Words Become Flesh: On Reading, Writing and Sermon Writing ~ Part I

I think the first book I remember reading, where I felt I had a movie camera in my head so that I could picture the characters, the scenery or the action, was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I was about 11. It may be that I had seen the movie, but whether or not I had, I could also pick up the drama in the dialogue and loved reading it aloud. It was like being there. Through the years, I have wondered if other people had that ability too, to picture the story as though they were watching a movie.

Picture of a woman writing in a notebook. On the table in front are a laptop, cell phone, coffee cup and salt and pepper
Photo by Judit Peter from Pexels

It is possible that all writers wish for that phenomena to be connected with our writing. Even if the writing is not fiction, even if there are no pictures. We hope our readers will feel as though they are seeing in real time the thing you are describing. That pondering seascapes, or recipes, that we almost imagine getting our feet dirty on the wet, squishy sand where the waves just retreated to the sea. We can imagine aromas of buttery cinnamon rolls while reading the recipe. Words and names that reel us in seem to take on a life of their own. Characters described in devastating detail, flaws, failures and successes, to say nothing of wardrobe, make seem them real to us. Words becoming flesh.

That is how John, the Gospel writer, whoever he was, described Jesus. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”(John 1:14) So in Christian churches, we use words like “Word;” we say “Jesus is the Word of God.” It is what we mean when using the word “incarnation” Jesus, who we believe is God, took on our humanity, became fully human.

Raised on my mother’s stories, of growing up in poverty, hiding from the men who came to turn off the utilities, of being a young working adult during the Depression, and the stories that she read to me, I have always loved words. It must have been from a young age because my father said when I was born, I was vaccinated with a Victrola needle.

I flirted with forms of writing; poetry, greeting cards, writing one-liners, or puns. In school, college and beyond, I preferred writing papers to objective tests. Before I ever thought of writing stories of any type, or essays, I loved to play with words. Like dice (die) in a Parchisi cup that you roll around in the cup and shake it carefully covered, back and forth, before spilling the die onto the game board, I like to savor words like that. To play with the combinations, to roll them around in my mouth, or in my mind, before letting them spill out onto the paper to take on a life of their own.

Looking back, I realize that approached the stories in the Bible in a similar way. Savoring the stories, taking the time to read, reflect and wrestle with them. Seeking understanding, inspiration. and connection. I did not walk around with an open Bible in my hands, but after closing the cover of my Bible, and walking away, continued to wonder about what it all meant. It was a way to allow the story to germinate, and eventually flower.

While there were many people and events that influenced my faith development as a young Christian, there were two in particular who helped me to connect with the Bible in a way that was both introductory and transformative: one of them was my Aunt Millie.

Picture of an open Bible with colored pencils in the background.
Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels

I was raised Roman Catholic in a time when Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible. It was believed we might interpret it incorrectly, so it was best left to the experts. But my Aunt Millie, was a Bible Reading Catholic, and when I visited her at a particularly difficult time in my life, in my early 20’s, she would read to me. She read a lot of different things, but the one thing that stood out was Isaiah 43:1, “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you…I have called you by your name (and) you are mine.” She would read that and say, ‘Listen to this, Michele. Isn’t it wonderful?

She had a large banner in the upstairs hallway with those words on it, (I Have Called You by Your Name…). When my then husband and I moved to Florida, she gave us a box of Christmas Decorations, that included two white styrofoam balls with gold trim (Chrismons) with the words from Isaiah 43:1b, and our names. So it read, “I have called you by your name, Michele and you are mine.”

Looking back now, I wonder if her creative connection with the text had a subtle influence on my relationship with the Bible, and my faith as a Christian. It certainly was the start of any real engagement the Bible on my part, that led to a pattern of reading, reflecting, wrestling, wondering as well as a deep longing to share the fruit of all that reflection with anyone who was willing to hear. I would write these ideas down and sometimes tentatively share them with a friend. These were the seeds of my own call to preach.

As I write, I realize that my experience with the Bible and the Christian faith is not everyone’s experience. Sadly, I have friends, and probably family whose only experience of the Bible is one that has been weaponized and used against them. Sorrow over this misuse of the Bible does not begin to cover it. But I also write as a Christian pastor, committed to studying, gleaning and sharing the stories in the Bible for insight, not for weaponry.

Use Your Words

I have a good friend who was a kindergarten teacher for several years. long after that, when dealing with her dog she would say to him, “Use Your Words” Not unlike a parent, dealing with a toddler who would rather scream or point instead of speaking plainly.

What draws me to stories of any kind, regardless of genre, is character, and whether or not I can care about the character, and if the author shows some type of character transformation. But what draws me to reading stories, has more to do with how an author uses their words. I do not aspire to doing book reviews, but let me just say that I find some authors captivating, because of the way they choose and use their words. Perhaps it is because they instinctively know that books were meant to be read aloud.

One book that comes to mind is “Giver of Stars” by Jo Jo Moyes. While this book has a lot to recommend it, it is the phrasing, the delicious concoction of words that kept me wanting more. Forgive me for not providing examples, but that would turn into a literary analysis, and a very different piece of writing. While what I felt was the beauty of her writing did not distract me from the story, there are times I find myself listening just for the words themselves.

My husband has teased me for years, saying that he can see my lips move when I read. But books were meant to be read aloud. If that is not so, then the first books that were written, were only the private treasure of the very few people who could read and afford a book. Try to wrap your mind around the number of books that were written prior to the invention of the printing press that made books plentiful. I doubt that many writers exercise their craft in the hopes that only one or two people will read their work.

The stories in the Bible, when they were finally written down, were likewise meant to be read aloud and for similar reasons. Few people could read, fewer still could afford to own the books or scrolls on which the stories were written.

When we read silently, no matter what the book, or article, we tend to skim. And in skimming, we miss the poetry and music of the words on the printed page.

I doubt that most people read books or articles aloud, but I listen to more books than I read. I got hooked on audiobooks when I was driving three hours one-way to seminary. I had three library cards to support my audio book habit, through my four years of seminary. I still use audio books on short and long trips, when I am by myself, and they have given me an appreciation for the sounds of the written words.

What about you? If you are a blogger, what is your writing process? Do you write the same time every day, at the same place? And, whether you are a writer or not, what draws you to a certain author or genre?

There is more to come,

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Copyright 2021 Michele Somerville, The Beach Girl Chronicles and https://msomervillesite.WordPress.com

Published by msomerville2014

About: Michele Somerville is a wife, mother, stepmother, grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin and friend. She lives with her husband and their dog Sheba. Sheba is their fourth rescue dog in 30 years. She is a retired ordained United Methodist Elder and serves two churches part-time in North Central Pennsylvania. She obtained her Bachelors’ Degree in 1999 from Mansfield University and her Master of Divinity in 2004 and Doctor of Ministry in 2016, both from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. My Doctor of Ministry Thesis was:” Prophetic Words of Grace: Biblical Storytelling in the Local Church.” Michele began writing and performing character monologues for worship in 2008. She began by asking the question about nameless characters in the Bible, “What would they say if they could speak for themselves?” and then using her theological education and experience of the human condition to attempt an answer that is both academic and creative. Much of what you will read here are memories from growing up in a tourist town, in a bar, in the 1960’s, shaggy dog stories about our rescue dogs, life in a small town, and stories of faith and hope. Throughout her life she has lived in many states, including small towns, large towns and cities. She lived in Rota, Spain, for nine challenging months. Despite all the places she have lived since moving away from home in 1970,Michele is at the heart of all things Jack and Maggie’s daughter, and a beach girl from Onset, Massachusetts.

17 thoughts on “Words Become Flesh: On Reading, Writing and Sermon Writing ~ Part I

  1. I’m glad you won’t hold back the tide. I enjoy your writing.

    I began writing when I left home to go to college. My mother and I wrote each other once a week — just mundane things, but it kept us connected when we couldn’t afford to chat on the phone. Words are so much fun to play with. These days I write when I can’t keep the words in my head any longer, but have to get them out and organized. Writing must be an eruption for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Or, a fire in your bones? I realize lately that a lot of what I write are thoughts I have while I am on the move. I long for a more organized self. I really aspire to two hours a day of writing. I realize serious writers probably do much more than that, but two hours a day would be good. I love that you and your mother wrote letters. I still have a few things in my mother’s handwriting, although not many. What a treasure though. I always seem to start at the bottom, thank you for the compliment and for taking the time to read and comment. Blessings, Michele

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      1. Thanks for affirming my lunacy, I mean, practical human response. I had a speech professor say that most people remember what you said first the most, what you said last second most and anything over 10 minutes and you have lost them. Has that stopped me from preaching 20 minute sermons? No. But that rational could stretch to responding to the thing you read last, first. Blessings for the day, Michele p.s. piano practice sounds great. Baby steps.

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      2. Before the Lenten service at noon today, we were chatting with one of the pastors. He said a parishioner told him his sermons weren’t long enough. He was serving a church in Vermont at the time, and this man lived a distance away. The man explained that he felt the sermon should take as long as his drive to the church to make it worthwhile. Everyone laughed today and when it was first said.

        The man above was big in Lutheran circles, and my husband John worked with him at the district level when we lived on Long Island. Small world!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I got similar grief over a 10 minute sermon once, sad, but human. I think 20 minutes really is a decent length and I tend to float between 18-22 at times. At our conferences though, and some of the big names in the UMC, like Adam Hamilton for instance, those sermons run much closer to 45 minutes and I suspect that is the standard for many independent church leaders. During COVID, summer heat and winter in the parking lot I have worked to keep my entire services to 45 minutes, lol.

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      4. I like your philosophy. I like to take in the points of a sermon and repeat them to myself on the ride home. You can’t do that with a 45-minute oration. I wonder if some preachers forget they are not circuit riders, and they will have another chance to address the same people one week later.

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      5. That made me laugh. I can appreciate the difficulty, sometimes it seems there is so much to say! I will probably write about this in the follow up post, but I have been using index cards for notes the last several years. Many times I don’t even look at them, except when they slip out of my hands to the floor, they are a safety net. But last week I ahd taken 4 index cards and 2 pages with 1 paragraph each highlighted. just in case I decided to use them. I sent a message to a friend, and ended up confessing in church. “I don’t have sermon notes; I have options!” Then I quickly added, “Don’t be afraid!’ haha

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      6. Options!! I like that. Like you, most of the long-term ministers I heard used a few index cards. I am always amazed at how organized their minds were. Most of the 25 years when I was the organist, I heard the same sermon twice a Sunday. There were always slight differences between the messages.

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  2. Ha! My father used the same phrase to describe me: “vaccinated with a Victrola needle”. I haven’t thought about that in a while.

    When I was in high school, my favorite classes were art and creative writing. And somehow, I went to college as a chemistry major! After my career as a chemistry teacher was over, I returned to my love of writing. I write when the spirit moves me. I don’t have a schedule. I had a rigid schedule ruled by bells for 31 years, and I don’t want that anymore. I love the picture you paint of dice rolling out over a Parcheesi board. Beautiful! Many times, I lie in bed at night composing a post in my head. The next morning, I get up, and it rolls out onto the page in a torrent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. For books including the bible I have to be able to see the movie in my head as you say. It’s the same with what I write. If I am rushed or am contracted to do something I don’t want to do, it will be bad. I know my work is good when I hear myself laughing. If I am Then others will This is me

    Laughter can move mountains

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  4. Hi Michele, I find I do totally immerse myself in a book and a story. I will have to mull on whether it is like watching a movie. I always find your writing descriptive, and as if I am right there with you. Great choice of words “…reel us in…”

    A powerful phrase “…vaccinated with a Victrola needle.” And, here I thought you walked around with an open Bible in your hands.🙂 Good point about the creative connection. Possibly the content becomes more interesting and unique. I have added “Giver of stars” to my reading list. I cannot get into listening to books. Regarding your last question…I am constantly inspired in my life. It depends where I want to place my energy and attention. A wonderful post, as always, Michele!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Erica/Erika. It is a busy time with Holy Week fast approaching. I usually like to plan ahead but had a hard time doing so. Last night I wrote a short skit for Easter Sunday (With the help of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) until I was doing dishes, I thought I was clueless but then the ideas started popping. Having a hard time getting much writing down to enable me to pop n to many link parties at the moment, but I know it is alright. Yesterday, the congregation surprised me with beautiful flowers for a belated Pastor Appreciation and they said some lovely things. I have met my weight goal, and trying for 4 more pounds. I may have the update written before Easter, lol. I hope you enjoy Giver of Stars. I am listening to Michelle Obama’s Becoming on Audible and reading Almost Everything by Ann Lamott. As always, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Best and blessings, Michele

      Liked by 1 person

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