When words don’t work

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Those who read the parish newsletter or hear me preach will guess that I love words.  I like putting them together in patterns, making them rhyme sometimes, and having them point me and others in new directions.  St. John’s Gospel speaks to my faith on many levels as it proclaims, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But what happens when words fail?  What happens when words no longer seem to point to God?

The various words that might be used to describe last Monday’s bombings in Boston don’t fit together.  They don’t belong together and they don’t make sense.  Words like joy, explosion, race, fall, crowd, exhilaration, child, and death don’t belong in the same sentence. There’s no reasonable story line that can connect them even though commentators and the rest of us do what we can to try to express emotion, confusion, outrage, anger, fear, and sorrow. 

Whenever words stop working, I try to stop, as well.  My stopping becomes a kind of prayer and I try to take a lesson from the story of Elijah the prophet, who also found himself in a situation that made no sense.   In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is tired, afraid, and at a loss for what to do. He basically “checks out” and goes into a cave.  He complains, “I’ve been zealous for the Lord,” but at this point, he despairs.  “I alone am left, and they are seeking to take my life.” God then somehow moves Elijah to stand outside the cave to stop and to wait.  There, God moves out of language and symbol altogether.  God is not in the wind. God is not in the earthquake. God is not in the fire. Instead, God shows up in what scripture often translates as a “still, small voice.” But even that term does not quite hold God. The New Revised Standard Version translates God’s coming as “a sound of sheer silence.” It’s a sound that is not a sound, a word that is not a word.  And yet, somehow, in this full silence, this unspoken Word, Elijah hears strength and encouragement and purpose from God. Elijah leaves the cave changed and empowered by the spirit of God. 

These days, my deepest prayers for peace, for healing, and for those who suffer, are prayers of silence.  I encourage you to join me in those prayers with faith in the God who needs no words to express love, because God is the final Word of love.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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