By Doug Jackson
William Willimon recalls an incident from his days as a seminary professor when, upon criticizing a student’s sermon, she burst into tears and floundered from the classroom and the remaining students stared at him like the unmasked murderer in a drawing room mystery novel.
Why, he wondered, does this kind of thing only happen in preaching classes? If the teacher in a systematic theology course tells a student that he has wrongly defined the Sabellian heresy, no similar drama ensues.
The answer, of course, is that in the latter case it is a matter of wording while in the former it is a matter of one’s own words.
My vague awareness of philosophy leads me to believe that some people claim words have no real meaning, that all our syllables and phonemes and morphemes amount to nothing more than language games. Whatever else may be true, I’d bet that no one who holds such a position has ever stood up to read at an open-mic poetry night. Whatever else words mean as we write, and then publish, them, they mean us, ourselves. These concatenations of syllibants and labials and fricatives, whether connected to any external solidity, connect deeply to us: They reveal us; they embody us; they make us.
Hamlet, frustrated with his own lack of action, abuses himself because he “must like a whore, unpack my heart with words.” Well, whorish or not, the image works: our words unpack our hearts, manifest the contents of our inner suitcased selves like frowsty boxer shorts and disposable razors and stolen hotel towels when a buckle bursts and sprawls them on the blistering concrete of a public sidewalk.
All of this leads me to ask, why do we do it? Especially now, in May. Thomas Morley’s sixteenth century ballet celebrates the fifth month of the year: Now is the month of maying, When merry lads are playing! and goes on to ask, Fie then! why sit we musing, Youth’s sweet delight refusing? It’s not a bad question, and I’m not sure I have a good answer.
Perhaps because, while we need the objective clarity of proper formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity, we also need gusty bouts of weeping when our own words, limping instead of leaping, stagger beyond our protection and place our hearts in the hands of others. Perhaps because the Gospel calls us, not to a doctrine about relationships, but to relationship, and because, for some of us, words are the only way to do it.
Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More, is available from Finishing Line Press.