’m talking about).
I also try to show more restraint in the big moments of people’s lives–
weddings and funerals–unless I know them really well, but that’s just me.
- Keep reading. I see reading as part of my job. Preachers who read more easily use the language of the day without sounding
stilted or fake. Plus, I have gotten some great illustrations from the strangest places. I’m reading a new biography of Einstein right now, and a few weeks ago I used his theory of special relativity to help the congregation–and me– reimagine Christ as King. I never thought I’d be talking about physics in the pulpit!
- Embrace wordlessness outside of the pulpit when necessary.
Someone recently asked me what I say to people who are dying, and I couldn’t come
up with anything. I realized later that that’s because I tend to use nonverbal
language with someone who is dying. I rub cream on parched, dried hands; I hold
hands; I’ve even painted nails. Sometimes I sing or hum. Words are not the be
all end all; they’re just not. Sometimes saying nothing at all is better than trotting out tired platitudes just so I’ll have something to say; however, that
doesn’t mean that I have no way of interacting with someone when words are not a viable option.
As you can probably imagine, I’ve gotten several complaints about what is
misperceived as my carelessness. In my more gracious moments, I can remember that the backlash is probably due, in part, to different conceptions of what church should and should not be. In my less gracious moments, I wonder if we as Christians are constitutionally incapable of keeping the bigger picture in mind. However, I’ve gotten far
more comments about what some people interpret as my honesty. I try to hear the
varying and conflicting feedback as well as I can, but I’d go crazy if I
actually thought I could accomplish the impossible task of pleasing everyone
at the same time. I’ll keep choosing what I see as sincerity and accuracy, offensive
as the outcome may be for some, over what would be, for me, more palatable and yet comparatively uninspired
words… at least for now.
Ann Bonner-Stewart, a graduate of Duke University and
Yale Divinity School, currently serves as the associate rector of St.
Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greenville, North Carolina. Instead of worrying that her first Christmas Eve sermon will suck, Ann is trying
to clean and decorate the house, going to the gym, and playing tons of