From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts,
even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.
That poem resonates with me for a lot of reasons. One of them is because I’m a man of words. I preach, teach, speak and write with God words, and sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how very shallow they are. Thomas Aquinas, after writing hundreds of thousands of words, at the end of his life as he went to live in a monastery, said, “It’s all straw…just straw!”
A critic of mine said recently that I should be ignored because I was “irrelevant.” Bingo!
I get that. A critic of mine said recently that I should be ignored because I was “irrelevant.”
Henri Nouwen once wrote, “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation.” I think I can do that.
Sometimes I feel like Charlie Brown watching the clouds with Lucy and Linus. Linus says that he sees in the clouds the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor, or the map of the British Honduras. Lucy says that she sees the image of the stoning of Stephen with the Apostle Paul standing by. They ask Charlie what he sees in the clouds and Charlie says, “Well…I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”
The Apostle Paul made a powerful comment that I’m going to take a bit out of context. Evidently, one of the criticisms of Paul was that he was all talk. So Paul is angry and defending himself—Paul did a good deal of that—when he wrote, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:2-4).
I’ve been thinking of late about words in general and God words in particular. Those words are the words from which we create theology, doctrine and truth about God. Words are also what we do when we defend, denounce and destroy in God’s name. Words—even God words—can often be irrelevant. Karl Barth, perhaps the most important theological voice in the church in the last hundred years, said that every time he came out with another book the angels got the giggles.
Jesus made a very scary comment once—especially for someone like me who talks all the time. “I tell you,” he said, “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
Why would Jesus say something like that?
First, I suppose, because, as House says, “everybody lies,” and you have to be careful about lies. Paul said to the Ephesians, “Let no one deceive you with empty words…” (Ephesians 5:6). People lie all the time about God. They do it for a variety of reasons…power, prestige, money, etc. If I can convince you, for example, that God is a monster and can make you feel guilty enough, I can take up a big collection and build an empire. That, of course, is fairly obvious.
The purpose of doctrine and theology is to point to Jesus.
But there’s more. Second, words are not reality but only point to reality. There is only one purpose for biblical doctrine and theology, and it’s not so we can know as much of it as possible and impress our friends. The purpose of doctrine and theology is to point to Jesus. Insofar as the words do that, they are good; and insofar as they don’t, they are about as valuable (even God words) as a “bag of chicken feed.” It’s possible, as Mark Twain said, “to know the words but not the tune.” It’s what Jesus meant when he quoted Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).
There is another reason for Jesus’ scary words about words. Third, words must become flesh or they don’t mean anything. Of course, John 1 is the perfect example of that when God not only talked about love but “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and loved us. Then you’ll remember what Jesus said of the Scribes and Pharisees, that the crowd should listen to what they said because they “sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you” (Matthew 23:2-3). Then in the rest of the chapter, Jesus says some very harsh things about the very people he had just said ought to be listened to. Why? It was because their words didn’t reflect the reality of their lives.
I fully believe that at the judgment seat of God when all God’s people stand before a righteous God he will have a lot to say about words. “You were all wrong,” I suspect he will say, “and some of you were really wrong. But I’ve talked to my Son about you and he says you’re covered. So welcome Home.”
When our words reflect the “covering of Jesus” then those words are not ones that will judge us. They are the words out of which we write a hymn of praise to God for the finished work of Christ.
And I’m not talking about “walking the talk” or being nice to please Jesus. Nobody has words that reflect their own goodness, purity and faithfulness. That’s because nobody is that. I’m talking about the fact that loved people normally love more, great sinners rarely throw rocks, guilty people make others feel guilty while forgiven people set people free, self-righteous folks make us wince while great sinners remind us of Jesus…and our words reflect all of that. It’s not just something you say; it’s something you are.
Speaking of words, I’m running out of space here for more words.
But frankly, I feel a lot better about my words than I did when I first started this letter. Given that I’m the most screwed-up friend you’ve got and just said that…
Jesus told me to tell you that you are too.