I recently learned of a new literary genre called the six-word memoir. The idea ostensibly came from a bet someone once made with Ernest Hemingway for the great author to write a story in six words. Legend has it that he came up with this: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” but no one knows if this one-sentence story actually came from Hemingway.
The idea, as I understand it, is to say a lot in a small space. And since we live in an age when people love to talk about themselves more than anything else, the memoir seems to be the dominant form of six-word writing.
Here are a few six-word memoirs, if you are struggling with the concept:
“Not quite what I was planning.”
“I am turning into my mother.”
“I still make coffee for two.”
“27 divorced, 33 single, happy, finally.”
“Named me Joy, didn’t work out.”
“Never really finished anything, except cake.”
You get the idea? There are often details to be filled, in: some obvious, others mysterious, but the six words give you enough to get the gist of the story.
There is a collection of six –word memoirs by famous and semi-famous people. For instance:
Chef Mario Batali wrote, “Brought it to a boil, often.”
From the satirist and comedian Stephen Colbert we get “Well, I thought it was funny.”
And you would think that this one came from our own Bill Franklin: “Secret of life: marry an Italian,” but it is actually the six-word memoir of writer Nora Ephron.
Soldiers have written six-word memoirs about the war in Iraq:
“Stayed too long, left too soon,” is one memoir from an Iraq veteran, another is, “Joined Army, left legs in Iraq.”
You can say a lot in six words.
The six-word format easily drifts into realms other than memoir, more commentary then account. Yogi Bera mastered it when he said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
It’s a format that helps us to find pithy ways of saying something we might not otherwise know how to say… about ourselves, about life, even about God. For instance there’s this one that tells us a lot about its author: “Bi-polar, no two ways about it.”
Or: “On high horse; afraid of heights.”
Or: “Getting a haircut, wanting a facelift.”
Anyone can do this. Anyone can say a lot in the small space of six words. Perhaps you are sitting in your pew thinking of a six-word memoir you could write of your own life. A friend of mine quickly came up with this: “I keep trying to be me.”
Sometimes such a short memoir is suggestive of events we can only guess at. One writer gives us this: “Bad brakes discovered at high speed,” which sounds painful whether it’s meant literally or metaphorically.
Teenagers seem to find the format especially welcome since they often have a lot to say but not yet the patience or means to say it. And six words provides plenty of space for angst. So they have given us these:
“Shaking with sadness and repressed rage.”
“Mad at her. Madder at myself.”
“Counselor told Dad about cutting, etc.”
“Bumped down to ‘best friend understudy.’”
“Never too old to love Disney.” (Not all teens are unhappy.)
“Four words: My Dad found out.”
One teen pointed out that Shakespeare would have been adept at the format, since he gave us: “To be, or not to be?”
I began to wonder if the six-word format, which can express so much about the human condition, might also work for religion. Start looking for it among six-word memoirists and you will find theological reflection in six words: “God is my co-pilot; you aren’t,” is one example I came across.
Or, “God is hope. I am hopeless.”
Or another, “Desperately wanting to believe in God.”
If we stop talking only about ourselves, does the six-word format still deliver? Could there be a six-word Gospel? Better yet, a six-word sermon? (Though at this point it’s already way too late for that!) So much of faith and religion is tied up in words; it can be easy to trip over all those words: a whole Bible full of them, pages of them in your leaflet this morning, a Prayer Book in your pew if you need it, and hymns full of words, words, words (more insight from Shakespeare in just three words!) Is there any way we can say a lot about the life of faith, about God, about Jesus, about Easter with fewer words? With only six words?
We might begin this way: “With God all things are possible.”
Or, if I gave you this, “I was lost, now I’m found,” I think we’d all be able to start singing the same hymn together. Same if I asked, “Shall we gather at the river?”
I can tell you whole Bible stories in six words, I think, as long as you know a little background. Try these:
God said, “Let there be light.”
Who said don’t eat the apple?
It rained forty days and nights.
And I will be your God.
(Here’s one I can do in two words: Sarah laughed.)
Moses said, “Let my people go!”
David picked up five smooth stones.
By waters of Babylon we wept.
God asked, “Can these bones live?”
John wore camel’s hair; ate locusts.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Care for him; I’ll repay you.
Hosanna to the Son of David
Why, what evil has he done?
This day you’ll be in paradise.
God, why have you forsaken me?
Who will roll away the stone?
In just ninety-eight words we can cover a lot of the Bible!
Sometimes it feels as if we have forgotten how to say a lot in a little space. Especially about faith. Especially about God. But because you can pack a lot of pain and suffering into six words, as well as a lot of hopes and dreams, our six-word memoirs – even the one you might be writing in your head right now - need a six word Gospel just to keep up!
And faith in Jesus seems as though it ought to be able to say a lot in a small space. After all, when God sent his Son Jesus into the world, he was saying a great deal in a small space. It began in the small space of Mary’s womb and seemed to end in the small space of a borrowed tomb. The whole story took place in small spaces – in a small-ish corner of the world, in the small region of Galilee, the small city of Jerusalem. The central drama of the Jesus story takes place in the small space of three days – a week if you stretch it out to Palm Sunday. And after his resurrection, Jesus would be with his disciples for only the small space of forty days, before his ascension into heaven. If we try to compress the Easter message into six words, does it fit?
I think it does. We can do it prosaically, like this:
Died on Friday; rose on Sunday.
Or more eloquently, like the angels, like this:
He’s not here; he is risen.
We can remember the way the risen Lord showed himself to his followers like this:
Disciples knew Jesus in breaking bread.
And if we were George Frederic Handel we could do it musically like this:
O death, where is thy victory?
But actually the church has been proclaiming a six-word Gospel for as long as anyone can remember. We have known that in a world full of doubt, confusion, suffering, pain, and not a little joy, too, the Gospel needs to be available in a handy travel size that’s easy to remember, easy to access, easy to share.
Do you know the six-word Gospel? It’s a Gospel that makes a bold claim. Not everyone can believe it, and some people will think you are nuts for repeating it. But it says, in the space of six words, that the whole world has been changed by God’s grace and power. It says not to be afraid when fear seems close at hand. It says you are not alone when you suspect everyone has abandoned you. It says that light is shining somewhere even when you believe the darkness has won. It says that yes, death is part of life, but not the end of it. It says that evil will not triumph over good. It says that when you are weak you have strength yet to be discovered. It says that when you are lost you will be found. It says all this and much, much more, in its scant six words.
They are six words you know, and I pray you will leave here with them not only in your minds, but engraved on your hearts, and ready on your lips. And I believe you can proclaim these six words of faith without me even telling you what they are. So, I’ll let you practice once, secretly, in a whisper, so that only we can hear it; and then we’ll do it again for the angels to hear.
Are you ready? Can you feel the six words coming into mind? Forming on your lips? Do you know what they are? I’ll give you a clue, and I promise you will know the six-word Gospel. Let’s practice; this time in a whisper.
[Me:] Alleluia, Christ is risen.
[You:] The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
I knew you could do it! I knew you would know it!
Now, this time for the angels!
[Me:] ALLELUIA! CHRIST IS RISEN!
[You:] THE LORD IS RISEN INDEED! ALLELUIA!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day 2011
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia