Our struggle to imagine a new future of possibility is fundamentally rooted in the denigration and debasement of our words. Our communication feels inadequate for the moment. Our attempts to comfort others feels hollow. Many churches, pastors, and laity are stunned, frightened, and left speechless. Words seem impotent, authority appears untrustworthy, prayer seems futile, and preaching often feels barren against the cynicism, conformity, and apathy flooding the Church.
It is not difficult to imagine why words are suspect. The Enlightenment’s experiment in rationality promised the quest for knowledge and logic would procure human flourishing and perfection – yet, our knowledge failed to prevent, and even promoted, the extreme violence which erupted in our world over this past century. The Information and Digital Age multiplied words and data, overwhelming our capacity to hear and understand. Leaders often used words to manipulate and gain more power for themselves; we became increasingly skeptical of leaders and their words. Words were discarded for images in an attempt to make truth more concrete. After all, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Words were drowned in a sea of entertainment, misinformation, disinformation, and alternative facts–and we have suffocated under that saltwater tidal wave of (mis)communication. The Church has often gone with the currents of the culture and our words have suffered the consequences.
As a pastor and theologian, I desperately want to affirm words still matter for the life of the Church. As Ludwig Wittgenstein stated, “Language is a form of life.” If that is true, our form of life both within and without the Church is often steeped in violence and power-grabbing. Not only have we dared to walk through the storm to Jesus; we have also contributed to the chaotic waters now threatening our very lives and communities. Preaching, which is often done from a position of power (elevated above the parishioners, mono-logical, speaking as God’s mouthpiece), has sometimes been utilized as spiritual bombardment against our “opponents” (some sitting in our pews). This kind of preaching is hardly counter-cultural, even when naming Jesus, because it participates in the very violence it intends to undermine. In other words, we have taken our eyes off Jesus and succumbed to the cultural waters sweeping over us.
A moment of clarity arrived this year as I reflected on the vocation and craft of preaching. I happened upon Richard Rohr’s book, Dancing Standing Still. Rohr weaves the personal life of prayer and the social life of justice together as a cooperative relationship that must be held in tension. Forming character is essential for this task, so Rohr outlines three stages of spiritual development, which he appropriated from Schumacher: Law, Prophet, and Wisdom. Law depends upon “structure, identity, boundaries, certitude, order, authority, and clarity.”1 It is where we all begin but it can quickly devolve into legalism and fundamentalism – utilizing words for our control, mediated through violence against those who do not adhere strictly to our tradition. But, not everyone remains there. Prophets, in contrast, are “always presenting an alternative perspective; they are loyal critics, which is a hard position to hold. They are insiders, but on the edge of the inside.”2 Prophets are quick to point out contradictions and to push for reform, but they can also become cynics incapable of seeing the good in other traditions, institutions, and authority. The resulting anger and disillusionment give way to violence or apathy in our words. But, there is a third way available to us.
While Law becomes legalism and Prophet becomes cynicism, Wisdom offers an alternative way which avoids the two extremes. This third way
... struggles with paradox and mystery – and leaves us there – while also creating a new but deeper synthesis… living with paradox cannot be tackled until you have walked the first two. It is a sequential journey. If you stay in stage one – conformity – or stage two – criticism – you are in no way ready for mystery, paradox, the collision of opposites that is the Cross… If you are not trained in dying, you won’t go! Most people are not trained in dying, in dispossession… That dying is something we are led through by the grace of God and by confronting our own shadow… we will weep over those sins, as we recognize that we are everything that we hate and attack in other people. Then we begin to live the great mystery of compassion3
Preaching from a posture of Wisdom requires dying, which relinquishes the need for acclamation, control, power, violence, and conformity. Wisdom is the way of Jesus.
When preaching becomes cruciform, embodies Wisdom, our words become a means of reconciliation and forgiveness. Violence gives way to peace. Anger gives way to compassion. Cynicism dissolves into hope. Power-grabbing transforms into empowering others. Wisdom shapes our words into instruments of love, healing, and transformation – both for us and for our communities. That is when our words are truly a counter-narrative, an alternative form of life imbued with power, poignancy, and potential. It is also those moments we find Jesus grabbing our hand and pulling us out of the waves and back into the boat, back into the Spirit-led life of the Church. Wisdom calls for us to love God and to love others as ourselves; upon this the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled.
My own journey, I realize, has bogged down in the place of Prophet. It is easy to deconstruct. It is also easy to become lodged in modes of cynicism and resentment. Not only did I resent those I deemed incompetent, I resented my own inability to effect change. I could hardly consider that I was the problem, the barrier – that I was drowning and my preaching was suffering too. And, as the chaos crashed all around me my eyes focused on the threatening waves, shifting my gaze from Jesus.
This wasn’t an intentional moral lapse, but as some have said, “The road to destruction is paved with good intentions.” However, my “good intentions” were not tempered with compassion nor wisdom. My sermons were laden with anxiety and it translated into anxiety in my people. And, it sometimes erupted in violent (read unforgiving) ways. I still carry the wounds, as I’m sure my people also carry them. Thankfully, the wounds are being transformed into sources of healing. It has helped me learn, beyond theory, the need for our words to invoke mystery; to conjure the beauty in our world; to proclaim hope in our ash-heaped lives; to bind up the wounded rather than leaving the wounded bound and gagged; to proclaim words that invite reconciliation; to evoke the poetry of wonder; and, to embody the paradoxical way of the Cross in our speech. My prayer is that our words would increasingly embody the way of Wisdom, no longer distracted by the waves.
2 PG 32
3 PG 33-35
Levi Jones is Co-Lead Pastor with his wife, Becca, at Cornerstone Community Church of the Nazarene in Wagoner, OK. He is also pursuing a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching degree through the Association of Chicago Theological Schools. He enjoys reading, writing, sports, and spending time with family and friends. Levi and Becca are the blessed parents of Hannah Grace and are anticipating the arrival of a son this April.