Lately, I’ve been stunned into an uneasy silence. I haven’t known what to say about the last days of Barack Obama’s presidency and the beginning of Donald Trump’s. Even if I could find words to express what I think and feel, I’m under no illusion that what I would say would be insightful or helpful.
Other people spend most of their waking lives thinking about and writing about this strange moment in our nation’s history. I’ve mentioned before some of the people whose words anchor and order my thoughts: Eugene Robinson, E. J. Dionne, David Brooks, Marilynne Robinson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, and Eddie Glaude, Jr. to anchor and order my thoughts. I don’t have anything worthwhile to add to what they’ve said.
However, it has seemed trivial to write about anything else against the backdrop of Trump’s Twitter attacks on Congressman John Lewis, of Dr. King’s Birthday, of Trump’s inauguration, and of the extraordinary women’s marches in Washington, D. C., across the nation, and around the world.
Reality abounds with irony. George Orwell’s 1984, with its incisive send-up of doublespeak, is a bestseller (again) just as we’re hearing about “alternative facts.” NBC is recognizing Tom Brokaw’s remarkable fifty-year career as journalist in the same week that one of Mr. Trump’s advisors told the press to “shut up and listen.” Mary Tyler Moore, whose comedy helped many people laugh their way past narrow views about the roles of women, died just as far too many of us have become uptight and grim. Such rich irony doesn’t need anything from me other than simple acknowledgment.
I seem to have developed a case of emotional and spiritual laryngitis. For years—almost four decades—I carefully considered almost every word I said or wrote. As a pastor, I was always weighing how far and how quickly I could stretch a congregation without snapping the threads which wove it together and how I could challenge people without generating so much resistance that they would no longer listen to anything I had to say. I tried to speak the truth in love without diluting the truth or failing to love. I practiced a version of Emily Dickinson’s “telling it slant,” trying to subvert “the powers that be.”
I’ve lost that pastoral voice, but it’s not because I no longer know “how” to speak in those ways. It’s because I’m no longer in an ongoing conversation with a particular congregation. Since I do not have a congregation, I cannot be a pastor, not as I understand that role. A “congregation” isn’t necessarily an “organized church” (whatever that is, other than an oxymoron); but it is a community of Jesus-followers with whom a pastor has a steady, loving, prophetic, and accountable relationship. To put it starkly and in a way with which others will certainly quibble, I can’t speak with a pastor’s voice if there isn’t a church to hear it.
So, in a way different but analogous to the way the ways I squeaked and squawked when in early adolescence, my voice is changing. I feel awkward right now, but I know that the change is inevitable. On the other side of this change, I will be freer. That greater freedom brings heightened responsibility.
How can I, should I, speak and write now? What can I, must I, say on behalf of Love and Joy, justice and mercy?
For me, those questions are all-the-more urgent because I never get very far from a keen awareness of my mortality. I’ve long worried that I would be numbered among those whom Oliver Wendell Holmes described as those who “die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.”
I’m praying for a kind of personal Pentecost—for the Spirit to descend anew and to enable me to speak in an unknown tongue, a new voice.