Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Words, so many words

Once or twice a month I meet my dad for lunch. We discuss everything from the latest independent films to N.T. Wright's views on justification to existential despair, often over a hot pastrami sandwich.

Today we talked about words. About "spiritual speak."

When I lived in Colorado, a friend of mine died while rock climbing. He was older than me by nearly 20 years and was instrumental in helping me learn to listen for the voice of God in everyday life.

In the weeks following his death, many of my friends sought to comfort me by quoting passages from Scripture. "All things work together for good." "I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord."

To be blunt, these attempts at offering consolation pissed me off.

There are two primary ways to express one's faith: implicitly or explicitly. The reason I shy away from most Christian corporate gatherings is because I choose to express my life of faith implicitly, without a lot of words. I will, from time-to-time, discuss matters of faith explicitly, as I am here, but a quick perusal of my past blog entries will show, I believe, my desire to allow my faith to seep through every pore of my lived life, and not so much through references to Scripture or religious language.

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher and educator, believed that there must be no distinction between words and deeds. Words are not rootless, floating about like the feather in the opening scene of Forrest Gump. They are like leaves on a tree, each one with a unique function, each helping to make a tree a tree. Words carry weight, and should not be misused like a credit card during the Christmas shopping season.

I imagine most of us have run across people who engage in "spiritual speak."

"Isn't God good?"

"God loves you."

"Turn to God... He'll give you peace."

I think that these words are most often unrooted; they do not spring from within the person speaking the words but are merely places of comfort for the speaker to retreat into, like a fortress with high walls. When I say that I am sad and someone tells me that "God is good," what they really mean is "I am uncomfortable. I cannot face this situation. I fear the uncertainty that you are requiring me to enter into."

I do not want an answer, I want a person.

Words can be loud, but silence even louder.

Stop talking. Be.


amber said...

Amen, Tom....Amen! So true.

Brett said...

Hey Tom,

This clip came to mind:


And Jeeze, be warm and filled

Brett said...


try this:


Terri said...

“Preach the Gospel always and if necessary use words.”

~St. Francis

I love your writing and your transparency. I remember when my six-year-old cousin was struck by a car and killed on Easter Sunday many years ago. I heard all kinds of these really amazing stabs (intentional use of that word) at comfort. "God must have needed another little angel" tops the very long list. I wish more Christians would look into the concept of incarnational presence.

Thanks for the ways you have ministered to me.

Elbog said...


Kim Ayres said...

You should be a Taoist.

Tom said...

Amber: :)

Brett: Very fu...

Brett: Opps. Very funny. Watched a few more of his clips then found an hour of Ellen's standup routine, and laughed into the night. Thanks for the laughs.

Terri: Yikes! The "angel" comment takes the cake! Thanks for stopping over and I'm glad to see that you're starting to write down some of your own thoughts, too. Looking forward to reading them... (And I've always loved that quote from St. Francis)

Elbog: You get it, man. Very well put.

Kim: I especially like Lao Tzu's principle of the power of weakness. I find in it many parallels to the "blessed are the meek" principles that I aspire to.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you are saying because with my dad's job I have heard people say many stupid things. In fact, I regularly pray, "Lord, please help me not say the stupid thing." And then I realize that I probably have or do say stupid things, as I am not better than anyone else. For me, it has become another area of extending grace - most people have "basic goodwill" and mean no harm. So it is my challenge to appreciate their heart even if their words grate. Admitedly, thinking this out in a blog response is easier to do than practice!


p.s. I am SO glad Ian was able to come under the care to that specialist!!! The is a good early Christmas present, I think.

Anonymous said...

My favorite is "God never gives people more than they can handle." I'll give you a million bucks if you can find the biblical reference to back that one up!

I really, really liked this post. You put into words what I've felt without being able to put my finger on exactly what I was feeling (did that make any sense?). And you're right, people say these things because they're uncomfortable and don't know what to say. So I also liked Elsie's comment, that we need to extend grace to those people.

I've really been enjoying reading your blog. I'm not much of a deep thinker. I tend to exist in the here and now. Very little creative, free thinking blood flowing in my veins. Thanks for letting me listen in.

Anonymous said...

Tragically, during most of our Christian life we are so concerned with our doing, not with our being; we are distressed rather by what we have done and what we do than what we are. We think that if only we could rectify certain things we should be good Christians, and we set out therefore to change our actions.

But the result, sadly, is not what we expected. We discover to our dismay that it is something more than just a case of trouble on the outside--that there is in fact more serious trouble on the inside.

We try to please the Lord by our actions and words--"God needs more angels in Heaven"--but find something within that does not want to please Him. We try to be humble and compassionate and empathetic, but there is something in our very being that refuses to be humble and compassionate and empathetic. We try to be loving, but inside we feel most unloving. We smile and try to look very gracious, but inwardly we feel decidedly ungracious.

The more we try to rectify matters on the outside the more we realize how deep-seated is the trouble.

Then we come to the Lord and say, "Lord, I see it now! Not only what I have done is wrong; I am wrong."

Grace be to you, Tom.

Chad said...

thank you for being honest.

have you ever read "Where Is God When It Hurts?" by Philip Yancey? he makes the same point, it might be worth a read.

bella said...

I know the religious speak you refer to. It makes me feel angry and sad and ill. it denies humanity. It robs us of mystery and the vulnerability of the unknown. It is, though often well intentioned I believe, really quite toxic.
And I also know this lived faith in you, have experienced it and known it, you, to be the real deal.
I am honored to know you, count you as my friend.

Tom said...

Elsie: I try to do the same thing, look past the words to what someone intends to say. And hope others will do the same for me.

But I still want to take people to task for their empty words. For example, I would never walk into someone's house and critique their choice of couch or decor, yet for some reasons people feel it is ok to offer up the most flippant of answers to life's most intimate and personal questions.

I want those people to pause before they talk... and to tell me to do the same.

And to the rest of you, I'll try to answer in the morning... I'm pooped.

Carole said...

Very good post Tom. Merry Christmas to you and family.

Tom said...

Thanks for being patient...

Anneofthejungle: I'm trying to learn to extend that grace to others... and still want to people to take responsibility for what they say. A fine line (or Narrow Ridge). Glad you stopped by and hope to hear more from you. (I tried finding your blog but your profile leads to a dead end)

Anonymous: Something stinks in Denmark, and I think it's me. You're right that most conflicts begin with ourselves... I try to practice what I preach, with mixed results. Thanks for the grace.

Chad: Good book... I read it years ago, but should revisit it. Thanks..

Isabel: I, too, and thankful for our friendship and that it can continue here in cyberspace... Here's to true words...

Carole: Thanks, and Merry Christmas to you as well.

Jenster said...

Hey Tom! Thanks for visiting my blog.

I think there are times when scriptural platitudes are appropriate. Unfortunately over use of those words tend to cheapen them.

I also think there is a time and place for explicit and implicit expressions. I don't mind the "spiritual speak" when that's the subject - know what I mean?? But for the most part don't tell me, show me.

If I have to tell people about my faith (like I did in my most recent post - oops) then they can't see my faith which is much worse in my opinion.

Great, thought-provoking post!

Tom said...

Jenster: Appreciate the thoughts... I can make room for both expressions of faith (Implicit and explicit) it just seems like there is SO much explicit jargon thrown around that the words have lost their power.

Thanks for chatting..

Jenster said...

Exactly!! :o)

Seeker google said...

In Greek, words can be rhema ("instant") or logos ("constant").

The bad news is oftentimes Christians use "spiritual speak"--i.e. logos--with poor judgement.

The good news is whenever they do--no matter the intent--they are converting the "spiritual speak" (or logos) into rhema, the instant word applied to the situation.

For example, when the serpent tempted Christ (Mathew 4:4), Christ responded by reciting Deuteronomy (logos) and it instantly became rhema, applicable to His situation.

That is where the power is--right? Kind of changes things. Now I want those shallow "spirit-speakers" to say it. Say it loud. Say whatever Word you want to say. I don't care about your heart. I don't care about your intent.

Because your blundering attempts at logos is now my immediate and wonderful rhema!

Isn't God great! Amen.

Tom said...

Thanks for popping by and for the thoughtful comments. I agree that there is much power in the words of God when spoken by us.

But, like Lot's friends, you can also miss the mark wildly if your heart is not in the right place.

Thanks for chatting. Hope to hear more.

seeker google said...

Excellent! You are right on.

Lot's friends certainly were misusing logos.

Which makes me think of Mathew 4:6 where the serpent too spoke logos. What a perversion! Just like the "spiritual speakers."

I suppose all we can do is respond with the proper application of logos and turn it into a wonderful, instant rhema.

Grace to you (rhema).