Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Salvation of Words

Words save our lives, sometimes.” Neil Gaiman wrote those words in the Acknowledgements section of his book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is a wonderful book by the way. Let me give you his full quote: “In Sarasota, Florida, Stephen King reminded me of the joy of just writing every day. Words save our lives, sometimes.” That has been true in my life.

I have loved words ever since I got a poem published in my high school’s literary magazine. To see my words in print was magical, and the magic never ceased. I was the photography editor, proofreader, and occasional reporter for the school newspaper. I had the English grammar textbook memorized. Since then I have learned that it is as important to know when to break the rules, as when to follow them.

Looking back, I can see that this love of words was influential in becoming a preacher. Pastors’ stock-in-trade is words, whether they are words proclaimed from the pulpit or words spoken privately to a parishioner in time of need. Preachers know better than most what words can do ... and what they can’t.

Occasionally people ask me why I am still giving weekly talks on my YouTube channel and podcast during retirement. I respond that it was not a decision. It is just what I do naturally. The sun shines, the wind blows, and a preacher preaches. You can take the preacher out of the pulpit but you can’t take the pulpit out of the preacher.

One thing has changed. I now prefer the webcam to the pulpit. I seldom preach in a church anymore. Only at the church where I am a member. Not only do I reach more people via the internet, it is much more comfortable to wear a flannel shirt while sitting in front of my computer than to wear a suit while standing behind a pulpit.  Plus the hours are better.

Retirement gives me time to write. I write every day – just like Stephen King. Well, not just like Stephen King, but I write. If I am not writing podcasts, blogs, books and the occasional sermon, then I am replying to emails from people around the world, asking me about my podcast, blog or books. Words save me. I would not know what I am thinking if it were not for writing. Some people write down their thoughts. I write before I think … in a good way.

For example, I had no idea what this blog post would be about. I just finished Neil Gaiman’s book a couple of days ago and was inspired by the quote: “Words save our lives, sometimes.” I did not know where the quote would take me, but I started writing. 

As I write, words come gushing forth. It is like the kitchen pump in my grandparents’ old cottage on Bow Lake in New Hampshire when I was a boy. A cup of water was always sitting by the kitchen sink, used for priming the pump. A few words prime the imagination, and words gush forth like water.

In recent years I have learned that words are inadequate for what I most wish to communicate. Words barely touch the surface of life. They are only ripples on the surface of consciousness. The same is true of thoughts and beliefs. They do not touch the depths. Words and ideas are fabrications of the mind. Doctrines and theology can do no more than point to truth that is deeper than words.

Truth is inexpressible. For that reason theology cannot capture God. It is a substitute for God. Far below the surface is the wordless reservoir of Divine Reality which no preacher can speak of. We can only direct people to this Reality using “groans too deep for words” as the apostle says.

Lao Tzu says, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.” He also says in the Tao Te Ching, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” Those who speak and actually believe what they say are doubly deceived. As Christian mystic Bernadette Roberts said, “Truth is unbelievable.”

It is fine to have beliefs. I have many beliefs, but I don’t take them too seriously. At best they are approximations of reality, mental constructions created by the mind to make sense of what is incomprehensible. They are words. They are beautiful words, but words nonetheless. But they point to what is beyond words. As such, words can save our lives … sometimes.

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