Monthly Archives: April 2008

Words Aren't Enough

Blind Faith (No. 17, 2008)

This week brought the “official” beginning of the laptop-
computer-on-the-deck writing season. Overnight low temperatures in the
50’s and 60’s quickly warm into the pleasant 70’s, with streams of sunshine
and gentle breezes. I have written before about sitting out here, but the
full splendor of the experience can never be captured in written words.

Several yards away, a lawnmower prowls back and forth, and the
fresh smell of cut grass and onions wafts by. A little farther away, two
neighbors are talking. At this distance, their conversation is
unintelligible, but it is punctuated liberally with laughter. Birds are
assembled in full concert, each one singing a different melody in
counterpoint with the other songs. Airplanes passing overhead in nearly
perfect flying conditions make me jealous of whoever is blessed with
today’s opportunity to fly. A few puffy clouds dot the sky, but visibility
is almost unlimited, and turbulence is minimal. Even the slight scent of
tar from newly installed roofing shingles is comforting. The slight breeze
stirs wind chimes in both alto and soprano registers, blending in random
harmony. (I just had to move to the other side of the table, the climbing
sun proving too warm on the back of my dark colored polo shirt. Shade!)
Below in our yard, tiny fruit are setting of the pear trees, blueberries
are finishing a prolific blossoming season, and buds are swelling into a
promising bumper crop of figs. Muscadine and scuppernong vines are
reaching tentacles across the arbor, twisting in hopes of luscious purple
and amber grapes to come.

No matter how I try to paint the picture in words, it never can be
enough. Sitting on the deck, breathing in the wonder of God’s creation, is
a captivating experience. You just have to be there. Words aren’t enough.
I will be back out on the deck for lunch, or to sit in the evening, or to
stretch out for a nap on the glider, or to read the newspaper, or simply to
sit and rock. Each experience is just as delightful as the time before.
Writing about it, or even reading my own descriptions of the experience
cannot compare with the wonder of actually being there yourself.

Attempting through these paragraphs to evoke a genuine sense of
sitting out on the deck turned my thoughts to the relationship between
words and first-hand experiences. Word is a
concept richly used in the Bible. Both Hebrew and Greek languages held
high notions of how words function. Both languages understand words as
more than simple signs or names. In the Bible, words convey a dose of the
power that they describe or mean. Words invite a person to participate in
the reality they represent. The Word of God is more than a collection of
pen strokes on scrolls. It embodies the purest and highest expressions of
God’s love, grace, holiness, and glory. Still, the words of the Bible in
the Hebrew and Greek fare no better then English translations at bridging
the gap between ideas – however sacred – and direct encounters of the
presence of God. The story of the Bible, though, leads us by the hand from
abstract words on a page to personal experiences with God.

A familiar verse from Psalm 119 takes us part of the way: ” I have
hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm
119:11 NIV) In the Bible, the heart represents the very center of a person
– spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. To hide God’s Word in
one’s heart is to embrace it with the best energy of imagination, and
reason, and anticipation one can muster. It involves a committed desire
for what we read in God’s Word to be the actual state of affairs in which
we are living. When reading about sitting in the sun on my deck, I hope
you yearn to find such a place for yourself. When we hide God’s Word in
our hearts, we should build an intense desire to live by God’s love and
grace.

But God went much farther to call us from only thinking about his
ways, to living, breathing experience with his grace. The stirring opening
of the gospel of John personifies the Word of God. It is infinitely more
than an idea about God’s love and grace: ” In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. {2} He was in the
beginning with God. {3} All things came into being through him, and without
him not one thing came into being…. {10} He was in the world, and the
world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” (John
1:1-3, 10 NRSV) Although John affirms the Word as eternal with God and
active in creation of all that exists, the Word remained a concept,
something for sacred imagination and contemplation, but not something to
meet face-to-face. God knew that direct experience – actually living in
the presence of what we need to know – connects much more powerfully with
us. So, John recounts, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and
we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace
and truth. (John 1:14 NRSV) Not only did people read about God’s love and
grace, but Jesus lived as the flesh-and-blood presence of God, for people
to see and feel. This direct encounter with the Word radically changed the
lives of those who followed Jesus. The words of John and other witnesses
and participants with Jesus invite us to have direct encounters of our own
with God’s Word: ” The Word of life existed from the beginning. We have
heard it. We have seen it. We observed and touched it. {2} This life was
revealed to us. We have seen it, and we testify about it. We are reporting
to you about this eternal life that was in the presence of the Father and
was revealed to us. {3} This is the life we have seen and heard. We are
reporting about it to you also so that you, too, can have a relationship
with us. Our relationship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus
Christ.” (1 John 1:1-3 GWT)

Yet, the opportunity to experience the presence of God still
teeters precariously on the written or spoken testimony that “the Word
became flesh.” The only way truly to know the experience is to sit, walk,
and live with Jesus in your own life. Reading about a nice day in the sun
is no match for sitting there yourself, you have to get out there and do
it. Similar counsel is presented in the New Testament’s guidebook for
Christian living: ” Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely
hearers who delude themselves…. {25} One who looks intently at the
perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a
forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he
does.” (James 1:22, 25 NNAS) Christian faith requires more than reading
and meditating upon written or spoken descriptions of God’s love and grace.
Living Jesus’ way of love and grace, conversing with him in prayer
throughout the day, and practicing sensing his presence in every moment do
far more than mere words ever will.

If you can’t come over and sit on my deck, sip some iced tea, and
experience the wonders of God’s creation, I hope you can find such a place
of your own in which to do it. Words aren’t enough to let you feel the
warmth of the sunshine and the refreshing breeze for yourself. I hope,
too, that you will absorb God’s Word deeply in your imagination,
contemplation, and anticipation of each day. How can you bring God’s Word
to life through your actions today? Words can’t substitute for the actual
experience, but words do have power. What are your words doing to invite
someone into personal experience of the presence of Jesus in their
life?

I’m sure you haven’t heard the last from my experiences out on the
deck. I run into God out there on a regular basis.

J. Edward Culpepper, Ph.D.