You Can’t Say Everything

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“No poet in the world has written a more beautiful short story.” –Alexander Schröder, about the Book of Ruth

The church where I pastor started this year by going through the Old Testament book of Ruth. Ruth is a short book nestled in between some of the most pivotal and epic stories God’s people would ever pass down through the generations: you’ve got Samson, Joshua, Gideon, and the entrance into the Promised Land on one side and King David, Solomon, and the best and worst of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel on the other.

But there in between is Ruth—part tragedy, part romance, part survival story, and all heart. Goethe called it, “the loveliest complete work on a small scale, handed down to us as an ethical treatise and an idyll.”

When I prepare sermons, I edit with a particular eye. I’m working to put together the key themes and events of a Biblical text in such a way that they take a room full of people to the foot of the cross—to that place where our deepest needs are met in God’s gracious provision.

I believe the power of preaching resides with the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of God’s people. At the same time, I also believe God wants me to care deeply about the craft of preaching and my personal development as a communicator. Those two truths make sense together. I approach sermon writing as a skill, an art, and a God-directed mystery, and I want to be more skilled, more artistic, and more God-directed as I grow.

My personal experience in writing sermons (which goes for any sermon writer, I suppose) is that I discover far more about the text in front of me than I will ever come close to verbalizing on a Sunday morning. In preparation, I read a lot, think things over, and fit pieces together until, God willing, a picture begins to form. I step back, look at it, and then set out to describe it in a way that will help people, by God’s grace, see themselves in it. And see Christ.

This process demands that I leave out far more information than I include. Every week I want to say more than I actually do, even on those weeks when I am certain I have said far more than I should.

Sometimes people say, “Christians shouldn’t care about how long a sermon is. You’re talking about the word of God, for crying out loud!” Here’s what I think about that. I think, often but not always, most longer sermons are not long because the information in them is so compelling that it takes an hour to unveil the full, astonishing truth of what’s being said. I think longer sermons are long because the preacher struggles to discipline himself to find his focus and stay on it. I think I could edit out 20% of any sermon I’ve ever given and find it to be 20% more clear.

But the weekly work of paring down, focusing in, and setting aside requires a mysterious combination of discipline and sorrow. The sorrow comes from knowing that many beautiful aspects of any week’s particular text will be edited out and set aside in a place I may not return to for years, if ever. The discipline comes from making my peace with this. I’m running a marathon here, not a sprint. I tell myself, “The information you leave out still shapes your greater understanding of Scripture, so in that sense, you’re putting it to use.”

Most of the time I embrace the limits of sermon writing. I know they help. They make for cleaner lines. They sharpen the focus. They keep me closer to 30 minutes, and that keeps the hungry masses from revolt—which Lyle Lovett warned me about.

But my cup runneth over with this little book called Ruth. So while I yield to the limits of a Sunday morning, I’m also gathering up some of the beautiful details I discover in a folder for another time and a different format. Maybe a narrative for Ordinary Time. Who knows.

Here’s the thing. Whoever wrote the Book of Ruth, he (or she?) too left out more details than he wrote in. He made hard choices. He told us nothing about certain key characters except their names and that they died. He gave us a story that spanned countless months but he really only dealt specifically with three particular days—the day Ruth met Boaz, the day she asked him to marry her, and the day Boaz redeemed her. He wrote vaguely about moments and conversations that leave us begging for more details. He could have told us more. He could have left everything in. But he didn’t. And if he had, I wonder if people would have marveled at the beauty of the story in the same way.

I think God teaches our hearts not just through the knowing, but also through the wondering. And because he does, sometimes the best way to tell a complete story is to keep it short.

Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


11 Comments

  1. Becky

    I’ve had this same issue with teaching Sunday School. I have to admit that I’ve tried to put in as much info as possible instead of focusing. Maybe that’s why I haven’t tried to teach a class on Ruth just yet.

  2. April Pickle

    I love it when RR is in the RR. This made my day. I’ve been listening to the sermon podcasts and they are excellent. Probably my favorite book of the Bible next to Job. I remember reading it during church as a young child, not with the rest of the church, but alone with my black KJV Bible during a long and boring sermon. 🙂
    Also, the reference to my fellow Texan Lyle Lovett cracked me up. He is right up there with Andy Gullahorn, in my opinion.

  3. Peter B

    Ah, a discipline that still has work to do on me (which, to be fair, could describe any discipline). Thanks, Russ.

  4. Carol

    This is beautiful. It really is something that all writers should take to heart, but it’s so hard, isn’t it? There’s so much to say! And to prove it, I just deleted 5 sentences… Lovely post, thank you.

  5. Karen Renee Powell

    Amazingly true! The blank part of the page is what allows us to read the type. I find great pleasure in choosing the untold portions of a tale, so the audience has to contribute their versions of the story to complete it. The bible does that so well. Leave us gaps to fill with our living versions of bible stories.

  6. Matthew Benefiel

    Great post! I love the song, hadn’t heard that one! I also love the story of Ruth. One of my elders (who is known for really digging into the details in such a wonderful way) covered Ruth for Sunday School spanning I believe around eight classes, and there is definitely a lot of details left out, but there is a lot you don’t catch from a cursory reading and without understanding the customs of the times.

    I think one of the more interesting things was how the story really revolves around Naomi and how her family left Israel during a famine. Instead of trusting God in Israel they left for Moab and God did not bless them. Instead He saw fit to put a great struggle on Naomi and even threaten her family heritage, but finally she returned thinking God had abandoned her only to find that He was bringing her home. The famine had broken in Israel while they were gone and God had brought home with her a woman named Ruth who would continue her heritage. Beautiful message of God’s enduring love for us.

  7. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Matthew, thanks for your words. I’m finishing my sermon series this week, and man, this has been a great book to sit in.

    I think I’d disagree with the idea that the tragedy Naomi experienced in Moab was God’s response to her family leaving Israel for a couple reasons: 1. the text never suggests that and 2. leaving Israel would not have been her decision to make. It was Elimelech’s. I read the famine and following tragic loss of her husband and sons as one of the sad effects of living in a broken world. Famine in those days was one of the ways God moved his people around– like Joseph’s brothers ending up in Egypt. I see this whole move as one of the ways God providentially folded a Gentile (Ruth from Moab) into the line of Christ.

    But I do agree that the beauty of the book is how it unveils God’s enduring love for us. It’s breath-taking, isn’t it?

  8. Matthew Benefiel

    Russ,
    You are correct, the text does not suggest that, it’s easy to want to read into it, but it is best to stick with what it does tell us, that in the midst of trouble we shouldn’t lose hope. The older I grow the more I come to look at the line of Christ in amazement. My associate pastor wrote an article about Christ’s birth and how he was born to Mary by a miracle with no lineage by blood, but attributed to Joseph’s line none-the-less. The line of Christ is really an example of how we are Christ’s by faith and not of noble lineage on our part lest any of us should boast. What a great inheritance! Thanks for the reply.

  9. Laura Weymouth

    The book of Ruth is one of my favorites…I love how you drew out (whether intentionally or unintentionally) that it focuses on three days leading to redemption. Every word of the Bible really does speak of Christ!

    On a more humorous note, anyone who says “Christians shouldn’t care about how long a sermon is. You’re talking about the word of God, for crying out loud!” has clearly never served in children’s ministry!

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