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A Theology of Speaking Slowly

I listened to a man on the radio this morning. He had a dignified South African accent (most English-speaking accents sound “dignified” to Canadians). He spoke in deep, measured tones. He left frequent pregnant pauses in the conversation. His words virtually dripped with gravitas and significance. I imagined him leaning back in a big black chair, hands assuredly folded,  secure in the knowledge that his was a voice worth listening to, worth waiting for. He voice confidently proclaimed, “it is worth standing in the silences between what I have said and what is yet to come.”

This is not how I speak. This is not how I have ever spoken. I’ve reflected here before on the multiple perverse ironies at work in the vocational situation I now find myself in—one who speaks, out loud, in front of other humans. Every. Single. Week. I’ve mentioned that I was a stutterer as a child, and that I have long struggled to speak slowly. For as long as I can remember, the words have come tumbling out of my mouth almost faster than I can think of them (no doubt long-time readers of this blog say the same about my writing 🙂 ). Perhaps it is the result of being a twin and being locked from birth into a competitive existence where you are always seen as one half of a larger entity, where you are always scrambling and straining to be recognized and heard as a singular you! Perhaps it is nothing more or less than the utterly banal shortfall of confidence experienced by many people, regardless of their biological inheritance. Perhaps it’s pride or the fear of being wrong (or being thought to be wrong). Who can finally pronounce upon the provenance of the propensity to speak too quickly.

I wish I could speak of these tendencies in the past tense. I wish I could say, “And here’s how I got past all that.” Alas, I still find myself slamming on the brakes far more frequently than I am thoughtfully allowing for the spaces that contribute to good communication. I just got off a conference call where fear that spoke too quickly and carelessly. I still often treat my weekly sermon as a race to the two thousand word finish line. It’s like I am always convinced that the time others offer is a profoundly finite resource that is granted to me with reservations and qualifications. God forbid that I should commit that most egregious of sins—wasting others’ time! Or boring them. Or confusing them. Or taking up time that others had planned to speak. Or whatever. Best to get the words out quickly, then. The silences are full of judgment and impatience, and I must not give them time to speak.

So I have always had issues with speech. And yet, not only is it impossible to be a pastor without regularly speaking, it’s impossible to read Scripture without noticing the centrality of speech. I’m working with two texts this week that have to do with speech. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet is commanded to prophesy to the dry bones that lie strewn about the valley. Ezekiel’s tongue is set free by the sovereign Lord to speak life to the wasteland of death. In John 11, Jesus himself bellows into a stench-soaked cave where the microbes are beginning to have their way with poor old Lazarus. Lazarus, come out! As I read these texts, it strikes me how frequently it is speech that brings life from death, order from chaos, hope from despair. God speaks a world into being in Genesis 1. Over and over, and God said… and God said… And something that was not, suddenly was. Over and over, Jesus speaks healing and liberation into contexts of disease and oppression. Come out! Get up! Walk! Depart! Who do you say that I am? Speak!  

I am not Ezekiel, and I am certainly not Jesus (shocker, I know). But I think all of us have the capacity to use speech for life, for hope, for liberation, for healing. Speaking, whatever form this takes, is part of our human vocation. It is part of how we image our Maker. Of course, as with all of God’s good gifts, we can (and do) use this one carelessly and casually. God knows our world is littered with useless, wasteful words that don’t do anyone much good or that actively contribute to the pain and the sadness. But the proper response to the abuse of a gift is not to throw out the gift, nor is it to use it hesitantly, apologizing for the words as they are spilling out of our embarrassed mouths. It is, rather, to receive the gift of speech with gratitude and use it for the purposes for which it was given. It is to employ the gift out of a conviction that the one who gave it in the first place can be trusted to equip us to use it for what it was intended to be and to do in the world.

Slowing down, in other words, requires that we trust God and that we trust each other enough both to speak and to allow for the silences between the words that we need.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. John H Neufeld, Winnipeg, MB #

    Thanks for this piece on slowing down when speaking. I’ve had to learn this as well, even though I was not a twin; I was just uptight. As I read it I thought of the fact that the first item of direct speech in Matthew is “Do not be afraid” and the first words of direct speech coming out of Jesus’ mouth after the resurrection were, “Do not be afraid.” I suspect that these important words are most powerful when spoken slowly and deliberately. I had another thought as well, about speech – an adaptation of a line from T. S. Eliot, “the purpose of preaching is to turn ink into blood.” This too seems to work best when done without haste, inviting the hearers to think along, not only keep up.

    April 3, 2014
    • “Just uptight.” Yes, that probably applies in my situation as well 🙂 .

      Thanks for the reminder from the bookends of Jesus’ speech in Matthew. I think fear is behind so many of the problems that plague us. How we need to hear these words from Jesus, again and again and again… And, as you say, very slowly.

      I love the line from Eliot. And I love your closing comment:

      [Preaching] too seems to work best when done without haste, inviting the hearers to think along, not only keep up.

      I will keep these very good words in mind as I try, yet again, to speak slowly this Sunday.

      April 4, 2014
  2. mike #

    A worthy contemplation, Ryan.
    To my way of thinking this post could just as easily have been titled “The Theology of Ego”.

    In my quest to be recognized as the most learn’ed and final Authority on all things God, I’ve noticed how perturbed and unfulfilled I feel if I don’t get to voice my perspective when the opportunity arises. I’ve also noticed in myself the tendency to spew out philosophical rhetoric at break-neck speed (and volume) when I become overly emotional about an issue or topic because I think you need to hear ME tell you the truth. Any measured pause in the flow of dialog is seen as lost opportunity to drive the nail deeper with my Hammer. :/

    April 4, 2014
    • Yes, yes, the ego refuses to be silent. This whole business is a bit of a tangled web, isn’t it? Fear, ego, selfishness, the need to be acknowledged and appreciated, longing, hope, more fear… And yet, somehow our words are still important and valuable. I have to believe this. And, on my better days, I do.

      April 4, 2014
    • Yup. This is the new normal. We are becoming very small, shallow, and selfish creatures…

      April 8, 2014

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