Earlier this week, I spoke at the Anabaptist Communicators Retreat, held at the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, located in the beautiful Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania. My assignment was to talk about how my faith informs my writing and editorial work. What follows is a slightly adapted version of what I presented.
My early writings in the context of the church were borne out of my desire to communicate the call of Christ to be peacemakers. I grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, one of the historic peace churches, but it wasn’t until young adulthood that I internalized the peacemaking imperative for Christians and developed what has been a decades-long passion for promoting the practice of peace and justice, particularly in the context of the church. In the earlier days of my writing on peace and justice topics, I was probably somewhat preachy and “polemical” as I tried to persuade others of my own convictions.
Those early writings were freelance and expressed my personal beliefs and opinions, but then I took on various writing and editorial positions in the church that gave me the opportunity to combine passion with profession, and I learned that while there is definitely a place for polemical writing, I could be more effective and likely have greater influence over the long term by making the case with more grace and humility.
Before I was given this assignment, however, I had not thought much in any deliberate way about how my faith informs my writing and editorial work, so it’s been an interesting and helpful exercise. I’ve thought about the variety of venues in which I’ve written and edited for more than 40 years:
- editor of a monthly missionary prayer calendar (my first “official” church position)
- editor for Shalom! for 36 years (Shalom! is a quarterly Brethren in Christ publication on peace and justice issues)
- many years of board and committee work—in my denomination, my home congregation, and Mennonite Central Committee—where I was often called on to write and edit board communication pieces
- two books (one I wrote and one I edited) and numerous articles and presentations
- a 23-year career as a communications person associated with the PA Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
- current editor for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society
- this personal blog
I list all those not to toot my own horn but rather to illustrate the different genres and contexts in which I’ve worked. Throughout it all, I’ve also worked with and edited many writers, most of whom were gracious to me as their editor, and I’ve navigated the challenges of trying to fairly represent many views in the publications I edit while maintaining my own integrity.
As I thought about that body of work and how my faith convictions have informed the way I write and edit, I kept coming back to three New Testament passages: Luke 6:27-31; Romans 12:14-21; Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31-32
Three imperatives from those passages serve as guidelines for how I try to do my work: 1) treat others as you want them to treat you; 2) if it is possible, live at peace with everyone; and 3) speak truth with words that give grace. I’ve collapsed a couple verses into that third guideline, but it seems in keeping with the intent of the passage, and it expresses well what I strive to do. It’s the basis for the title of this presentation: speaking truth with words that give grace.
Living up to those words is a constant challenge. As I said, much of my writing and editing has been on peace and justice-related issues, where there are often strong differences of opinion and convictions, even and perhaps especially among Christians. This has always been true, but seems particularly pointed right now. We’re living in a world where there is so much that seems unjust and just plain wrong, where lies and distortions of truth are some people’s stock-in-trade, and where religious and political divisions often seem impossible to bridge. It’s hard to speak the truth as one sees it in a way that will not further inflame and divide. It’s hard to extend grace to others who see that truth differently. But I believe more than ever that it’s important to try because it’s part of what it means to be a peacemaker.
How does this actually work itself in my writing and editorial practice?
- I consider my audience, recognizing that there will be some who read or hear my words who are not at the same place I am, who disagree with me (perhaps vehemently), and so I temper my words. A real-life example: When I used to write promotional announcements for my congregation’s annual Peace Sunday observance, I always visualized an older gentleman who was very conservative and was not always supportive of all the ways we tried to emphasize the church’s commitment to peacemaking. Thinking about him as I wrote helped me frame the announcement in a way that was most likely to appeal to the compassion that I knew was in him and not bias him and others like him against our Peace Sunday efforts from the get-go.
- I often acknowledge my own lack of knowledge or understanding and that I could be wrong. While I have strong beliefs and opinions, I don’t see many things as black and white or either/or. Life usually presents itself to me in much more complex and ambiguous ways—in shades of gray rather than in black and white, as both/and rather than either/or. Even those things about which I have strong opinions are not always clear-cut. In my experience, there are not many genuinely easy answers.
- I try to be honest and truthful. I fact-check and use reputable sources. I also try to be honest about my own shortcomings, which are many. While I’m pontificating about this or that topic, I am often brought up short by the realization that the hypocrisy, inconsistency, and self-righteousness I’m attributing to others could perhaps be applied to me. I am constantly humbled by the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, which in one translation read: “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” To paraphrase it personally: Does the way I actually live my life agree with what I write? . . . the answer to which often gives me pause and reminds me that a little humility is a good thing.
- I try to be true to myself, and use personal stories to illustrate my point. It’s harder to argue with personal experience. That’s the way I framed an essay called “God Bless the Whole World, No Exception,” that was something of a rebuke of the “America first” mentality.” I told the story of having been integrally connected to three countries from the moment of my birth. I am the daughter of an American mother and a Canadian father, and I was born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). That reality has forever affected the way I view the world. Conversely, I recognize that the personal experience of others also affects the way they view the world.
- I try to acknowledge other points of view when I can. This is a particular challenge when those points of view feel like anathema to me, or when they contradict the official position of the church for which I’m writing or editing.
- As an editor, I believe in doing my best to maintain the writer’s own voice. Sometimes that probably means that I am not as ruthless an editor as some might think I should be, but it is also a gesture of respect for the right of people to express themselves in the words, phrases, and colloquialisms that are comfortable for them. I don’t like it when editors put words in my “mouth” that I would not say but that express what they think I mean, and so I try not to do that to those whose words I edit.
I confess that many many times over the years I have struggled with “speaking truth.” I hate conflict, and I’m an introvert, so I would just as soon run the other way as confront the conflict. I have remained silent when I should have spoken up (or written something). I have also struggled with the grace part, as I feel anything but full of grace for those whose words and actions I abhor or cannot support. Nevertheless, despite my failures, speaking truth with words that give grace remains a goal for the way I want to approach my writing and editorial life, as well as the rest of my life.