“More Than Words” by Mark W. Harris – December 10, 2006
“More Than Words” Mark W. Harris
December 10, 2006 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Opening Words – from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
March Hare: …You should say what you mean.
Alice: I do; at least – at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.
Hatter: Not the same thing a bit! Why, you might just as well say that, ‘I see what I eat’ is the same as ‘I eat what I see’!
March Hare: You might just as well say, that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!
The Dormouse: You might just as well say, that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!
Ministry is a profession of words. Perhaps the key thing a minister does in his/her work is craft a twenty minute essay of words week after week after week. And if a minister is going to last in his/her profession then the words must evoke truth on some level. As Lewis Carroll reminds us in the opening words you must say what you mean and mean what you say all at the same time. But that is easier said than done. This is the season when Christians and others throughout the world celebrate the birth of Jesus. In traditional theology the baby represents the Word. The Gospels tell us the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. John famously reminds us that “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.” This evokes both creation and meaning, and also evokes God or spiritual truth. We find it in words.
But ministers also know that words mean different things to different people. I have had parishioners swear they heard a certain message in a sermon, but when I have gone back to the text, all of my searching fails to uncover what they were talking about. Just one word can evoke something powerful and send people into their own universe of meaning. Last week when Carole Berney was reading the words to Hymn #1 – “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door,” I felt tears well up in my eyes. I thought how these thin walls keep hate out and hold love in, so that we feel protected here and care for, and respected and listened to. It was all that a church community can be in the context of the words of one hymn, and we weren’t even singing it. It was suddenly all those images of living together in deep understanding of human relationships that point us toward truth, toward divine living.
If words reminds us how powerful even one word can be, we also understand that words can be misunderstood or never uttered at all. In the novel Gilead, John Ames the aging minister from Iowa says, “there is a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt , and much loneliness, where you wouldn’t even expect to find it, either.” So each of us brings those feelings to church without even being able to utter them perhaps, but we somehow know that we simply want to be with others, or feel safe, or have a moment to reflect.
Some things are never expressed because of proper manners, like the Christmas gift we really didn’t want, and others are never expressed because of poor communication skills. Being a man of few words in private, I am often reminded that what I would say has been expressed by my look or my actions. We may hear I couldn’t tell how you were feeling, just sitting there and not saying anything. It could be that anger or hurt keep us silent, but when we leave the room or briskly go about our business, the meaning is conveyed in other ways. When I was young a smirk on my lips would often get me in trouble with school authority figures. They thought I was laughing at them, but I was really just anxious that they were going to berate me or shame me in some manner. It never seemed safe to say how I really felt. So I would just wait for it to be over. If my problem is that I don’t say enough, there are some people who say too much. The narration goes on and on. Here the words overwhelm, and we stop listening and lose the thread or meaning, but we may never say anything in response. There are words we say and don’t say.
What we fail to say may scream out in anger or misunderstanding. John Ames says, “Above all, mind what you say. ‘Behold how much wood is kindled by how small a fire, and the tongue is a fire.’ – that’s the truth.” It is true that meaning what you say is saying what you mean. The tongue is a fire. I assume that most of you heard about or saw Michael Richards’ racist rant at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood a few weeks ago. If the name does not ring a bell, Richards played the character Kramer on the Seinfeld TV show. Most of us thought he was a funny guy, so this tirade seemed a little different than Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic blast from several months ago because we may have expected this kind of prejudice from such a conservative Catholic neanderthal. But Kramer? If you saw the clip you know a couple of audience members interrupted him, and he went into an incredibly angry racist tirade filled with the worst language and words that included name calling, taunting, images of lynching and the power of the white man.
What he said was simply outrageously profane and racist. But then he tried to apologize for it in a number of ways. He said things like, I don’t know where those words came from. I am not a racist. He was trying to distance himself from his own words of racial venom. Then the parade of self-flagellation began. The shamed man appeared on Letterman with Seinfeld there to promote the release of DVD’s of the old TV show. Poor timing. Then Jesse Jackson took him into the woodshed to represent his confession before the symbol of racial harmony. No prayer of salvation either. Is a failed career an excuse for racism? If you use the language of a racist, if the words come in a torrent of attack, how could he say he was not a racist? The confusing thing was that much of the audience on Letterman laughed. People wondered, Isn’t this the guy who is suppose to make us laugh? Words can confuse us and upset us. The tongue is a fire.
The Michael Richards story represents some interesting things. He spoke as though what he said came from some place beyond his own mind. Those words are not me. They were also such reprehensible words, that no excuse of personal error or timing or humor make them acceptable. Do you feel like your words are you? Some of us have a hard time articulating our feelings or what we mean. I have always felt good about my public presentations if I could prepare them in advance, and use a script to read from, unless I knew the material exceptionally well. But I have always felt intense anxiety over classroom discussions where I thought the teacher was going to call on me. I knew the facts, but I was afraid I would stumble, and have people laugh at me if I tried to put them into an articulate answer. This is still true. I love speaking before groups if I have a text, but if it is a situation where there is intense feeling, such as a community meeting, and I am speaking extemporaneously I fear my words will be incomprehensible. Under pressure, I have terrible fears about what I am going to say. Fear of failure around words grips us all.
One of my clergy colleagues here in Watertown was telling how his six year old son was hoping to have a little sister who would be born in Syria. He told his father, “Then she will be able to speak Arabic like you. He was thinking the words come from the place, and not the people who speak the language. Of course we absorb the words of our surroundings. I was not naturally racist as a child, but I certainly learned to use the N-word from my family. Unlike Michael Richards, I didn’t really know what I was saying. Put yourself in a different context – in Scotland I thought they were speaking a foreign language, in England I used the word pants, and they blushed for me, thinking I was saying underwear. You can feel like your words or what you mean by them cannot be comprehended.
I think of this in the context of learning how to read. Although it has nothing to do with reading, a sentence I hear as much as any other, especially since my computers are Macintoshes, is “Do you have word?” Of course this is a PC user asking if I have Microsoft Word because that is the software he/she is using, and the implication is that I will not be able to read their files unless I have the same program. I won’t be able to understand the file they have sent. The battle between Mac and PC users mirrors the battle between those who advocate different methods to learn how to read. Growing up in the 1950’s I used a look-say approach found most classically in the Dick and Jane books. At about that time, phonics reemerged as a popular method to teach children how to read. Phonics advocates said that children need to learn the alphabetical code first, (letter patterns and sounds), and then they can learn meaning. A whole language or word approach says that children can read if you give them opportunity, good material and especially focus on meaning. What it lacks is decoding skills. It also does not help much with spelling unless you happen to have a photographic mind where you can picture all the words in a whole word format.
What happens if they give you the whole meaning without breaking down the word first. This may work for some , but not for others. If it does not work for you, then you feel stupid, and when you cannot comprehend , your sense of self-worth declines. If you cannot understand or spell the word, what good does it do if you can read it? We remember it as a basic problem of meaning and understanding if reading was difficult for us. I was never a fast reader. I am also aware that when I read I always say the word in my mind as my eyes scan the page. When I asked Andrea about this, it seems that she does not say the word in her mind, but simply comprehends as she scans. This may also be a product of how we read. She tends to look for meaning and I look for facts, which I later build into a meaning. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, I need to break it all down before I can discover the meaning. Otherwise I am lost if someone does not take the time to give step by step directions, letter by letter, word by word. We have to ask if we have the understanding and compassion to look at the individual needs of children and help them learn to comprehend in the way that works best for them.
This is true religiously, too, as we represent a tradition where words are the foundation of all understanding, not only comprehending what we speak and hear, but the deepest meaning of life is found in words. If you cannot comprehend the meaning, but moreover must discover that deepest meaning through the most original form and language comprehension, then you are not as close to God, or to the deepest meanings of life as you might otherwise be. Some of the Puritans in their striving to comprehend the word of God decided to use the earliest translations of the Bible available to them. So even though they did not understand a word of it, they had Greek and Hebrew read to their congregations instead of English in order to hear the word of God in what they believed was its purest form. Perhaps this is reminiscent of the Catholic church using Latin. It runs counter to the general Protestant tradition that we are a part of, where the comprehensible words of scripture read and explained from the pulpit became central to worship. This was where they believed God was revealed, and not in the Sacrament of the mass as in Catholicism. We want to find words that will bring us to the fullest understanding of the meaning and depth of life.
In his book, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson reminds us how important words were to the English reformers. King James put sermons under his pillow at night. Those same sermons had the poet T. S. Eliot marveling at how the preacher could take one word and derive a world of meaning from it. While it may seem absurd to us today, these words were the ultimate truth about life, the foundation of all understanding. So if this is the case, then you want a Bible, or we want a book, that we can read and understand. You want to be able to sound out those words and go to the heart of the meaning. And the words must reflect our experience of living. We sometimes hear that in Alaska the Eskimos have 11 words for snow. They know it so well, that they derive a world from it. On the other hand, I heard in a film on global warming that that same culture has no words in its vocabulary for some of the terrible environmental effects. When you don’t have the words you cannot comprehend. This begs the question of whether you can have receptive language without expressive language. Can you understand without being able to say the words? We clearly seem to be able to understand concepts, but can we resolve our deepest emotional and spiritual conflicts if we cannot express ourselves? Probably not.
What is also true is how difficult it is to find the right words, and how we use words that reflect the meaning we intend to find, rather than the objective meaning. This intention was born out by the Puritans who mostly used what was known as the Geneva Bible. In that translation you can find the word “tyrant” 400 times. Then along came King James to produce the new translation which most of us grew up on. How many times do you suppose the word tyrant appears in the King James version? (zero). Can you truly say this is the word of God, or is it the word of the translator corresponding to his belief about the divine right of monarchs? Yet if the words of the Bible were the foundation of all meaning, then you wanted the most accurate text or words possible. These words, Calvin said, should compel us to point all our virtue, all our wisdom to build up the house of absolute truth, which was overcoming the devil with Christ.
Finding the right words for the Bible has been difficult throughout history. I recently finished reading a book called Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman began his Biblical studies as an evangelical who believed in the inerrancy of the text, that is the Bible is the absolute word of God. Slowly as he began to study the Bible he realized that it was not only not inerrant, but that what he called the original Bible was a copy of a copy of a copy of an original text which no longer existed, and wasn’t even written until hundreds of years after the events took place. Not only were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John not real people, we don’t even have what they wrote down. We have copies, with translation and changes and errors all having creeped in. The author of Luke says he consulted many predecessors. We don’t have any of them. There are more differences among manuscripts than there are words in the Christian scriptures. Of course what they were doing to the text was what we do to a text when we read. Reading involves discovering meaning. As a fundamentalist Ehrman thought that the meaning was inherent, and that the texts would speak for themselves. But he learned that was not true. If it was everyone would agree on what it said and meant. Instead, we must try to understand as best as we can how the words were put together originally. Sometimes the scribes were more competent than others. Sometimes the scribes wanted to underscore that Jesus was God, and so they added or changed or took away words. All to prove their point of view. This was how they created a culture of orthodoxy. What Ehrman discovered is that we must each find the meaning in the texts.
While this Biblical viewpoint underscores what UUs believe about ancient scriptures, it also points to finding the deepest meaning in what we read and speak. What kind of culture of words are we creating? My mother was one of those people who preached the gospel of “if you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything.” I suppose you could interpret this as saying avoid the difficult issues of anger and pain, but I always took it to mean for me to be the best person I could be – kind and loving and understanding of others. When Unitarian Universalists say that every child born is a holy child, not just Jesus, we mean that we are the incarnation of God’s own word. That means the words we use must be words that bring out the best in us. But it also goes beyond that to say that we only understand life through words, and we must therefore help everybody understand the words, just as translators once wanted to give everyone the word of God. And so if we have braille hymnals and hearing assist devices then we are trying to give access to everybody to hear and understand the word. When we change our words in our hymnals from Father God to Spirit or Divine Truth, we are trying to use words that are inclusive of everybody, so that women are not left out. So just as Calvin once said the words of the Bible must call us to the most virtue and most wisdom, so the words we then use in our lives call us to respect and listen and welcome everybody. That is our divine truth. So if we are dealing with another person or an institution who withholds information or words from us that might benefit us or our child if we only knew, then they are reflecting Calvin’s view of affirming evil. They are denying us the words we need to hear. They are being mean spirited. Then if they tell others, and not us this important information or words, then again they are being cruel. Then finally when they do tell us, they do it in a blaming fashion, and fail to tell us how they might help. We hear words that are too little and too late. Why do the people and institutions in our lives communicate so poorly? One of my favorite Wayside Pulpit quotes is by Paul Carnes, and its says church is the place where we learn how to be human. Here we once learned the word of God from a text of words, and today we need to learn to use words that speak of better communication and truthful relationships.
Last Sunday afternoon, I went to a memorial service at Arlington Street Church for Joan Goodwin, a great religious educator and historian who I had worked with over the years. At the service her children described what a beautiful death it was. They sat with her holding her hands and sang to her. I was talking to a friend afterwards about that, and she said how nice it would be to die that way surrounded by family and friends, but then she said to me, as long as you don’t sing. We both laughed about some of the failings of my singing ability. In the context of singing words though, it seemed so important. A few months back someone remarked to me that what they loved about church was that it was they only place in their life where they sang with others. Together we are united in words that reflect meaning. We are one. We are whole, and the words usually point us toward greater loving of the earth and each other, which are words that point us towards what it means to love God. There were some ancient cultures, including Anglo Saxon, that used a Rune alphabet. Runes are similar to Latin letters, except that they tend to have few curves and consist mostly of straight lines. Runic letters were used for over one thousand years to mark graves, and identify property. Runes were also used as a form of divination – the way the letters formed words as you cast them helped you see the future .The word ‘rune’ derives from the Old Norse and Old English run which means “mystery.” Of course the truth of ancient Biblical texts are somewhat of a mystery, and the way we communicate is sometimes a mystery, but the more we use words the more we will understand each other, and the more we will understand deeper truths about life. I am reminded about how we tell young children who are fighting to use your words. Tell what happened. Tell me what is going on. I wish we could all be better word partners, be part of relationships and institutions who could communicate better, drawing out our greater virtues. In her poem “Rune,” Muriel Rukeyser says, “The word in the bread feeds me, The word in the moon leads me, The word in the seed breeds me, The word in the child needs me.” What this means is that very person, every part and particle of earth and the heavens have a deeper truth, and we are living our lives to intuit its deeper meaning . When we truly meet the child – listen and respond, then we hear the word, When we truly see how the fruit feeds us, or how the animal or tree is a vital, non expendable part of the bio-system, we truly meet life. And so the word in the seed is the Word, and it feeds me, is me, is life, is God.
Closing Words – “Rune” by Muriel Rukeyser
The word in the bread feeds me,
The word in the moon leads me,
The word in the seed breeds me,
The word in the child needs me,
The word in the sand builds me,
The word in the fruit fills me,
The word n the body mills me,
The word in the war kills me.
The word in the man takes me,
The word in the storm shakes me,
The word in the work makes me,
the word in the woman rakes me,
The word in the word wakes me.