As a teacher of preaching, one of my goals is to help preachers find their Voice. That is, gain confidence in their distinctive perspective on the world and the gospel so they can share a word of challenge and hope from their pulpits every week. In our preaching classes at Perkins School of Theology, we talk about how preachers can struggle to find their Voice and how they can even lose their Voice.
I used to think of all that as only a metaphor. Until the first time, several years ago, that I came down with laryngitis. I opened my mouth one morning and couldn’t make a sound. It lasted for 3-4 days. It recurs every couple of years, usually after I have been traveling and burning the candle at both ends. It makes you wonder how healthy that recirculated airplane air really is.
Voice is a metaphor that is integrally related to a physiological reality (voice). When someone you know well calls you, you recognize their voice. When a celebrity does a commercial voiceover, sometimes we recognize their voice: Oh, that’s Queen Latifa. Oh, that’s Donald Sutherland. Each of us really does have a unique voice, both in a literal (voice) and a metaphorical sense (Voice).
I define a person’s metaphorical Voice, their unique perspective, to be the sum total of what they notice in biblical texts, in life around them, and in their own interior life. For a preacher, that unique perspective needs to feature both a challenge to injustice and hope in God. A preacher’s Voice can be suppressed by fear of reprisal or by cultural realities of gender bias and abuse. A preacher can lose her Voice when she stops noticing injustices both in Scripture and in life. By the same token, she can lose her Voice when she stops noticing God at work in her inner life, scripture, and life around her. If I have no prophetic outrage, how can my Voice cut through the clamor of competing claims on my people’s allegiance and attention? If I have no note of hope, what can I offer them but the bad news they already know?
After a couple of out of town trips and speaking engagements, a few days ago, I woke up voiceless. This is day three. I had to cancel a class and even a dental appointment! I had to use the chat function on zoom. I can’t even talk to myself! Since my family is out of town, I have no one to attempt to communicate with. I have decided on a TV free week. It’s been an enforced silent retreat.
While not being able to talk for several days has been annoying, there have been some positive outcomes. I have more empathy for those for whom this is a permanent situation. I have enhanced admiration for those who master sign language and other forms of non-verbal communication. I have appreciation for those who have developed text to speech technologies.
If we want our voice to come back, we need to rest it. Maybe the same could be said for wanting our Voice to come back. When you can’t talk, sometimes you become a better listener. Losing my physical voice has improved the range of my metaphorical Voice, my attentiveness to God’s Voice, that which God is seeking to call to my attention, both injustices and signs of hope.
Probably by tomorrow I will be able to reschedule that dental appointment and make myself heard on a zoom call.
Better yet, I’m expecting that, once my voice is back, my Voice will be stronger than ever.
Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie
Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship
Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor
Director, The Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence
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