My dad and I sat in the front room around winter break of my freshman year in college. I had finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
Sometime during my first semester at the University of Northern Iowa, I joined a thousand other students in an auditorium, mesmerized by the words of a man whose story had been released as a popular film a few years before. In the wake of his new-found popularity, he now toured the country sharing his story with students as a motivational speaker.
“I want to be a motivational speaker.” I laugh now to think of that aspiration.
My dad didn’t laugh. He asked a simple question, “What are you going to say?”
“That’s the problem,” I admitted. “I don’t know what I want to say.”
I don’t recall my dad’s exact reply, but he said something to the effect of, “You know most of those speakers have done something with their lives. They’ve accomplished something or overcome some challenge. Their experiences in life taught them a lesson to share with others.” Dad encouraged me first to discover what I wanted to do and then to go do it, trusting that the words to motivate others would come through the living.
A few years later, I found myself sitting in a seminary classroom, training for pastoral ministry. Russell Moore introduced his course on Christian Doctrine with the tragic story of a pastor who arrived at the bedside of a dying church member only to realize that he had nothing to say. His Christianity was not a message of truth and substance, but one of empty cliches. If we would be effective pastors, Dr. Moore told us, we needed to know the content of our message—and we needed to know those doctrines experientially, we needed to live in that truth.
Those two conversations shaped me.
As it would happen, I’ve spent most of the past fifteen years in pastoral ministry. The bulk of this ministry has involved words—thousands of hours of sermons, counseling, conversations. In that time, I’ve thought of those conversations and learned a few things about words.
First, worthwhile words are those offered for the sake of serving our neighbor, not ourselves. Second, in the thick of suffering, fine-sounding phrases and polished cliches help no one. Third, real knowledge—the kind of wisdom that helps people—comes through living. And finally, thoughtful living—walking through and reflecting on joy and heartache, gain and loss, pleasure and hardship—rewards you with something to say, something worth saying.
I love words. Words are a stewardship, entrusted to us for use in loving God and neighbor. It’s my hope that you never find my words—whether in story or song—to be a waste of your time.
This week’s song—The Right to Write (and a Song to Sing)—is my attempt to say all that in a story with a tune. I hope you enjoy it.