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You Can’t Say Everything

“No poet in the world has written a more beautiful short story.” –Alexander Schröder, about the Book of Ruth

The church where I pastor started this year by going through the Old Testament book of Ruth. Ruth is a short book nestled in between some of the most pivotal and epic stories God’s people would ever pass down through the generations: you’ve got Samson, Joshua, Gideon, and the entrance into the Promised Land on one side and King David, Solomon, and the best and worst of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel on the other.

But there in between is Ruth—part tragedy, part romance, part survival story, and all heart. Goethe called it, “the loveliest complete work on a small scale, handed down to us as an ethical treatise and an idyll.”

When I prepare sermons, I edit with a particular eye. I’m working to put together the key themes and events of a Biblical text in such a way that they take a room full of people to the foot of the cross—to that place where our deepest needs are met in God’s gracious provision.

I believe the power of preaching resides with the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of God’s people. At the same time, I also believe God wants me to care deeply about the craft of preaching and my personal development as a communicator. Those two truths make sense together. I approach sermon writing as a skill, an art, and a God-directed mystery, and I want to be more skilled, more artistic, and more God-directed as I grow.

My personal experience in writing sermons (which goes for any sermon writer, I suppose) is that I discover far more about the text in front of me than I will ever come close to verbalizing on a Sunday morning. In preparation, I read a lot, think things over, and fit pieces together until, God willing, a picture begins to form. I step back, look at it, and then set out to describe it in a way that will help people, by God’s grace, see themselves in it. And see Christ.

This process demands that I leave out far more information than I include. Every week I want to say more than I actually do, even on those weeks when I am certain I have said far more than I should.

Sometimes people say, “Christians shouldn’t care about how long a sermon is. You’re talking about the word of God, for crying out loud!” Here’s what I think about that. I think, often but not always, most longer sermons are not long because the information in them is so compelling that it takes an hour to unveil the full, astonishing truth of what’s being said. I think longer sermons are long because the preacher struggles to discipline himself to find his focus and stay on it. I think I could edit out 20% of any sermon I’ve ever given and find it to be 20% more clear.

But the weekly work of paring down, focusing in, and setting aside requires a mysterious combination of discipline and sorrow. The sorrow comes from knowing that many beautiful aspects of any week’s particular text will be edited out and set aside in a place I may not return to for years, if ever. The discipline comes from making my peace with this. I’m running a marathon here, not a sprint. I tell myself, “The information you leave out still shapes your greater understanding of Scripture, so in that sense, you’re putting it to use.”

Most of the time I embrace the limits of sermon writing. I know they help. They make for cleaner lines. They sharpen the focus. They keep me closer to 30 minutes, and that keeps the hungry masses from revolt—which Lyle Lovett warned me about.

But my cup runneth over with this little book called Ruth. So while I yield to the limits of a Sunday morning, I’m also gathering up some of the beautiful details I discover in a folder for another time and a different format. Maybe a narrative for Ordinary Time. Who knows.

Here’s the thing. Whoever wrote the Book of Ruth, he (or she?) too left out more details than he wrote in. He made hard choices. He told us nothing about certain key characters except their names and that they died. He gave us a story that spanned countless months but he really only dealt specifically with three particular days—the day Ruth met Boaz, the day she asked him to marry her, and the day Boaz redeemed her. He wrote vaguely about moments and conversations that leave us begging for more details. He could have told us more. He could have left everything in. But he didn’t. And if he had, I wonder if people would have marveled at the beauty of the story in the same way.

I think God teaches our hearts not just through the knowing, but also through the wondering. And because he does, sometimes the best way to tell a complete story is to keep it short.

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