Somehow we have managed to surround ourselves, to inundate ourselves, with words. I’ve just returned from the grocery store where I’ve been furiously accosted at every turn by brightly rendered, eye-catching words pleading with me to put whatever is on the inside of the billboard-like packaging into my shopping trolley. I recall from our years in the UK how even the roads verily shouted at us. For some reason Brits feel obligated to write involved messages in reflective paint on the tarmac of every road to cover every possible eventuality a driver might face. So insistent and so frequent are these official communiques that this driver at least was nearly driven to distraction. I sit at my laptop online and flip from webpage to webpage and am rendered nearly senseless after a while by the sheer gush of words. And yesterday, whilst sitting in a college library reading lots of words about papal authority in the 19th century Roman Catholic Church, I found I needed a break (as one just might given the circumstances). Stretching my legs I found myself passing through the library stacks, shelf after shelf of scholarly or otherwise earnest religious output, with scintillating titles such as The Exodus in Modern Scholarship or The Indigenization of Christianity or Mechtild von Magdeburg: a Medieval Mystic in Modern Eyes. And in each one of the thousands of books arrayed just so according to the numbers and letters taped to their spine, some author has wrestled with concepts and labored with words in an attempt to communicate with whoever might be so moved one day to pick up her or his book and read. We are a communicative species. Our chatter fills the airwaves, from radio to TV to broadband. We have even assumed that whatever other life that may exist in the universe must be just as wordy as we are. From the Pioneer 10 and 11 plaques carried by an early 1970s vintage space craft that is even now about to leave the verges of the solar system and enter inter-stellar space, to more recent attempts to communicate to whoever’s out there by low frequency radio, our urge to talk, to, in the words of the old telephone company advert, ‘reach out and touch someone’, seems to be a defining mark of what it means to be human.
And while zoologists are from time to time pleased to report gorillas who have learned sign language or elephants that communicate with each other, no other species is known for retiring to bed with a murder mystery or waking up to the Washington Post the next morning, or of having even the faintest urge to check out some badly written romance novel or history of the Counter-Reformation from the local library. We, however, do words. And we’ve become quite dependent upon them. I’m not one to complain. My whole life is words. As a preacher, I wrestle with words not only to communicate the meaning of a Bible passage but to persuade an appropriate response. As a teacher, I use words to communicate ideas and illustrate meaning and challenge the process of critical thinking in response. I use words to lay siege to the closed up castles of my students’ minds, words to catapult flaming ideas over their ramparts, words to force a crossing over their crocodile-infested moat of wrong assumptions and lazy thinking, words to batter down the gates of their close-mindedness, words to set them free from their fear of thinking. And as a blogger I launch out on the stream of consciousness, not knowing where the currents of all those electrical impulses in my brain might take me, surprised one day at the connections I might make, alarmed the next day at the offense I have caused. And yet, for someone whose job it is to communicate, I am constantly undone by how poorly I manage to do so in those relationships that matter most to me. And while each of us is an expert at using words to mask our hearts, our hearts in the end are revealed by our words. ‘See what great a fire is started by these little tongues of ours,’ says James. ‘One minute we bless, the next minute we curse.’ We are capable of such good. But we are capable of such harm as well. And all with our words. Somehow, this impulse to communicate, this desire to engage with another, this capacity to use words is a part of what it means to be made in the image of the Holy Trinity. The Plurality of God mentioned in Genesis 1 is matched by the plurality of humanity – the fact that to be made in the image of God has to do with our being made male and female. We are created to communicate, just as God the Holy Trinity exists to communicate. But even more fundamentally, we are made to love, just as God the Holy Trinity is love. Words with love. That was God’s intention. But we separated words from love with disastrous results. Even today, it doesn’t take a journalist to observe that we humans are awash in oceans of words, full of information, full of entertainment, full of secrets to power and wealth and pleasure, but empty of love. Which is what makes Jesus all the more astonishing. In Jesus, born of the Virgin, fully human, the second Adam and incarnate Son of God, Word and Love are restored to God’s new humanity. This is the new life of the kingdom to which everyone is called. Our reconciliation with God through Jesus’ death on the cross opens the door into this new life, which is really life as we were intended to live.
In the meantime, surrounded by words. Swamped, distracted by ever new torrents of words. So easy to be carried along. So easy never to realize that words have always been intended as a means to a greater end, an original end. And of course the challenge for me is not simply to add my words to the empty oceans that make up our lives on this planet, but rather to strive with everything I’ve got to reconnect these words with my purpose, to become again somehow the Icon of God.