Posted on March 14, 2010


There are few things on this earth that carry both such meaningfulness and such meaninglessness. Our words can be incendiary, a fire destroying all it its path; or they can be full of healing and a tree of life for the ordinary or the outcast, for the normal and the downtrodden. Any time we encounter another person, we go away changed, either for the better of for the worse. The impetus of this change is often simply our words. Or, in my dad’s words, “Whenever we meet with someone we build a bridge or a wall.”

“Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” (Proverbs 16:24; 12:18; 15:4; 18:21)

“We are starved for fresh language to approach each other. We need what Elizabeth Alexander calls “words that shimmer” — words with power that convey real truth, which cannot be captured in mere fact. Words have the force of action and become virtues in and of themselves. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words are one of our primary ways to reach across the mystery of each other. As technology reframes the meaning of basic human acts like making and leading and belonging, the world needs the most vivid and transformative universe of words we can muster.”(Krista Tippet in Civil Conversations Project intro paper)

How mysterious is the word. On the one hand it carries the power of life and death, yet on the other hand it expresses nothing more than mediated meaning, a symbol for the actual thing. When I say, “I love you”, my words are just words. The tone of my voice carries some of the meaning, the relationship I have established with the person to whom I am speaking carries some of the meaning. But if I really mean it, the words are simply a token of the real feeling in my heart.

If I look at a tree, I can say, “Oh look, a tree”. But if the person I am talking to has never seen, heard, or felt a tree, it is meaningless. The word “tree” is simply a sign or a symbol of the real thing. If a person has seen a tree, then there is meaning in the word for that person. If a person has heard and felt a tree, the meaning goes a bit deeper. If a person has cut down a tree and studied every aspect of it, then there is more understanding of a tree. But if a person has climbed into a tree and let the tree carry them in the wind, the meaning of what a tree is is greater yet. Even then, there is still the mysterious aspects of trees that we cannot explain like what did the first tree look like, or where did it come from, or how exactly does growth happen.

So if a person has never seen a tree, words fall short of fully describing a tree. A scientist could write a 1000 page book about a tree, and still words would fall short of directly experiencing the real thing.

Maybe a better example is Mars. People have studied Mars but people have not yet experienced Mars. Oh the day when scientists that have devoted a lifetime of study actually set foot on Mars! But even then, the words they bring back will fall far far short, leaving us in mystery.

Snow is another example of this. Until a person experiences snow or a blizzard, these words mean very little to them. The words cannot capture the reality.

This applies even more to people. I can read about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but if I never met him, words will fall far short of having an experiential relationship with the man.

Words can add richness to our limited understanding of trees or snow or Mars or MLK Jr. but words will never be the real thing. They will always fall short. Why? THE SOLE PURPOSE OF WORDS (OF LANGUAGE) IS ONLY TO POINT TO THE REAL THING.

This is such a mystery to me. How can words be so powerful and healing and destructive and yet . . . they are only signs, symbols, tokens, pointers to reality.

If we go one step further, how can we argue with others about their experience of God??? Or truth??? Or reality??? Or the divine??? Or eternity??? Or that which is ultimate??? We know that argument is only words. Yet we judge. We know we cannot fully understand another person’s heart. Yet we argue like we do. We know that our words are not the real thing, they are only pointers. We know that God cannot fit in our brains. And if He is too big for our brains, then words, by nature, fall short. Our minds cannot wrap themselves around the reality of reality or truth or God. Our understanding falls far far short of all that God is. And yet our theology says that He fits in a book? All of what we think we need to know of Him is contained within a book, the Word of God? The book is words. And words only point to the reality. Some human constructs called theological systems are meant to contain all we need to know about “life and Godliness” within words; created by man. Who do we think we are? Full of imagination, intelligence, human wisdom, ego, high thoughts, all crammed into a puny mind.

Instead of us being created in His image, we have created God in our image. I’m left with such great dissonance in my head and my heart when I use the word “him” or even the word “God”. Words really do not feel right for that which is beyond words.

We must recognize, admit, and repent from our worship of words. As we understand an artist by their creations, so we must seek to understand God through all of His creation; both His words AND His works. If His words are contained in scripture, then through His words we can understand a bit of His heart. His works are all of creation. Through nature we can experience a bit of the heart of God. People are His creation; specifically created in His image. Through each other we can see a bit of the heart of God.

These are ways God is mediated to us. All of these things are pointers to understand a bit of who He is. But none of these are the direct experience. None of these, by themselves, bring us into relationship with Him.

The only way to directly experience Him is to first let go of ourselves, our ego, our pride, our thinking-we-know attitude, our better-than-thou thinking, and fall to the ground before Him. Then we can experience His presence, day by day, minute by minute. We don’t seek Him out there somewhere, rather we awaken to Him within. We let go of ourselves so we can see Him living within; as the Ground of our Being, the Source of our Life. Living in the presence of God connects us directly to Him. This begins only through prayer; silence before Him, contemplation before Him, meditation in His presence. Then we carry Him in our consciousness throughout our day. This is how we “pray without ceasing”. This is how we “do all to the glory of God”. This is how when we work, we do it all unto Him.

Our words can create idols, false gods of our age to which we devote our lives. Or words of wisdom can point us to and into the experience of the presence of God; where words fall away and become meaningless because their use has come to an end. There is then no more need for pointing.

“Be still . . . and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)

An yet we must keep striving for a language to span boundaries and bridge that space between us all, for we are all one. “Gotta search the silence of the souls wild places to find a voice that will cross the spaces.” (Bruce Cockburn)

We must not forget the words of Merton: “If nothing that can be seen can either be God or represent Him to us as He is, then to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness. Since nothing that can be heard is God, to find Him we must enter into silence.” (Thomas Merton in Seeds of Contemplation, p. 131)

As I reread this after so many years, I cringe at the use of “Him” over and over. God is not a him for both male and female were created in God’s image. Labeling God with Him again reminds us that we have yet again recreated God in our image, in the image of man…

And again “we must enter into silence…”