Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Future of Words

John 1:14

            “When you write, don’t think.” 

            If I were to list a dozen or so Words-with-a-capital-W that someone has spoken to me with a force that has lodged them in my soul and changed its course, that would be one of them.  “When you write, don’t think” was the first utterance out of the mouth of author Madeleine L’Engle in the first workshop of hers I attended over thirty years ago.  Her word freed me.  I had a history of sitting down at my typewriter to begin an article, an essay, a sermon—and starting again and again, striking through what I had written.  I was thinking.  That was the problem.  I was editing, which is a process very different—contrary, in fact—to creating.  I learned from Madeleine to put my hand in the hand of my own Unconscious, trusting that if I moved into a quiet space where my mind stopped manufacturing, I just might encounter inspiration.

            In the beginning was the Word.  That is the real story.  All of those Christmas things dear to our hearts, like shepherds and angels, wise men and mangers, barnyard animals and innkeepers and Mary and Joseph, are parts of the container holding the story.  But the story is much more than the crèche.  More even than the Baby Jesus himself, who would, after all, have had no special meaning had he not been born into a world to which he might speak his words, a world that might speak back its words to him and about him.  The real story is the story of the Incarnation:  how the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

            Like all stories, the one about the Word becoming flesh can be misunderstood and distorted.  You might get stuck on the question that modern minds like to ask, “Did this really happen?  Is this the way it was?  Is the story factually trustworthy?”  If you do, however you answer those questions—yes or no—you will surely miss the story of a lifetime.  For stories are those things we live by, the means by which we humans make meaning.  And the Word becoming flesh is not so much about a time-bound, historical incident as it is a story eternally true.  Words do become flesh, and the way they do bears an eerie resemblance to the holy incarnation of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us as a man called Jesus.

            You, too, could perhaps quite easily come up with your own short list of words that have changed your life, like Madeleine L’Engle’s word changed mine.  Choose any of those words and possibly you might see that (for lack of a better way of putting it) behind that word or maybe within it was something of the substance of the person who spoke it.  I think that was true of Madeleine’s word.  Let’s just say that that word clearly expressed what was in Madeleine’s very heart.  There is a good bit of evidence from the whole body of her writing and from her life that that was the case.  I used the expression a few minutes ago that Madeleine’s word lodged in my soul and changed its course.  Is that literally true?  Of course not.  There is no way to talk about the soul and be literal.  And no way to talk about a literal word lodging anywhere other than in type on a printed page.  But not one of you missed the thrust of what I was saying.  A word—a sentence, actually—changed my life, my behavior, my perception of what was true.  That is what the Word of God does.  It is the perfect expression of this awesome, creative, loving, imaginative, playful, flirtatious being that is Being Itself.  Words express.  And the Word of God God speaks and, lo and behold, things happen.  “Let there be light,” and there is light.  “Go down, Moses,” and Moses goes.  (Of course, if humans get into the act, the chances are that the word may be temporarily drowned out by some kicking and screaming.) 

           The Word becomes flesh.  The plot thickens.  The Word does not linger suspended in the air, but actually becomes flesh.  What a high opinion the Creator has of creation!  Energy is not sufficient for a universe, apparently.  Matter begs to be created.  And of all the material things to be chosen for the honor, the human body wins the prize, takes the cake, walks onto the stage to receive the greatest gift of all.  The human body bows its little head, and speaks the word, “Be it unto me according to your Word.”  That is why the story of Mary is so crucial to hearing the Word.  She is the prototype.  Not the only one, by miles, that ever did so, but the one who said “Yes!” at the moment when all heaven stood silent, awaiting word back from the human.  Flesh it was to be.  A womb, gestation, a birth canal, and finally the interminable pain and urge to push, push, push, until born was the Word, all red and raw and covered in the stuff of creation.  Not in his tiny little fingertips, or in his yet unused digestive tract, nor in his cute baby feet, nor in the stream of warm pee that soon enough would wet his swaddling clothes, was there a cell—not a single cell—where God was not.  And that was not because he was God himself but because he was human, or indeed because he was a creature in the great created universe.  No place and no time exists where God is not, for all things are alive with the Being that infuses every atom and quark and string. 

           The story of how the Word became flesh is not only the story of how God once said, “Let there be Jesus and there was Jesus.”  It is your story and mine.  It is the story of how words can be more than the product of the portion of the human brain controlling rational thought and language.  It is the story of how whatever resides as logos in the logic-producing and logic-policing places of you can indeed drop down, down, down into the lower parts of your body.  Words, in other words, can become flesh.  To put it one way, Christmas is not about something we believe or understand, but about something we live.  Words, and the ideas they convey, are cheap until they take on flesh.  And it is exactly that—how we actually live the life of God—that Jesus dwelt among us to exemplify and teach.

           A few of us specialize in making things more difficult than they need to be.  But most of us want things to be simpler and easier than they in fact are.  Give us a short answer, not a long explanation.  Give us a formula, not a course.  Give us a gospel you can write on the back of a business card, and we shall be satisfied.  The somewhat difficult truth is that we never hear the real words in the back of our minds or in the depth of our being until we learn to keep silent.  Silence, like the whiteness of a blank page, is the background necessary for words to appear.  And out of that silence a birth can take place:  the birth of a new you.  It might come in the form of a story or a meal or a book or a play or some role that has been waiting for you for ages.  You have a song to sing or a speech to give or someone to set free or a dream to realize.  Whatever it is, the word that will come out of your mouth will likely be a word that forms on the wings of love.  For the place where the word becomes flesh is in that manger called your heart. 

           It is said that the Grinch who stole Christmas might have had a heart that was two sizes too small.[1]  Whether we are Grinches or not, our hearts could stand to grow a little.  And that is what the Word does, when it comes down and becomes flesh in our bodies, in our movements, in our deeds:  it expands our hearts.  Sometimes it expands our hearts by first breaking them.  Disappointments, wars, illness, death, violence, injustice—a whole host of pains and memories live in our hearts until they may have turned to stone.  When the Word becomes flesh, it leaves its exalted space up in theory-land and leaps down, first emptying all the stones from the heart and creating there some fleshy room for love.  And, surprise!  Our hearts, like the Grinch’s, grow (at least) three sizes in that single leap.

           Pick up your pen and write; don’t think.  Speak your truth; stop measuring it.  Fight for your cause; stop second-guessing yourself.  Angels and archangels might gather to aid you, and you will never know until you just do it.  And when your words become flesh and your life starts speaking from your body and its heart, then might someone hear your word and say of your life that it is full of grace and truth. 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014

[1] Theodor Seuss Geisel, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Kindle edition (New York:  Random House,  1985).