Some kids have a favorite toy that they carry with them everywhere. Whether it’s a stuffed animal, a doll, or a spaceship, it offers a sense of security, a feeling that things are okay. Other kids have a special blanket. Wrapped in its gentle folds, they feel safe, at home.
Seriously. A bucket. And it wasn’t even a nice one. It was a plain white, 5-gallon, plastic bucket, the kind you find at Home Depot, somewhat scraped and stained from years of hard use. And she took it everywhere.
It was her safety bucket.
She had a rough winter last year and was sick a lot. Several times she got caught unprepared, which can be rather messy. That’s particularly annoying when it happens at night. In your bed. On your favorite jammies. Her solution was to start carrying her special bucket everywhere. I’ll never forget the sight of my tiny daughter hauling this huge plastic bucket behind her as she climbed the ladder to her bunk bed. But I can understand. It made her feel safe. Prepared.
Many of us have a special bucket of our own. If you’re involved in any kind of preaching, teaching, or writing, you know the insecurity such activities often bring. You’re putting yourself out there. You’re exposed. Unsafe. And when you feel that way, it’s natural to reach for your safety bucket: the quotation.
Quotations are brilliant. With a good quote you can cloak yourself with the authority of some admired figure, giving your argument that veneer of respectability that comes from associating it with someone important. Why do all the hard work of actually establishing your position and convincing your audience, leaving yourself exposed to criticism if people don’t buy it? No, that’s too hard and intimidating. Instead, just quote Calvin (Wesley, Augustine, C. S. Lewis, or whoever your favorite bucket happens to be).
Speak for yourself. Don’t make your quotations do your work for you.
As Erik Raymond recently pointed out, this can be a real temptation in preaching, especially if you’re just getting started.
As you might expect I did not get a ton of opportunities to preach as a new pastor. When they came I was almost paralyzed by both the opportunty and the fear. I was so excited but so afraid. I love to preach…but I was scared to mess up. So I did what any sensible, insecure, young pastor would do: I quoted stud theologians to make my point. It was always good to bring in respected giants from church history to make your points, right? Ehhh…maybe not.
At this same time a very good friend and I would work out in the mornings together. We would lift and run and talk about the sermon from the weekend. When I’d preach he’d give me very constructive and helpful feedback. But one day my friend, Tyler, gave me something big. He said, “I think it’s more effective for you to meditate on the passage a bit longer and say something that is yours rather than quoting all these guys. Be gripped by the text; I’d rather hear you then them.”
The safety bucket strikes again, offering security and protection, but also stealing from a young preacher the opportunity to be stretched and shaped by the text as he seeks to speak.
The same happens in writing. Papers, articles, and even books are filled with quotations as safety buckets. Instead of illustrating, clarifying, or supporting an argument, things for which quotations are particularly well-suited, these quotations replace the voice of the author, creating an “argument” through an appeal to authority. “I must be right,” the quotation suggests, “the Right Reverend Dr. So-and-So says so.” That’s so much less intimidating than saying, “Here’s what I think. Here’s why I think it. What do you think about it?”
Being a writer is like standing naked in the High Street hoping people won’t find you ridiculous. (via Quotes4Writers)
No wonder we instinctively reach for our safety buckets. But we shouldn’t. If we want to communicate, we need to speak. And that’s someone that no one else can do for you.
[And yes, I am fully aware that I used two quotes in the post, one rather lengthy. The point isn't to stop using quotes, but to use them well. You might also want to check out my post on tips for using quotes in writing.]