This article is the first in a four-part series for those who read Scripture in worship (or those who help prepare lectors).
This article will offer tips for equipping lay readers to boldly proclaim Scripture in worship, especially focusing on energizing their language. I will present a Scriptural depiction of purposeful and effective speech in the words used to describe the boy Samuel: “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.”1 I offer a simple exercise to help lectors explore the weightiness of the text and the importance of “landing it” with the congregation.
Resisting the ‘Bible tone’
One of the most basic struggles a lector faces when proclaiming the Gospel is resisting the “Bible tone.” The inflection I am referring to is punctuated by a distinct (though arbitrary) downglide that mechanically marks the ends of thoughts. For instance,
To You, O Lord, I lift up my voice…
It is remarkably hard to resist, this invasive melody. But this kind of speech pattern casts the Word down into Sheol instead of “finding a mountaintop and lifting it up with strength” (Isaiah 40:9).2
I believe we are called to the latter form of energetic speech, especially when Advent is upon us. Even when the Good News of Jesus Christ no longer feels “new” to us we are still called to tell it with the vitality of the indomitable newsboy, proclaiming the ever-breaking headline, “Revelation! Jesus Christ, the Word become Flesh, is coming! Read all about the incarnate Word!”
[Watch a video with the author that demonstrates this difference using Psalm 25.3]
Samuel’s speech is the opposite of downgliding. It is buoyant, uplifting. His words effectively hold the tension between the Earth and the Heavens with the Lord as the mediator, directing the words’ purpose. Ideally in our own proclamation we can present ourselves as an equally efficient medium for the Word of the Lord. Buoyant speech is both technical and theological. And the psalms are ideal texts with which to practice such speech.
Exercise: Verbal Volleys
One helpful way to help lectors keep their words from falling to the ground is to encourage them to physicalize their text: to let their “words become flesh.”4 Have them select a line from Scripture and think about their text as if it was a ball of energy that they are charged with keeping afloat, i.e. keeping the verbal ball in the air. Short phrases are great to start with: i.e., To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, Lead me in your truth, Good and upright is the Lord.
Begin without text. With two people it is often helpful to do this exercise with a balloon or beach ball, or something that is relatively forgiving to volley. At first just try to pass the “ball of energy,” sensing the energy shifting as the ball transfers from person to person. Especially sense what happens when the “ball drops,” which will certainly happen. This can be done alone but is even more effective with others. Gradually try to add in the line of text along with the movement. Pass the text, or even just a single word of it (soul, mercy, upright, etc.) back and forth a few times, making sure it reaches the other person.
Another helpful exercise for feeling the weight of words and “landing the text” (especially if you do not have a balloon or beach ball on hand) is to toss language imaginatively. This works well in pairs but even better in groups. If you have a group, form a circle and have one person begin by vocally “throwing” a word or short phrase across the circle, very intentionally, to another person as though it were a small stone.
The type of throw must be specific too, i.e., is the stone tossed or hurled, thrown aggressively or generously? The thrower must also be very deliberate about the person to whom she is directing her “language stone.” If there is confusion on the receiving end, have the thrower try it again. The recipient should also receive the stone in the style it was delivered by the thrower in order to affirm the choice made by the thrower.
So if, for instance, the thrower “soft pitches” the language to the receiver (like Jesus might explain a parable to some disciples of oh-so-little faith) then the recipient might try to cradle the stone with care in receiving it, making sure that the stone remains completely intact. Alternately, if the thrower “slings” the stone like David, with deadly force, then the recipient should receive it like a vanquished Goliath. Let the stone continue to morph as it travels across the circle from speaker to speaker.
Beginning with a palm-sized stone is helpful for this exercise. But as a group becomes more comfortable with the imaginative aspect, it can be very evocative to change the size of the stone. Some thoughts are more like boulders perhaps: they must be heaved two-handed and with a large windup in order to reach their recipients. Some thoughts are more compact and might be flicked like pebbles. Some thoughts can’t even be thrown but need to be rolled first, with immense effort, like the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb. Such faithful labor is our own attempt to release the risen Word.
Keep the energy of the line up
The goal of this exercise is that the vocal variety projected from the text by the participant and revealed through the “volleying” exercise will ultimately be inflected “verbally” in her proclamation. It is imperative to keep the energy of the line up even after the most emphatic word is thrown.
A verbal volley usually wants to punctuate a particular word in the phrase. But the rest of the line must stay active so that the thrower is not left feeling empty-handed or, empty-mouthed. Such wording, if unbuoyed, can quickly slip into a staccato version of the Bible tone.
If this exercise is done alone the proclaimer must make sure that she is still landing the text specifically, though not on a real person. She may practice landing it on a chair nearby, where an imaginary audience member sits. Next she can toss her phrase to the wall, as though there are ears eagerly pressed against the other side, awaiting her words. Finally, she can imagine addressing the whole neighborhood from where she stands. The intention must always be to make a connection, the type of connection, however, is entirely open to interpretation.
Link action to word
When a physical action is organically linked to words being proclaimed, rich discoveries can be made for proclaimer and audience alike. Some words particularly lend themselves to projection:
- “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul”
- “Do not let my enemies exult over me”
- “Lead me in your truth, and teach me”
- “Good and upright is the Lord”
These all mount from the margin to the mouth with evocative vitality. Such active phrases long to be landed not in paragraphs but on people, people with ears to hear. God willing, this exercise can lead to an experience in which the lector and audience have the sense that even as the words “Lead me in your truth” are being uttered that the Spirit is indeed in the lead.
This exercise will hopefully give proclaimers a sense of the “weightiness” of their proclamation, the power of lifting up and “landing” God’s Word, and the importance of not “throwing away” Scripture. Whether it is within the context of a cozy Bible study or an exuberant youth gathering, this practice of text embodiment can prove an empowering tool to help energize the speech of lay people as they approach the ultimate goal of Samuel’s prophetically inflected speech.
May we all find our voices so raised this Advent season!
1 1 Samuel 3:19
2 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9)
3 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. (Psalm 25)
4 John 1:14a