When Words Meant Something
January 24, 2010
A lot of words have been written about words. One of my favorites is from T.S. Eliot:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
This certainly sounds like a twentieth century word about words. Words have always been so when you think about what a word is. A word is not what it describes but a construct used to describe a reality that is almost always more than what the word can tell of it. A perfect example is the word life. We use this little word to describe a multitude of realities. Yet it is only one word for all of that. Now we use words to misinform as well as inform, to manipulate what, in fact, reality is. Who can forget the classic expression of the disintegration of the meaningfulness of words at the end of the last century that went like this: Well, that depends on what ‘is’ is. Even the word ‘is’ comes into question in the sophisticated world that is our time and place in history. It is no wonder the words strain, crack and sometimes break. It is no wonder we have stopped listening.
Buechner has a word about words also:
Before the Gospel is a word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it?meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful?but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery.
Oddly this puts me in mind of the words in the Psalm today that say: There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. It is the heavens that speak without words whose words goes to the end of the world. It is like seeing what cannot be seen. Who can hear the silence? There is a beautiful little song that we sing at Vespers on Wednesday nights sometimes that speaks to this mystery:
Listen to the song of the wind.
Listen to the hope of the poor.
Listen to the dreams in the night.
Listen to the sigh of the soul.
Silence speaks in the heart.
Listen, God is singing. God is singing.
Annie Dillard goes so far to offer a warning about the words in the Bible in particular:
This Bible, this ubiquitous, persistent black chunk of a bestseller, is a chink?often the only chink?through which winds howl. It is a singularity, a black hole into which our rich multiple world strays and vanishes. We crack open its pages at our peril.
Perhaps the people who gathered that day to hear Ezra read from the Book were not unaware of the power these holy words hold for it says that after hearing the words read from early morning until the midday they bowed their heads and wept. Why were they weeping? We don’t know if it was fear or shame or just plain sorrow but the words moved them. The hearing of the words was an event. The whole community, all who could hear with understanding, gathered to listen.
As I read these words it occurred to me that this may have been the only book in town. And even if there were other books to be found somewhere, yet there were very few people who could read them so to hear the words in the Book read was an event and this book was holy for it was the Word of God, the law of Moses, the word that literally held this people together. These were words that meant something to these people. These were words of life to them. And they were listening. Listening to the words that broke their hearts.
By the time Jesus stood up to read the words in Nazareth he read from the same holy book only now he was reading from the great prophet Isaiah and this was still a long time before books were being distributed to the masses and people were being taught to read them and so it was still a big deal when a book was being read out loud. Considerable time had passed from the reading of the law described in Nehemiah until that day that Jesus stood in his hometown synagogue, many years of not always living up to the laws demands, many years to learn how to manipulate the words of the law to conform to the ways of those who held power, many years to pretend to do what never really got done, many years of waiting for the one who would come and see that all that God had wanted with this holy word would finally be accomplished, many years of waiting for an accounting and a reckoning that most had probably given up on ever happening and by now were not really even wanting to happen or so it would seem when we read what happened when Jesus announced what God wanted done and that he was the one they had been waiting for to do it.
Good news to the poor
Release to the captives
Recovery of sight to the blind
Freedom for the oppressed
The proclamation of the acceptable time, the year of the Lord’s favor.
This was the beginning of his ministry. These are words that mean something, words that shake the foundations of the world then and now. The time had come and has come for justice. God has sent Jesus to the world to liberate the people of earth, to raise up the poor, to set the prisoners free, to give sight to those who do not see, to tear down the walls of oppression once and for all. These are words that could get you killed.
Next week I believe we will see what happened to Jesus that day (his hometown is about to stone him) and we already know where these words are taking him. It could be that his townspeople knew exactly what those words meant when he read them and when he said them. Maybe we are not so sure. But in some ways not much has changed. They were not ready and we are not ready to hear them. We have questions. We wonder who is free and who is the captive, who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed, who is blind and who can see, who is poor and who is rich? What meaning, if any, do these words hold for us?
I read in the paper this week some of the descriptions of what was being said around the country at the celebrations of the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prof. Cornel West of Princeton asked us not to sanitize King’s message, not to allow it to be sentimentalized but to remember its radical cry for justice, a justice that still alludes us. We, of course, are always in danger of doing the same with Jesus. His words do not sit comfortably in the midst of our world. They seem to ask too much of us and so we let them mean what works for us but the truth is that these words still mean something. In a world where words are everywhere all the time flying through cyberspace, where we are bombarded by words trying to sell us everything we ever wanted, where words are used to mean whatever we want them to mean.
`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected
When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
Humpty Dumpty thought he could make a word mean whatever he wanted it to mean. Alice wasn’t so sure. It sounds silly until one sees the chaos lurking beneath or spends anytime paying attention to what is going on all around us. Did you see the report that a manufacturer of weapons for our military is now putting Jesus’ words on their guns. The one I saw was John 8:12 that says: Again Jesus spoke to them saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The light of life on a weapon of death. God help us if our words mean whatever we want them to mean. They might as well mean nothing at all. God help those who use God’s truth to tell lies.
Despite the wear and tear our words endure by our usage of them, these holy words are still the words of life. They are still holy even when the word ‘holy’ itself has lost the power to move us to our knees in tears. These are the words of life and we need to face them and challenge ourselves to listen and to hear in the awesome silence around these words what it is that God wants of us and to do so with full knowledge that we have been warned. These words have power to change lives, to move us from the safe and comfortable life to the life that lays itself down; that herein is the gap in the material world where eternity might interpose itself upon us; that God may take us where we had not planned to go.
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