After thirty-plus years of preaching sermons flow naturally. The rhythm of my week more or less moves between the banks of sermon preparation and sermon delivery. Sunday after church, I pop the readings for the next Sunday into my brain and cogitate on them until Thursday, the day I reserve a dedicated block of time for writing it. A newspaper column is different.
While a sermon takes place in the context of a three-thousand-year news cycle, a weekly newspaper column takes place within a snarling tangle of ever-changing information. There is little time to ruminate. The crush of news items – local, national, and international – is a weekly tsunami.
James Bennet, Editorial Page Editor of The New York Times, as reported by Suzette Martinez Standring in the newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, spoke at the JFK School of Government about the value of opinion columns. In contrasting the opinion writer with the reporter, he noted that the reporter’s task is to describe the world as it is while the opinion writer advocates for a world that “could be.” Our job, he said, is “not to tell everyone what to do but to help them to do what they feel should be done.”
In both preaching and opinion writing there is a terrible temptation to tell the recipients what to believe. This urge rises up from the dank well of ego, in which swim dark eels of certitude and presumption. There was a time in which clergy might have had some credibility and authority when it came to telling their congregations what to believe, but I have learned that any standing for what I have to share as a preacher must come from touching our common woundedness and experience. An opinion writer certainly has no innate or automatic street cred for the perspective he or she offers. We are in a time of democratized opinion, or even mob point of view. Politicians, scientists, and pundits are given no more validity for their points of view than anyone else. Societally, we seem to believe what we believe, and keys to unlock the gate to influence us are given out sparingly.
In such a harsh and bitter wind, I often resort to observing the natural world and sharing reflections from it, hoping it may have the ring of common experience. So, for example, the joy I felt early one dark morning walking my dog in front of the Washington Street cemetery. It came from a sudden gush of birdsongs I had not heard since late summer. I don’t know whose warble and twitter was whose, but they stopped me in my tracks when I heard them. Like the doorbell announcing a visitor, springtime was ringing. Later, I witnessed an immature male cardinal jumping anxiously from one limb to another in our tender young river birch as the sun shined while snowflakes fell. Yes, I thought, there are miles of cold to go before we get to green, but spring is budding.
So too on the political front. Harshness abounds and chaos continues swirling, but voices of change are scaling the walls of plunder and blunder we have endured for more than two years now. Hope rises.