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On writing in seminary: An open letter to first-year students

Dear first-year seminarian,

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-12-15-41-pmBy now you have unpacked the boxes in your campus apartment, logged your first hundred commuter miles or perused your online course webpage. You have no doubt skimmed a few syllabi, wondering how many pages you will have to read and how many you will have to write. You might even have taken a stab at that first writing assignment. And so it seems the right time to say this: Please, do not view the writing assignments you will do over the next few years as mere hurdles to jump. They are crucial to your ministerial formation, opportunities to practice and hone key capacities for ministry.

British theologian Nicholas Lash said that carefulness with language is the “first casualty of sin.”  Naked and ashamed, Adam and Eve evaded and hedged when they spoke with God after the fruit-tasting episode. Humans have been doing it ever since.

Jesus, however, says, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’ be no.” Which makes me think carefulness with language – directness, simplicity and honesty – is part of the redeemed order in which Christians seek to live.

In seminary you are being formed as theologically reflective leaders who can help communities live faithfully in that redeemed order. You might be surprised to learn that your writing is central to that formation.

Here are three reasons why.

First, writing gives the opportunity to practice thinking.
It’s tempting to see all those writing assignments as tasks you are performing for someone else: your professors. But I invite you to re-imagine how you approach them: Look at them as opportunities you are given to practice exercising your powers of thought – and improve.

If you were in my first-term course you would see that the first writing assignment is a “compare and contrast” paper. You would identify what Thomas Merton and Parker Palmer say about “true self,” and then you would show how they are alike and how they are different before offering an evaluation. It’s a narrow, circumscribed assignment. But you would get to practice doing what you will have to do the rest of your lives: think theologically for yourself.

Soon, you will be writing a sermon, and in your research you discover two different scholars have two divergent ways of understanding a passage. But they are not preaching this Sunday – you are. So you have to think and evaluate.

You are managing a nonprofit, and two staff members have opposing ideas about the direction the next project should take. So you have to think and evaluate.

You discover that two of your professors have conflicting understandings of the meaning of atonement. What are you going to do – agree with the one who tells the best jokes? No!  You have to think and evaluate. Your writing assignments give you the chance to practice those skills.

Recently, I was reading a new book by Wendell Berry, the agrarian philosopher, poet and novelist, when I discovered this gem of a line: “I have let the preceding paragraph rest for two days to see if I think it is fair. I think it is fair.”

Why do I find that startling? Because it’s hard for me to imagine people doing that today – taking time to think. To put what they’ve written in a drawer, and then read it days later and ask, “Is that what I really think?”

With all the papers you have to write, you might not have two days to let them percolate. But we know that when you are five minutes late to class because you had to stop by the computer lab to print the paper you just finished, you did not take the time to think. You should know, when that happens, that your professors are not angry or upset; our feelings are not hurt and you do not need to apologize for a hurried paper or even offer an excuse. We are just sorry – sorry that one opportunity, one chance to practice the art of thinking, was squandered.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-12-15-59-pmHere’s another way to put what I’m saying: Don’t be a Peter.

At the transfiguration of Jesus, the disciples are frightened and perplexed. Being the extrovert he is, Peter decides he should say something: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings.”  The very next verse says that he did not know what to say. He speaks because he does not know what to say.

Don’t be Peter. Decide what you think, what you want to say – then say it.

Second, these writing assignments give you the chance to become better at communicating well.
You know what you think. But can you express it well? Are you saying what you really intend? And are you doing it simply, clearly, directly?

Each writing assignment gives you the opportunity to get better at this. And it’s a skill that will serve you well in Christian ministry and leadership.

When my family moved to Pittsburgh three years ago and started searching for a church, I read a church’s website before deciding to visit. There are many churches we didn’t attend because the writing for the website was so bad or because the pastor’s newsletter article was so poorly written.

Every Facebook update for your church or ministry. Every newsletter article. Every sermon. Every paragraph you draft for a website. Every blog post. Every time you articulate a vision for your congregation or organization. If in these moments you are going to be faithful in ministry, you need to practice clear, direct, honest speech.

No dissembling. No prevarication. No obfuscation for the sake of obfuscation by using words like dissembling, prevarication and obfuscation – words nobody understands.

“Don’t use a ten cent word, when a five cent word will do,” Strunk and White advise in “The Elements of Style.” Don’t say “utilize” when you can say “use.”

Are you saying what you mean? Are you saying it simply, clearly, well, in as few words as necessary?

In a parking garage I saw this sign: “Help us prevent recent thefts: Do not leave valuables in vehicles.”

Well, something recent has already happened; that would be hard to prevent. It doesn’t say what it means.

Another sign in a restaurant bathroom read: “Attention: Employees wash and dry your hands before leaving the restroom.”

Do they? I generally prefer to wash and dry my own hands. It doesn’t say what it means.

And sometimes we say what we mean, but not as clearly, directly, energetically as we might.

Another sign in a restaurant bathroom said: “Each employee’s hands must be washed thoroughly, using soap, warm water and sanitary towel or approved hand-drying device, before beginning work and after each visit to the toilet.”

Well, it says what it means; you could probably say it in half as many words.

Writing for signs is one thing. The ante is upped when we are communicating the gospel or articulating a call for justice. Carefulness with words, says Lash, is the first casualty of sin. But as we learn to take care with our words we are participating in God’s redeemed world.

Finally, writing trains us in attention.
Early 20th century philosopher and mystic Simone Weil wrote a short essay titled, “Reflections on the right use of school studies with a view to the love of God.”  Her argument is simple: Our schoolwork trains us in attention. And, she writes, “Attention is the substance of prayer.”

It’s also, I would add, the heart of pastoral work. Can you sit with someone who is suffering and give your full attention? Can you sit with God in prayer and give God your full attention?

This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of every writing exercise, from its beginning in thought to the time the graded paper is returned: the opportunity to practice attention.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-12-16-19-pmI say this as one of the most distractible people you could meet. I love the free-flowing aspects of the writing process: the imagining, the outlining, the creative stuff. But the editing, the revising, the looking up the proper use of the colon and the semicolon because I never keep them straight – that is the hard part for me. But the benefit comes in staying in the struggle.

I have a confession: I don’t know the proper form of a footnote and I don’t care, though I have to get it right when I publish a book or article. But you will be in classes where the instructor does care. So there is your chance to grow in the patient work of attention. To sit with work that some would call drudgery (but you now know is a spiritual exercise) and figure out where the comma goes, and whether the city of publication goes before or after the publisher, and whether the date goes inside or outside of the parentheses. And when you get it wrong, and it’s marked in red, you have a choice. You can say, “This doesn’t matter anyway!” Or you can take a deep breath, pay attention and do it right next time.

It’s your choice, but one of them will help you grow in both attention and humility. The other won’t.

Recently I was trying to finish a book manuscript, and the publisher required me to send a photocopy from the original source for every quotation along with a copy of the cover page and the copyright page. I thought I had better things to do. My colleagues could hear me huffing, puffing and stomping around in my office. I tried to tell myself: You are learning patience, humility and attention. That helped… a little.

A month later, my editor, after she reviewed what I sent her, informed me that I had gotten three quotations wrong. Pay attention!

If I learn any patient attentiveness in this kind of work, the payoff is in the early hours of the morning, when I’m sitting alone in my basement, the Bible open in my lap, slowly reading a story from the Gospel. Though I can smell the coffee upstairs and hear my kids getting out of bed and think of the million other things I could be doing (like writing an essay on writing), I am learning to stay, pay attention, listen.

Not long ago I had a student whose whole vocabulary were ten-cent words. When I have to look up 10 words reading a student’s paper, I know something is wrong. I can diagnose the disease: academic puffery. So I commented on the paper: “I have a feeling you have some wonderful ideas you are trying to express, unfortunately I don’t know what they are because your writing is getting in the way. Try to use shorter, direct sentences, and fewer impressive-sounding words. Aim for simplicity and directness.”

The next paper’s improvement amazed me. I thought he’d either spent five hours with our writing tutor or had someone else write the paper. The next time I saw him, I asked, “What did you do that improved your writing so much?”

“That’s easy,” he said, “I just did what you told me to do.”

He paid attention. He took care with his language. I was delighted. As will any congregation be who gets to hear him preach.

Be him. Be that guy.

Peace and happy writing!