One Clear, Concise Line


 My Professor of preaching at Seminary used to say that if ‘you cannot state your message (your sermon or homily) in ‘one clear, concise line’ then you have no idea what you’re talking about.‘  

 These words about the importance of simplicity and clarity were planted in me then and haunt me now. 

 His words about ‘making yourself clear’ are ever with me, never to be forgotten. His eyes, too, had the same penetrating effect as the instruction. His words and presence were a holy demand that ‘you had better make yourself clear.’

 My teacher hated fuzziness. He was therefore just the teacher that I, a muddle-headed being, needed. (and still need!)

 The Professor’s challenge that if you cannot say something simply, you are confused, continues to have a stinging effect on my conscience. 

 Sometimes I wish I’d never heard his demand for clarity, for ever since, I have not been able to rest until the pearl is dug out of the oyster. 

 Thus, still hearing him, I am forever asking: “Have I said it yet, in one clear, concise statement?‘ And, of course, usually not! I’m left, as it so often seems, floundering around, stuttering and stammering, after many attempts to simplify and clarify. 

 In the ongoing struggle to find words, I thrash and flail about, searching for words, failing to ever get it ‘just right.’ Consequently, I come to the end of most days feeling that I have come up short. 

 It was therefore of ‘some comfort’ recently to have read that the great American writer, R.W. Emerson, felt, almost continually, exactly this way. “Writing was often a desperate struggle for Emerson,” says Robert D. Richardson, (in First We Read, Then We Write, p. 9 of 91 Nook Book)  At day’s end, Emerson “never felt he had achieved adequate expression.” 

 C.S. Lewis, issued a challenge to any of us inclined to be wordy and complicated: “I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused." (Cited by Alistair McGrath in The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis, p. 171 of 238, Nook Book) 

 His point, in other words, was that if you cannot translate your ideas in a plain and simple way, that is, in a non-technical and non-scholarly way, then what has been revealed is that you do not have the understanding you think you do. 

 This requirement to be pristinely clear was brought home to me when I was writing articles for the local newspaper in the town of Inuvik, Canada’s most northern town, where I was the Pastor of the Baptist church.

 I will also never forget Frumie Diamond, the newly appointed assistant editor of the paper (The McKenzie Drift) who, upon reading my articles, asked to meet with me. Uh-Oh!  As we sat down together, she proceeded firmly, but kindly, to tear my writings apart, limb from limb. 

 After recovering from the shock of the probing scrutiny, I realized I had been given a rare and precious gift in the form of the ever alert and watchful editor, Frumie.  

 She not only re-affirmed what the Preaching Professor had said about one clear, concise line, but added: ‘You’ve got to express your main idea in every paragraph. Your piece will not cohere otherwise. You’ll be ‘everywhere.‘  Nothing will come together. You’ll be chasing rabbits all over the place.’  (As I was and am still prone to do!)

 Then she made her stunning commitment to me: ‘I’ll work with you till you get it.  Bring every article to me.’ So I did and began to realize that even a short article might require twenty to thirty hours of work before the thing became simple and clear. 

 I learned then that anything I was able to write in an hour or two was likely to be rubbish, and that even after twenty to thirty hours of work, I might still be uttering gibberish and nonsense. Even then, there might be no one clear line and no punchy clarity.

 The real work, I learned, was to ask oneself thousands of times the question: ‘Is this what I’m saying. Is this what I’m saying?‘ And then to ask the question a thousand more times! (And then to go for lots of long walks!)

 And surely, even after imagining that I’d finally said what I wanted to say, I’d have to start all over again, having painfully realized, yet again, that I was still off-track.

 Now, in a deeper way than what I've just described, I have as well been searching all my life for the one clear, concise line that might capture the essence of reality! 

 That search for a way of saying simply and clearly what the essence of reality is came to the fore during a visit with two dear friends, who are sisters. One of them noticed my icon of Christ and commented on its rare beauty. I then told her of my search for it, on a trip two years ago through Turkey and Greece.  

 I saw hundreds, if not thousands of icons on this journey but none had called my name. But, as these things go, just when I was beginning to accept that I would come home empty-handed, I came upon a tiny shop where this icon was. I knew immediately that this was the one I would bring home. 

 My friend responded by saying that she had searched while in Mexico for a picture of the Mother of Guadalupe that might match her longing. Alas, she did not find one. 

 As we talked about our search for the icons and as we carefully chose words to describe that search, we were together brought into contact with reality's heart.  In that moment, there was a felt sense of everything fitting together, of everything cohering, that there was nothing missing. There was a sense of completeness. It all had to do with, I believe, that icon that I had brought home from Greece. 

 In a conversation with one of my sons the subject of the one clear, concise line about reality came up and my son exclaimed: "Dad you said it! You said what the essential thing is. The one clear, concise thing. The thing you cannot live without. It was in your article about Marta." My heart leapt within me to be so understood and by one of my own children!

 He meant the article about my godddaughter (pictured above) entitled Martha’s Destiny. And yes, that article affirms the one thing, the simple and essential thing, that I know I cannot live without.  

 What I said in that article was this, slightly revised: "I have the sparkling image of this priceless little girl in my mind's eye. She is so precious and particular, indeed spectacular and unique. There's never been another being like Marta and there never will be. 'Marta rules,' in my estimation. Her worth and value as a human being is beyond compare. Nothing is worth more than such a special creation of God. 

"And I've been thinking: 'Surely the God who created this distinctive little girl is invested in preserving her identity.' Is that not so?"  

 "The Christian answer is: 'of course.' The Christian perspective is that 'personality is the glory of the universe.' Therefore Marta is the glory of the universe!" 

 "God willed Marta to be here, which is a stronger thing to say than to assert that this little being arose at this point in time as yet another emanation of God or of Consciousness." 

 "This particular being called Marta, so tangible, touchable and real, was not created only to be one day extinguished or obliterated.  Nor is this distinctive being to be ‘absorbed’ at death through some kind of vanishing act into the ether. Her destiny is not merely to be an indistinguishable and unrecognizable part of the Whole." 

 "No! Marta has an eternal destiny as a distinctive being. She is destined to be transfigured and glorified, which is why her parents, Alex and Svetlana, have brought her to a church sanctuary where at its entrance a sign reads:  'Enter the place of Transfiguration.’ 

 When I present my goddaughter to the priest for communion, I am uniting with the heart of reality in the person of Christ, who as St. Paul said, 'loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:20) That's the one clear, concise line that says it all - "He loved me and gave Himself for me."  

 That line, more than any other, expresses what is at the heart of my life. Marta and I share this.  I hope that's simple and clear.

Audio: Introit, Dan Gibson's Solitudes