A friend sent me a Mary Oliver poem I had never read before (thank you, Peter), and it made me ache. Truly, it was a craving in my bones.
I loved it, as I do so many of her poems. It made me ache to be able write that well and so exquisitely. I aspire to be such a writer though it is unlikely I will ever get there. And in all probability, my mind and my style are far more like Anne Sexton than Mary Oliver; though the deceased Sexton left a very high mountain of aspiration herself.
So now I am trying to figure out the appropriate amount of ache for a writer without falling into covetousness or fantasy.
This is how I know, after several years of exploration that I am a preacher that writes more than a writer that preaches: I do ache to be a better writer and most of all I yearn to be a remarkable poet, but my writing is a vehicle rather than an art. I have never seen writing as an end in itself but always as a medium for the sermonic word I have been give to share. I am doubtful a true writer or poet would feel that way about his or her art – although what I know about true writers could not yet fill a thimble.
Poetry and fiction are eloquent voices for theology, as is music.
A long-ago preaching mentor of mine, Al Kershaw, used to say that theology was a dead language at the end of the 20th century, and that music speaks God in our world. Even though I was just learning to speak theology at the time, I was pretty sure he was right. When I hear people holding forth in the language of classical theology these days I don’t know whether to laugh or cry because of how woefully disconnected from our lives it sounds. It might as well be Latin in a world full of Chinese speakers.
It is possible though, to insinuate the ordinary presence of the holy into story and poem. When that little worm pops up unexpectedly amid narrative or metaphor, the reader or hearer listens more intently from within their own life than if told what they are supposed to believe about God.
Sermons have the distinct advantage that people come to them expecting to hear about God in some way that is meaningful to their lives. It would be a most surprising sermon indeed, that did not reference or make reference to the divine. The best we can do as preachers is offer the unexpected about the expected and hope that it echoes in the lives of those listening. But as a writer, we can tell the story or give voice to an image and simply allow the holy to remain as it is in the grass or between the leaves for the reader to discover.
Perhaps that is too fine of a distinction – too hard an edge between forms. Perhaps preaching is also more of an art than I give it credit for, and good writing less agendaless than it seems. But I am rummaging through the leaves now myself, trying to figure out how all this works and who I am in the midst of it.
Who knew growing up could take so very long, or that figuring out what to be when we grow up is an active ingredient in the graying of hair?