by Halee Gray Scott
We all have those moments. Those moments we glibly call “defining” in which we are forced to make a decision that, in effect, makes us or unmakes us. One such moment came to me one winter morning in 1988. My life was a mess. My parents’ marriage was on the verge of collapse and my grandfather—the one person I loved more than anyone—had just died from a bypass surgery gone wrong. It would be hard to overestimate how alone in the world I felt. Like always, I sought solace and company in books.
On that same morning in 1988, as I was leaving my fifth-grade classroom for recess, I overheard a conversation between two of my classmates. John and Rachel were standing on the far side of the room, next to the brown chalkboard covered in division problems.
“Do you understand anything Halee says?” asked John. “She uses these big words and I never understand her.”
“Not really,” Rachel answered, “but I like it. She’s not like everybody else.”
As kind as Rachel had been, it was John’s words that I honed in on. Mortified, I fled the room. “Nobody understands me,” I globalized. But when my friends were Meg and Charles Wallace Murray, Anne of Green Gables, and Mary Lennox, what else could I have expected? That morning, I made a decision: I would stop reading and (even more so) would never use “big” words again. And for a long time, I didn’t.
Matthew 25 lets us eavesdrop on a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. Through the parable of the talents, Jesus urged the disciples to steward their gifts well. But why would such a lesson be necessary? In an American Idol culture, it’s hard to understand why anyone would bury their talents, but look closely at how the unfaithful servant explains himself: “So I was afraid.” He weighed his personal inadequacy against the greatness of the task and was paralyzed by fear.
As writers, we’re subject to a similar temptation because our calling is so similar to the calling of the prophet. And prophets are never popular. Walter Brueggemann writes that the task of the prophet is to criticize the status quo and energize people towards a grander alternative by casting a vision of what is possible. But neither criticizing or energizing is easy. No one wants to be criticized, but Brueggemann argues that no one really wants to be energized either. In the complacency of 21st century America, who wants to expend the energy to create something new, to work and hope our way towards a better future?
For the writer, the poet, the temptation is to mute ourselves or lower the octave of our voice to be more amiable to our hearers—much like I did in response to the criticism of a 5th grader. It’s a temptation we must resist if we want to be faithful. As Ann Voskamp has said, “To create, you have to bury something. Either bury your fear in faith, or bury your talent in fear.”