Some months ago I was present for a worship service during which the pastor opened with a lengthy list of announcements. The time given this task seemed disproportionately generous and distracting from the tone of the service. Later, as the pastor spoke to the children, he seemed to get lost in his own story and began to ramble down paths unrelated to the purpose. He asked me how I wanted to be introduced, and I said, “Briefly.” However, the introduction took nearly ten minutes, and I began to wonder how I could possibly regain the attention of the congregation when it came my time to speak.
When the service finished, the District Superintendent asked if I had any suggestions I could offer the pastor. I answered, “Haiku.” The superintendent asked if I could elaborate, so I said, “Study Haiku.”
Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that finds its power from its conciseness. The poet must figure out how to express a range of emotion, imagery, meaning, and content in three simple lines with a limited number of syllables. The poetry is highly structured, carefully prepared, and profoundly intentional. Each syllable, word, and line carries full weight and contributes to the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual destination of the poem.
Precisely as a result of the care and concentrated brevity, Haiku poetry is powerful, alive, provocative, and engaging. The sharpness of its focus makes it memorable and delightfully meaningful. Haiku is enjoyable, and writing it stretches our understanding of the power of language.
Sometimes our message as preachers, teachers, and leaders would be twice as powerful if it were half as long. More words do not indicate more meaning or greater effectiveness. This is true for poetry in any of its forms. We could use more words if we wrote a novel rather than a poem. But the power of poetry comes in the discipline, and the focused fashion of word craft.
One writing teacher said, “A confused reader is an antagonistic reader.” This is true for listeners as well as readers. When speakers become self-absorbed or lost or begin to ramble, they lose listeners.
In a letter to a friend, Mark Twain apologized for wordiness and wrote, “If I’d had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter.” More preparation time does not lead to more words; more preparation results in more concise, provocative, powerful, and effective speech.
John Wesley, in his “Directions Concerning Pronunciation and Gesture,” reminds leaders to avoid technical, esoteric, and arcane words and concepts. Wesley says, “The first business of a speaker is so to speak that he may be heard and understood with ease.” Wesley himself practiced with a house servant to check whether his message was accessible to all people. He asks preachers to speak plainly and without “a babbling of hands.”
The master of teaching profound truths in simple and concise ways is Jesus. The parables find their power because they are not treatises. Jesus could have spoken at much greater length on any of the topics of spiritual life, and the gospel writers could have further decorated Jesus’ stories with experiences of their own. But they refrained. They focused. They spoke directly and powerfully. “Love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Do this, and you will live.”
Sometimes brevity is next to Godliness.
Yours in Christ,