My former pastor, Brent Mitchell, is a wordsmith. He writes as well as he speaks – and he speaks with eloquence and conviction, love and compassion. You can hear those qualities in his written words. Below is a post of his message to his congregation that was in this month’s church newsletter. I want you, my blog readers (most of whom also are writers) to have the opportunity to read it. I asked him for permission to post it. He agreed. Here it is:
VOLUME 42 NO. 8 2013, THE BEACON
Third Presbyterian Church, Springfiled, Illinois
From the Pastor’s Study
It seems to me that all writers have a voice. With rare exceptions I have never heard them speak. Many of the authors I read have died before I could get to them, but I know what they sound like. And I would bet you do, too. Of course we don’t hear their vocal timber and tonal qualities, but they each have a voice and the voice we hear as we turn page after silent page is as distinct and unique to each author as are their fingerprints. We hear it in the words they choose to open their books, the way they stack up phrases, the rhythm of their sentences, their stylistic preferences for using words as assault weapons or bandages, as a healing balm or more like razor wire—intent on drawing blood. And my guess is that we know whether we like their voice within the first few paragraphs.
Some authors sound instantly pompous to me. They write as though they don’t care if anybody understands them, because they love the sound of their own voice, and if writing affords them the opportunity to impress themselves, that’s all that really mattered. Some are to saccharine, some are just smart alecks who don’t impress me any more than they did in seventh grade, some are just vulgar as though they have never gotten over the thrill of being naughty or saying bad words. Some are moralizing prigs who were born to correct someone somewhere, and some are just boring because they never learned to distinguish the incidental from the pertinent and write as though there is not a difference. They want to say something in the worst possible way, and they do.
I think the type of authors I most enjoy are the ones I would like to sit down with over a long quiet dinner in a free ranging conversation till the candles burn low. Their voices are tinged with self-effacing humor, a compassion born of suffering, elegant enough to be precise, but wanting more to communicate than to impress. Sobered by their own imperfectionsthey keep their egos in check. They admire honesty, common people and courage in all its forms. And without exception, they understand grace. They might not use that word in any paragraph, but most of what they write is a confession of their need for it, and a sustained act of advocacy in the slender hope we will receive it for ourselves and extend it to others, and thus find our humanity.
One of the authors whose voice I like is Herman Wouk. Jim Marshall put me on to him years ago. In 1952 Wouk was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his fictional World War II novel, “The Caine Mutiny.” I had seen and loved the movie (starring a superb Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and Robert Francis) but the book, as you might guess was even better—as per typical, much more nuanced and textured with material that told an even fuller tale. Toward the start of the book the newly commissioned Ensign Willie Keith (the chief protagonist through whom the story is told) receives a letter—a final letter—from his father who (unbeknownst to Willie) was dying of cancer. The letter is a father’s last-ditch attempt to rescue his son from a life of pampered shallowness. He writes, “Remember this, if you can— there is nothing, nothing more precious than time. You probably feel you have a measureless supply of it, but you haven’t. Wasted hours destroy your life just as surely at the beginning as at the end—only in the end it becomes more obvious. Use your time while you have it, Willie, in making something of yourself…Think of me and what I might have been, Willie, at the times in your life when you come to crossroads. For my sake, for the sake of the father who took the wrong turns, take the right ones, and carry my blessing and my justification with you.”
It is a mark of Wouk’s gift that we can read as the failed father and the shallow son. Perhaps we are both/and. The older we get we rue the wrong turns, the wasted hours. The part of us that senses the
adolescent that still walks inside us, can still catch embarrassed glimpses of our own shallowness and wonder what it will take to sober our senses and save our souls. Listen for the voice before it’s too late. It may be His.
~ Pastor Brent