Thursday, June 16, 2011

In your bones…

I woke up each morning last week greeted by the faint ripples and peaceful rhythms of a narrow lake surrounded by forest. At the edges of St. John’s University, guarded mostly from sight, a simple series of bunkhouses and common rooms called the Collegeville Institute provides writers secluded rehearsal space to craft metaphors, fine tune sentences and magnify their souls. As you know, the Institute invited me and another ten young clergy to work and write together for the week, under the practiced pen of a fine instructor. So, immersed in verbs and nature, not dorm rooms or pep band camp (though we heard them practicing…), I created and I struggled, hoping somehow to write something my colleagues would enjoy, and our teacher wouldn’t demolish!

Mostly, I think that happened, although one or two of my efforts were not, well, ready for print. But I’m confident I return having grasped the basic thrust of the workshop- Words with rhythm are words that sing. Let me explain. Some of you, I’m sure, know about power verbs and controlling metaphors, free modifiers and balanced sentences. They’re all new to me, however, these technical tricks of the trade. Previously, I just wrote, whatever came to mind, imagining how someone might speak the words, how folk might hear them, whether my wife would respond (as she’s rightly done before), “It’s nice Honey, what- exactly- is your point?” But I learned this week that more than words a good sentence makes. The order they receive, the patterns they produce, the movement of metaphor to subject or idea to application, all can work for the writer or against the writer. Our choice.

And particularly important, the teacher taught, is paying close attention to the flow of words, the sequence of syllables, the internal rhythms. For these rhythms help readers hear the emotional content of one’s writings, the unwritten reasons, all the while burrowing into the soul and memory, leaving more lasting, even transformative impressions. Would you remember, word for word, “It’s important to distinguish carefully between fiscal allegiance to the political realm, and whether, or how much, it conflicts with God’s sovereignty?” Didn’t think so. But I suspect you recollect Jesus’ original balanced sentence: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s.” Rhythm matters.

So we worked with writing rhythms all week, producing page after jumbled page with one goal in mind: storing those rhythms in our writing souls, imbedding them in our bones. The marrow of good writing, you might say, is the rhythm of its words. Which, if true, makes me think that good Christian living and good writing have something in common.

You’ve spent time in the woods before, right? Lounging beside a blissful lake, hiking a robust forest trail. Likely, you breathed deeper on those days, saw clearer, felt better. Maybe you seemed closer to God. Many, myself included, experience that in nature. We discern, if ever so slightly, those nearly hidden rhythms of life, the ones we normally rush past or crowd out, the beats of God’s heart, the subtle stops and starts of Creation. Beneath the winding rivers and buzzing bees, we hear the Spirit whisper or sing, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” And it always delivers peace. Maybe nature doesn’t do that for you. Perhaps a powerful song, beautiful prayer, time spent serving the poor or even a well-delivered sermon (!), perhaps these are what salve your soul, what reveal to you the rhythms of God’s heart, keeping the universe in time.

Whatever gets you there (and I trust something does!), it’s critical for good Christian living to not just enjoy those moments and hope to return, one day. Rather, we seek out such places, such divine concert halls, to learn the rhythms, to memorize the beats, and to make them our own. The marrow of good Christian living, you might say, is the rhythm of God’s words. Hearing, then recreating the cadence of God’s beating heart.

May you have ears to hear this week. May you love God and God’s Creation in return!

Grace and Peace,
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