Words Fail


One of my least favorite expressions is “there are no words.”  It’s usually said when something is so devastating or extraordinary that it’s supposed to leave us speechless.  Except, of course, that it doesn’t.  More often than not, the phrase “there are no words” is simply a dramatic introduction to an onslaught of words. 

In those moments when silence would be preferable, we speak despite our better instincts.   We are profoundly uncomfortable with silence and ambiguity and “in between-ness.”  (How uncomfortable are you this weekend?)  And so we speak in an attempt to fill a void that perhaps doesn’t need filling.  And in doing so we sometimes miss connecting with those deep things that are beyond words.

But the spiritual life is about connection to things so deep that there really are no words.  Life in the Spirit; life connected to Christ is beyond words.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t give it the old college try.  That’s especially true of us Congregationalists. We are quite fond of our words.  Just look at our orders of worship. They’re like little novellas. Every week in the church office, we fret over their creation and endlessly edit them.  We discuss punctuation and syntax and mixed metaphors.  Our goal is perfection.  We want them laid out just so and filled with beautifully phrased and carefully parsed words.  We’re trying to capture something of the Truth and relay that to you.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  

And sometimes it worked for Saint Paul, and sometimes it didn’t.  Like so many of us, Paul was a great lover of words.  And he tried to use them to describe what God is doing in Christ.  But what God is doing in Christ is so big and extravagant and unbelievable, that it’s a real challenge to capture that. But Paul tries.  For good or for ill, he tries.  Sometimes he is successful and we are amazed at his ability to write theology; and sometimes he just leaves us confused. 

A few years ago, after reading the Pauline Epistle lesson of the day, our own Tina deVaron, as she walked by me to go back to her seat, wondered aloud if old Paul might have been smoking some weed the day he wrote what she just read. It was a fair observation that day.  And it might be a fair observation today. 

Earlier in the service, we heard Brent read 13 verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  But in the original Greek, those 13 verses are really one gigantic run-on sentence.  The translators and editors have thrown in punctuation to try to help us make sense of it all, but even with the periods and commas and semicolons, it’s ethereal and heady stuff.

Paul seems to explode with words as he tries to describe the cosmic nature of salvation; how God is intent on saving everyone and everything. His words tumble out and trip over one another, they spin and fall and crash.  It’s a word salad of the first order!  Finally, toward the end of this big run-on sentence, he tries to come to the point.  He writes: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know God, so that, with the eyes of your hearts enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints…” What Paul is hoping for is that we will connect to the truth, not via our senses or our intellect alone, but by revelation.  And to capture the idea of revelation, he uses the odd phrase the “eyes of (y)our hearts.”

I once used that phrase in a Call to Worship that I wrote.  But when Dick Adams got his advanced copy of the bulletin, he was having none of it.  Dick was famous for his red pen and grammatical tyranny, and he wrote in the margins “James, hearts do not have eyes.”  Of course they don’t, I told him.  But poetically speaking, of course they do. Of course our hearts have eyes.  Of course our souls perceive reality in a way that the rest of us does not.  Poetry and metaphor and fables are the language of faith.  They are the imperfect tools with which we struggle to frame and understand that which we cannot absolutely prove but suspect and hope to be true.

Today is All Saints Sunday.  And so we light candles and sing “For All the Saints.”  We remember those we have loved and lost: people like Dick Adams and dear Walter Manley and feisty Marj Long.  On this Sunday it is as if we are given permission in our overly rational liberal church to entertain what we suspect to be true. I suppose we need a special Sunday like this one to ponder eternal life because it has become the doctrine that dares not speak its name. It’s not very sophisticated.  Some think it naïve and childish.  We’re afraid of it, ashamed of it, embarrassed by it.  We fight with it.   We run from it.  We secretly hope that it is true.  But we can’t prove it. And some of us get hung up on that; as if proof is the only way we have of knowing. 

Religion scholar Carol Zaleski, formerly of Harvard and now at Smith, recently wrote a beautiful All Saints essay in which she talked about her mother’s death and her search for ultimate meaning in the face of death.  She wrote: “… science isn’t the only way to know, or the only thing worth knowing.  Matters of meaning and value and beauty… lie outside its scope.”  But matters of meaning and value and beauty are the very stuff of the spiritual quest.

We all have eyes in our hearts; we all have spiritual intuition. And when grief comes to call; when the night has fallen and we are all alone; when our own death stares us in the face, the eyes of our hearts can save us.  

In his famous book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explored this spiritual intuition; this suspicion of “something more.” He wrote: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. (People) feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex.  (So) if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

Could Lewis prove that?  Can I prove that all saints, from all times and places,
 live and love in the light of God?    No. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen