Words matter. I realized this early on, so that when I was still in elementary school, if somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was “a poet.”
I can’t say I have actually developed the talent for that, but words still move me deeply, and I strive to craft my sermons and essays thoughtfully. Language is often the vehicle for transformation and revolution.
A 19-word sentence I first read several years ago has had more impact on my life than any other extra-biblical statement. I was on an “urban immersion” mission trip with a few high school students from the congregation I serve as pastor. The earnest college students who led the program selected a few quotes and taped them on the walls and doorways of the building. The words were meant to challenge, provoke, inspire. One of them exceeded their expectations, at least for me.
“It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”
Many of Mother Teresa’s messages had a way of cutting through the politics of the world’s inequities. In this case, she did not shy away from making it personal: “…so that you may live as you wish.”
Sometimes when I am writing a sermon I become conscious of the pronouns I am using. It is important to use the first person plural—“we and “us”—often, because Christianity in the U.S. has become too individualized, whereas the biblical revelation indicates that we are collectively God’s people who need to identify with and lean on one another. We are called to trust God as a community of faith.
But sometimes the pronoun has to be “you.” Second person singular. You are responsible for your money, for deciding to spend it on yourself instead of offering it to serve the needs of the poor. You are the one who sees the balance or imbalance of your stewardship. You have to decide whether a child will live or die on your watch.
If we resort to generalities, as in “we ought to do more to help,” how easy is it to walk away from that? To assume that somebody else will figure it out. Somebody richer than I has money they should spare for the poor. Not me. I have plans for my money.
I know the rationale. I have caught myself reasoning, “Who can blame me for wanting to keep up with the standards of my society?” Well, Mother Teresa can, that’s who. If anybody had the street cred to say it, she did.
And so a little Polish nun with her own vow of poverty serves as my conscience far more often than I want her to. I don’t even know what her voice sounded like, but her image seems to suffice. She interferes with a lot of Pinterest-generated plans. She sits next to me on the couch when I see TV commercials for customized home scents or linger on Amazon a little too long looking for just the right throw pillow.
“It is a poverty,” I heard once when I bought another cute pair of red shoes. “It is a poverty” I heard during the restless night at our hotel. “It is a poverty” rang in my ears as I drove back to the store and returned the shoes. “Was there something wrong with them?” the clerk asked. “No, I just changed my mind,” I replied, and walked away, slightly richer in spirit, money freed up to feed a child for a few more days.
That makes a nice tidy ending to a post, doesn’t it? But heeding that voice is complicated, and hard. Baby steps, sometimes bigger, but mostly baby steps, in old shoes.