Christmas lights, Pine Mountain, Georgia, 2006.
Photo by Wade Jones.
For the first time, I am re-publishing an earlier post, “The Right Word.” It was my third post on this weekly blog, March 2, 2011. It has had only 144 visitors, in addition to the few subscribers I had then. Originally it was a meditation on Christmas Eve for MCC San Francisco, December 24, 2007. It feels appropriate for this time.
We’ve all been there. Trying to find the right word to say. The right word to say to a friend who has lost her mother. The right word to say in a letter seeking acceptance. The right word to let someone know how much you love him or her.
It’s true that words are not the answer to everything. Sometimes silence is healing. Sometimes silence lets you think. Sometimes just listening, either to a friend or to God or to your own heart is all that’s needed. But when the silence is deafening, when the silence is lonely, we need to hear a word. A word of hope. A word of encouragement. A word of love.
The Bible is the story of a God who tries a multitude of ways to speak to us. A voice in the wilderness. Commandments written in stone. Oracles of prophets seeking justice and mercy.
But then God changes strategy. Instead of speaking from the top down, from the outside in, God decides to speak from the inside out. Christian scriptures assert that God became Emmanuel, God-with-us, so as to be able to speak as an insider about the human experience. And began with the humblest human form, that of a baby. Then was manifest as a teacher and healer and martyr.
Instead of a commanding presence, God decided to manifest a compassionate presence. Instead of taking charge, instead of being in control, as in creation, God decided to persuade us rather than coerce us, to be our shepherd rather than our ruler. (Maybe even creation was less about manipulation than inspiration. Maybe that’s why evolution took so long!)
God wanted to touch us, to teach us, from the inside out. And so touched our hearts with just the right word, the Word made flesh—a baby, a builder, a rabbi, a lover.
The mystic John had a vision that this was always God’s intention—that the Word made flesh was one and the same with the Word that was the inspiration of creation, the cause not only of our being reborn from above, but the origin of our being born at all. The Gospel writer John is cast as one of the first Christian theologians because of this. We may find that a little off-putting because we often associate theology with doctrine—things you have to believe even if you don’t. Many of us prefer “spirituality” to “theology” for that reason.
But for the Christians of old, the term “theologia” was used to describe their highest form of prayer: a mystical communion with God in which words were unnecessary. For them, theologia was an experience, not words. Theologia was what we call spirituality.
The Genesis passage of creation which John echoes depicts a God who simply speaks things into existence: light and dark, earth and sea, fish and mammal. John gives us a vision of a primordial Word before words. I think of this as a mystical version of the Big Bang theory of the universe, in which something the size of a marble exploded into infinite galaxies. The Word exploded into many words that came to light.
You probably think the emphasis on this primordial Word and on the Word made flesh would please me as a writer. But it frustrates me more than it pleases me. Because I know that no matter what I do as a writer—find the right words, construct them in the best possible way, put as many together as possible—will never be complete, will never draw a breath, will never approximate either the primordial Word of awe and majesty or that Word made flesh full of grace and truth.
The only satisfaction I can derive from this metaphor is the knowledge that, as a writer, I am following a sacred strategy to transform things from the inside out. No matter how much I get a sense of being in control by putting words on paper, how it touches your heart is entirely up to you.
And, this may sound heretical, but no matter how awesome God’s power to speak universes into existence, no matter how awesome Emmanuel’s power to love us into abundant life, how either touches our hearts is also entirely up to us.
Because that’s what Love allows. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, RSV).
Love becomes flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. In our loneliness and in our solitude, in our relationships and in our congregations, in our communities and in our world, Love is the right word. And it never ends.
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