Steve's Letter: December 2012
I think it was John Steinbeck who said—after dealing with an irritating editor for hours—"Where were you when the page was blank?"
I remember as a pastor my sitting in front of a blank page in the wee hours of Sunday morning and praying (okay, complaining), "Lord, do you know what time it is? I face those people in a few hours and you haven't shown...now would be a good time." Sometimes he came and sometimes he didn't. Then I had to climb into the pulpit and do the best I could. The prophets had an advantage over me—they had to report only what God said ("Thus saith the Lord"!). I had to do it whether he gave me anything to say or not. I never thought that was fair.
I still remember the first time I ever preached. A very small church in the mountains of North Carolina asked for a college student to come (they came cheap) and give a sermon. I wrote three pages. As I practiced the sermon over and over again, I timed it, and each page took about five minutes. That equaled fifteen minutes and I figured fifteen minutes was plenty for a student sermon.
My first problem came when that first page took only about 35 seconds. But that wasn't the worst thing that happened. When I turned to the second page, it wasn't there. Somehow I had lost the second page.
What did you do?
Nothing. I just stood there and grinned at them.
Now it's easier. If I have that problem, I just keep talking until something comes to mind. But that first time, the only good thing to come as a result was the realization that I wasn't called to be a preacher. After that horrible time, I was sort of relieved, knowing that I would never have to do it again.
Moses and I are similar in one particular—we both tried to get out of our calls. In Exodus 3 and 4, Moses had a conversation with God, the primary purpose of which was to try to get out of what God wanted him to do. ("Lord, here am I, but...uh...could you send somebody else?") Moses said to God, "Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue" (Exodus 4:10).
That dog didn't hunt for Moses and it didn't for me either.
So I have a long and lasting relationship with blank pages when writing a sermon, book, magazine article, blog or anything else for people to read or hear. Generally, that hasn't been a problem when writing to you, but it's almost Christmas and this morning I sat here in front of a blank page, wondering what in the world I was going to say about Christmas. So, I decided to write to you about blank pages at Christmas.
One of the reasons a blank page is so intimidating to me at Christmas is that there is absolutely nothing one can say that hasn't already been said for the past two thousand years...and said millions of times. Oh, I can certainly put the clichès together and use the same words I've used a thousand times. It's just that something as big and as astounding as the sovereign Creator, Sustainer and Ruler of the universe showing up in our world as a baby in a stable deserves more than clichăs and repetition.
What are the reasons for blank pages?
I guess the blank page could reflect a blank life and that would be far worse. The writer of Proverbs said that it was better to remain silent than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt. Well, he didn't say it quite like that. He wrote, "Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise" (Proverbs 17:28).
I thought about that while looking at my blank page, and then thought about Jesus and his love manifested at Christmas. While I might not write anything brilliant, I can write something because of him. God not only loved the world, he loved me. I know, I know. It's not about me. It's about God—thank you, Rick Warren—but it's about me too. At Christmas, I know that God likes me (about 10% more than you) and I can always write about that.
There is such pathos at Christmas because Christmas is about as close as unbelievers get to him. Christmas is everywhere and you simply can't get away from it. No matter how often they say "Happy Holidays" (or something even blander than that), no matter how many parties you have, and no matter all the gifts you give and receive, you can't get away from it. There is the smell of Christmas in the air...the smell of forgiveness, love and redemption.
Yet there are those who still miss it and that makes for "blank pages." There are still those who pack the ornaments away for another year, who clean up the celebration's mess, and who shed a tear because there was something there and they know that, whatever it was, they missed it. I don't understand that and it makes me sad. On the other hand, it means that I don't have to have a blank page.
Then, of course, a blank page can reflect something so astounding and so incredible that words can only cheapen it. Have you ever stood before a sunset so beautiful that the only thing you could do was remain silent? There is a feeling, on such occasions, that words are inadequate. Words would be like beating on a garbage can while the symphony orchestra plays Beethoven, or texting your boyfriend or girlfriend about a "cool movie" at the Sistine Chapel while standing under Michelangelo's depiction of the creation. So one remains silent.
I experienced something sort of like that when I started writing this letter to you. I sat here and thought about how incredible the incarnation really is-that God would "whisper his love" through a baby in a stable so as not to frighten us, and live out a human life and die on a cross that we would be his forever. The more I thought about Christmas, the less I wanted to write and the more I wanted to worship.
But then I'm a preacher and I can't stay silent very long. It's just not in me. You either.
When I was the young pastor of a Boston area church, many of our members or their families were from Scotland, so we had an annual Robert Burns dinner. (He was an 18th century Scottish poet and lyricist.) If you haven't had haggis (it makes okra and liver look appetizing!) or heard the sound of bagpipes "piping in the haggis," then you have missed out.
I'm from the mountains of North Carolina, so haggis and bagpipes weren't a part of my normal experience. But the church elders required that I offer the blessing before the meal using the words of Robert Burns. It took me a long time, but I memorized that blessing and can still repeat it with the proper accent and emphasis:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some would eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
Of course, there are those who have meat and can't eat, and those who want meat and can't afford it, but we have meat and we can eat, so let's offer the Lord thanks. That's true of Christmas. Some smell Christmas but can't experience it, and some only celebrate the "holiday"—a holiday that, I suppose, celebrates celebrating.
But we have Christmas and we can celebrate it because of him...so "let the Lord be thankit"!
How about that? I don't have a blank page anymore and you don't either.
He asked me to remind you and to wish you a Merry Christmas!
In His Grip,