I once heard a friend give a sermon about what it means to not just hear the words of God, but really take in what they mean. His illustration was one to which we can all relate; we have all had situations where people listen to the words that we are saying, but fail to understand what is going on behind the words. Maybe it is when someone asks you “how are you doing?” and you answer “fine,” when everything is not fine (I recently saw a meme that said, “Are you ok?” “Oh my god no, but for the purposes of this conversation, yes, I’m fine”). Maybe it is when you tell a story about “my friend” when you are really trying to both tell and hide something about who you are and what you’ve been through. It happens all the time.
Even more common is when we text or write something in an email that is not read by the recipient with the same tone that we intended. Our words do not always convey the words of our hearts.
In one of her books, Deborah Tannen writes about our verbal messages and the “meta-messages” that we hear behind them. In families where a parent has voiced or expressed criticism to a child throughout the years, as an adult just the utterance of a little sound like “hmm,” or “oh,” or a single word like “really?” can carry with it the weight of a freight train in conveying disappointment or disapproval.
Overall we do strange things with words and words do strange things to us. They have the power to tell our story, to express our experiences, our joy and sorrows. They are easily misconstrued, laden with baggage, frequently hurtful, but they are the only thing that we have to hear God’s story passed to us, and to pass it on to others. They help us express our love for one another.
And the crazy thing is that they can change every time we read or hear them. It is not the words that change, but what is behind them. As we age, as we experience new landscapes of life, as we learn the stories of people we never imagined, the same book, the same Scripture, the same words that we have heard spoken a thousand times, suddenly have something new to say to us.
Below are two word clouds. These particular word clouds are made from the entirety of my 17-page statement of faith that I wrote during my ordination process as a summary of what shaped my call into ministry, my beliefs about God, and my understanding of the role of the church and ministers who serve it. My youth minister gave me a framed copy of it in word cloud form as a gift. I have treasured it because every time I look at it I see a new word stand out: new words speak to me about where I am and what I am doing. Not only do I see new words come to life on the collage, but I also know that the words comprising my statement of faith, what I believe, where I have come from, and to what I am called, continue to evolve and change as well.
I wonder, what word stands out to you. Look at the second word cloud. What do you see now? The words in both are identical, but they speak to us differently every time, are arranged differently to catch our attention. May the living word of God continue to speak to you and your life in new and ever changing ways.