Harnessing the power of economy
The scene was thick. The clouds were heavy and dark gray. The mood was tense. It was no time to take a walk in the park or stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue. The smell of death was in the air. A decision was essential. With paper and pen in hand, the long, lank frame of a lonely man sat quietly at his desk. The dispatch he wrote was sent immediately. It shaped the destiny of a nation at war with itself.
It was a simple message … a style altogether his. No ribbons of rhetoric were woven through the note. No satin frills, no enigmatic eloquence. It was plain, direct, brief, to the point. A bearded Army officer soon read it and frowned. It said:
April 7,1865,11 a.m.
Lieut. Gen. Grant,
Gen. Sheridan says, "If the thing is pressed, I think that Lee will surrender."
Let the thing be pressed.
Grant nodded in agreement. He did as he was ordered. Exactly two days later at Appomattox Court House, General Robert E. Lee surrendered. "The thing was pressed" and the war was ended.
Simplicity. Profound, exacting, rare simplicity. Lincoln was a master of it. His words live on because of it. When assaulted by merciless critics, many expected a lengthy, complex defense of his actions. It never occurred. When questioned about his feelings, he answered, "I'm used to it." When asked if the end of the war or some governmental rehabilitation program might be the answer to America's needs, he admitted quite simply, "Human nature will not change." In response to a letter demanding the dismissal of the postmaster general, he wrote, "Truth is generally the best vindication against slander."
When encouraged to alter his convictions and push through a piece of defeated legislation by giving it another title, he reacted with typical simplicity, "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog? Five? No, calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg!"
Simplicity. The difference between something being elegant or elaborate. The difference between class and common. Between just enough and too much. Between concentrated and diluted. Between communication and confusion.
Between: "Hence from my sight—nor let me thus pollute mine eyes with looking on a wretch like thee, thou cause of my ills; I sicken at thy loathsome presence… ."
Simplicity. Economy of words mixed with quality of thought held together by subtlety of expression. Practicing a hard-to-define restraint so that some things are left for the listener or reader to conclude on his own. Clear and precise … yet not overdrawn. Charles Jehlinger, a former director of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, used to instruct all apprentice actors with five wise words of advice: "Mean more than you say."
It has been my observation that we preachers say much too much. Instead of stopping with a concise statement of the forest—explicit and clear—we feel compelled to analyze, philosophize, scrutinize, and moralize over each individual tree … leaving the listener weary, unchallenged, confused, and (worst of all!) bored. Zealous to be ultra-accurate, we unload so much trivia the other person loses the thread of thought, not to mention his patience. Bewildered, he wades through the jungle of needless details, having lost his way as well as his interest. Instead of being excited over the challenge to explore things on his own, lured by the anticipation of discovery, he gulps for air in the undertow of our endless waves of verbiage, clichés, and in-house mumbo jumbo.
One dear old lady said of the Welsh preacher John Owen that he was so long spreading the table, she lost her appetite for the meal. I particularly like the way William Sangster put it: "When you're through the pumpin', let go the handle."
The longer I study Jesus' method of communicating, the more convinced I am that his genius rested in his ability to simplify and clarify issues others had complicated. He used words anyone could understand, not just the initiated. He said just enough to inspire and motivate others to think on their own, to be inquisitive, to search further. And he punctuated his teaching with familiar, earthy, even humorous illustrations that riveted mental handles to abstract truths. Best of all … he didn't try to impress. Such a captivating style led others to seek his counsel and thrive on his instruction.
As a fellow struggler earning the right to be heard Sunday after Sunday, let me offer this summary:
- Make it clear.
- Keep it simple.
- Emphasize the essentials.
- Forget about impressing.
- Leave some things unsaid.
Luther made it even more simple: Start fresh. Speak out. Stop short.
We've got the greatest message on earth to declare. Most people have either never heard it or they've been confused because someone has garbled the issues. Jesus implies, "If the thing is simplified, they will surrender."
Let the thing be simplified.