The Power Of Words
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. – Isaiah 64:6
The Bible simply abounds with stories about people who really seem unlovable that God just decides to love anyway. Really, it is God’s promiscuous love, a love that seems to show no discernment and gets scattered anywhere, to such a point that it almost seems immoral. I mean, some of those people really, really don’t deserve to be loved. – Christy Thomas, “Promiscuous Love”, The Thoughtful Pastor, December 4, 2014
Remember that thing your parents told you when you were a kid? “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”? You do know that’s pretty much nonsense, right? We wouldn’t have the saying if words didn’t hurt when used to do so. Language is, among all the things we human beings have invented, perhaps the most versatile tool. It can create whole Universes, peopled by strange and wonderful, magical creatures; whether it’s Prometheus stealing fire, then chained to a rock to have his liver eaten by an eagle for all eternity, or the solution to the problem of the siege of Troy, or the latest best-selling fiction story, it is words that have the power to take us places that not only never existed but can’t exist.
Likewise, words have power not just to hurt, but kill. They sometimes kill slowly, the daily grind of insults, taunts, and jeers some children experience; the absence of words that leave some adults feeling alone, bereft of comfort and peace. When someone we love tells us we just aren’t good looking enough, or are too fat/too thin/no longer loved, these words aren’t a sharp blade that leaves us bleeding before we realize we’re injured; these words are blunt steak knives, cutting our hearts out, leaving us unable to function.
I got thinking about the power of words yesterday. First, I read Christy Thomas’s post on God’s promiscuous love, linked above. Usually, people talk about God’s “prodigal” love. It’s Biblical, after all, or at least related to a parable Jesus tells in the Gospel of St. Luke. To be prodigal is to act without thought of consequence; usually it’s the younger son who’s described as “prodigal” when in fact it is the father, running to greet his son as the young man returns home who is prodigal. He loves without thought of consequence, including how the older, faithful son will feel about the celebration the father holds. To love unconditionally, overwhelmingly is to be prodigal.
Yet, I found Christy’s use of the word “promiscuous” marvelous precisely because it is a word that holds, for many at least, all sorts of meaning and baggage, most of it quite negative. To be promiscuous is to be free with one’s sexual favors. To be promiscuous is to physically love whoever comes along to fit one’s need at any given time. To be promiscuous is to be immoral. God, however, constantly confounds our received ideas of what is right and wrong, what is moral and immoral, what is acceptable and unacceptable. This isn’t to mention the fact that there is a gender component to the use of the word “promiscuous”. Men are rarely if ever described as promiscuous. Any woman, however, who seems free with her sexual favors is usually so described, and it is not meant as a compliment. To hear God called promiscuous should shock us, regardless of how correct it may be as a description.
In the third section of Isaiah, we read the lament of a people whose world has crashed around them. They understand that responsibility for this disaster lies at the feet of no one else; the people of Judah, through their injustice, their irreverence for Divine Law, and a religion of liturgical correctness without a life lived according to the dictates of the Mitzvahs has made them unclean. This is a shocking admission; as Christy notes in her post, people not accustomed to Advent preaching cycles will be shocked by these words, with their implications of Divine rejection and human unworthiness at a time when we keep rushing ahead to the Christmas stable and the story of Divine acceptance and the restoration of human worth through the Incarnation. We cannot reach Christmas, however, without preparing ourselves through the season of Advent. Part of that preparation is to hear the stories, no matter how shocking and unsettling, of the reasons for the Incarnation and the birth of the Christ child. Isaiah 64 tells that story in graphic detail.
Later, yesterday afternoon, I was having a private chat via Facebook, venting my frustrations with a few United Methodist bloggers who, I believe (rightly or wrongly) are just a tad too smug, a tad too confident, and a tad too stupid for the good of the rest of us. I asked this person if titling a post and writing about a “United Methodist Circle Jerk” would be a bit much. The person with whom I was conversing said it might be a bit too much; it would also be correct. The alleged “United Methodist blogs”, like the “evangelical blogs” carrying on about Rob Bell going on Oprah’s cable network, are by and large a bunch of folks talking to one another about things they care about. They aren’t actually trying to communicate the Gospel to people. They aren’t wrestling with the angel. They aren’t standing in front of the empty tomb, afraid to go in. They aren’t trying to work through our troubles in a way that is constructive. Instead, they are dictating what is and is not acceptable. They are trying to control the discussion by tut-tutting and tongue-clicking anything they find offensive. I referred to this group of folks a couple times as the tone police. They don’t want anything shocking, upsetting, or God forbid profane or vulgar in our discussions.
Yet, that is precisely what we need. We need to be shocked out of our complacency. We need to shock those who use privilege and power as weapons to prevent voices of which they disapprove from being heard. This Advent season, we need to be shocked by the reality of human sin – its depth, the anger it provokes in God, and how this reality is something that is both personal (the monster is never far from the surface in any of us, no matter how well we think of ourselves) and communal (anyone besides me remember Abu Ghraib?) – so that the joy of Christmas will be all the greater precisely because we will believe to our bones how undeserved this gracious moment really is. And all of this will only come through the power of words; words preached and sung and prayed. Words written and read. Our status quo as a denomination is no longer tenable; yet, we cannot move forward unless we are willing to risk shocking others by calling attention to the many ways that status quo is maintained by the power wielded by some through the use of words and language that attempts to intimidate, silence, and sideline. We cannot appreciate the true joy and wonder of Christmas unless we are shocked by the reality of human sin, including our own.
And all of it, every bit of shock, of offense taken, of sadness and rage, all comes through the power of words. Words spoken and words read. Words not heard because those in power do not want them heard; words heard all too clearly because they bludgeon us with the conviction of our own responsibility for our broken creation, a status quo that, like that in our church, is no longer tenable. Unless we are willing to be shocking, to be shocked without shutting out those words that might offend us, we will never reach Christmas ready to see with open eyes. We won’t be able to make The United Methodist Church be the Church it can and should be if we are so afraid some people might say things that upset others.
I read today in my Advent Study that Advent is a time of whispering, of near silence. It can be that. It can, and perhaps should, also be a time of standing up and shouting that things can no longer carry on as they have been. We must use the power of words to move people to the Bethlehem stable. We must use the power of words to move the United Methodist Church forward.
Even if some don’t approve and are shocked by what we say.