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The Power of Words: Speaking God's Word Requires Our Best

Two voices, bracketing the Bible’s witness like audible bookends, shore up the theological convictions of this article. On one side of the biblical witness is the voice of the Creator thundering into creation’s inky darkness, “Let there be light. . . .” And on the other side is the voice of the prophet gasping for breath to choke out a benediction in the apocalypse of St. John, “Blessed is everyone who reads aloud the words of the prophecy of this book. . . .”

“Let there be light. . . .” “Blessed is everyone who reads aloud the words of the prophecy of this book. . . .”

Apparently words spoken have the power to create worlds and confer blessings! These are reasons enough for pastors and worship leaders to stop being so stingy with the Word when the saints gather, and to give their best creative energies to offering grace words from the Word.

“Let there be light. . . .” “Blessed is everyone who reads aloud the words of the prophecy of this book. . . .”

Soundedness and Silence

If the Words of Scripture do indeed have a power to create worlds and confer blessings, then some attention needs to be paid by folks who lead in worship and preach sermons from Sunday to Sunday to some peculiar dynamics about words. The first of these dynamics is soundedness. All spoken words come to those who hear them as sounds. And sounds are integral to the way we make sense of words. For instance, we all know the meanings of some words mostly because of the way the sound of the word falls on our ears. What do “stink,” “stooge,” and “booger” actually mean? When these words are sounded they awaken within us more images and memories than we care to have! And if this phenomenon is true for silly, coarse, and ordinary words, how much more for our big nouns—joy, glory, peace—and our best verbs—love, save, forgive? When words are sounded in the ears of the saints, every last one must be spoken with the same care used to pick up a newborn from a crib!

Another thing connected to soundedness that cannot be overlooked is silence. Meaning is made from words by the mysterious interplay between sound and silence. If we speak too much or too fast, leaving little room for creative silence between words, the possibility of meaning being created is dramatically diminished. Silence, nestled lovingly between words, is the difference between creative poetry and maddening propaganda!

Connectedness

A second dynamic to offering words when the saints gather is connectedness. One word is connected to other words to make sentences. Sentences joined to other sentences make up paragraphs that become a kind of bass and treble clef of a musical score. And, in turn, one paragraph after another gathers together like members of a symphonic orchestra to make the music of a story. That, of course, is what the gospel is—a vast, sprawling redemption story, the meaning of which makes our otherwise sorry lives worth living. I once heard Eugene Peterson say that people bring to church two questions: Is there a story? And, am I in it? When we offer up words to the gathered faithful we need to offer enough of them so that everyone can hear their story and know how to complete it in the world when they leave!

When my children were little my wife and I would read them the many tales of the Chronicles of Narnia. They would never let us out of their bedrooms with just a single chapter. If I close my eyes I can still hear them pleading, “Come on, Dad! Don’t stop now!” I feel sure that our anorexic North American church, bingeing and purging as it does on the banalities of The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives throughout the week, is really crying out to the pastor on Sunday, “Don’t stop reading now!”

Congruity

And that suggests one last dynamic, congruity. When we offer up grace words from the Word to the gathered saints we must reverently pay attention to the inescapable relationship between the words spoken and the one who speaks them. Word and word-giver are mysteriously joined together to make a meaning that transcends itself. Pastor and worship leaders must so live into the words they are offering that they become one with them. Should psalms of lament be read with a happy face? What would happen if you offered up the story of the resurrection with the same level of interest you bring to reading the Yellow Pages? Why wouldn’t a pastor laugh at some of the absurdities suggested in the parables? Or cry in midst of some of Israel’s sad history? These are not inconsequential questions if we hope to have the gathered faithful understand and appreciate what they are hearing.

All of this suggests a deeper and more important kind of congruity: there must be congruity between the life of the one reading the Word and the message of the Word itself. Will people actually hear the Word from the lips of someone who does not believe, love, and live that Word? Barbara Brown Taylor confronts all who dare offer up the Word while living out of step with it when she quotes Alan Jones in an essay on preaching, “You are a word about the Word before you ever speak a word” (The Preaching Life, p. 84).

Visits with Art

Years ago my formal theological education hinted at much of what I am saying. But it took Art Smallegan, an old saint from Forest Grove, Michigan, to live it and name it for me. My first year in ministry was Art’s last year on earth. A cancer would rob him of his life, one ounce at a time. But as his body diminished, his soul expanded. I visited him three and four times a week, mostly for selfish reasons. Every visit was as predictable as a Sunday liturgy—light conversation about life in the community, the singing of a hymn, the reading of a passage from the Bible, and then finally a prayer for grace. Every visit, all summer long, had the same liturgy. But one day, near the end of the summer, with Art’s strength and life about to leave him, my nervousness and pastoral inexperience made a shambles of the liturgy.

I entered Art’s bedroom with death hanging on the curtains. Geraldine, Art’s wife of fifty-plus years, was sitting on the end of the bed quietly weeping. Art was hidden beneath what appeared to me to be a coma. There would be no light conversation this day. I was too frightened to sing a hymn, and the combination of Geraldine’s weeping and Art’s coma made me think, No reason to read the Bible. I knelt at the side of Art’s bed and began to pray. I prayed for Art and Geraldine, for their children and grandchildren, and I prayed for our congregation. Finishing my prayer I quietly whispered Amen and got up to leave. At that moment Art summoned the strength to make what would be among his last moves. He reached out with his long fingers and grabbed my necktie. Pulling me to within a few inches of his face, he whispered, “Don’t forget to read the Bible!” I fumbled to find my little pocket Bible and correct my colossal pastoral blunder. And I read.

What was Art really asking of me? Though I probably would not have said it this way then, I certainly do now. He was asking me to shape for him a new world and confer on him a heavenly blessing. He knew on the deepest level of his existence what Jesus had taught us all long ago: A person does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God!

“Let there be light. . . .” “Blessed is everyone who reads aloud the words of the prophecy of this book. . . .”

I love these words, again by Barbara Brown Taylor in her beautiful book The Preaching Life:

When I think about consulting a medical book thousands of years old for some insight into my health (today), or an equally ancient physics book for some help with my cosmology, I understand what a strange and unparalleled claim the Bible has on me. Age does not diminish its power but increases it. When I recognize my life in its pages—when I am convinced that this story is my story—then I am lifted out of my own time and space and set free, liberated by the knowledge that my oddly shaped piece of life is not a fluke but fits into a much larger and more reliable puzzle. In other words, I am not an orphan. I have a community, a history, a future, a God. The Bible is my birth certificate and my family tree, but it is more: it is the living vein that connects me to my maker, pumping me the stories I need to know about who we have been to one another from the beginning of time, and who we are now, and who we shall be when time is no more.

—Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (1993), p. 52.

Words spoken have the power to create worlds and confer blessings! Reasons enough for pastors and worship leaders to stop being so stingy with the Word when the saints gather, and to give their best creative energies to offering grace words from the Word.

“Let there be light. . . .” “Blessed is everyone who reads aloud the words of the prophecy of this book. . . .”

Our anorexic North American church, bingeing and purging as it does on the banalities of The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives throughout the week, is really crying out to the pastor on Sunday, “Don’t stop reading now!”

Excerpt
A Scripture Reader’s To Do List
  1. Warm up before you go up.
  2. Look into people’s eyes and not over their heads.
  3. Slow down. Reading is more like a walk in the park than like the Indy 500!
  4. Slow down. Make every body movement a servant of the text.
  5. Remember that punctuation marks were made for the reader, not the reader for the punctuation mark.
  6. Feel what you are reading as deeply as you can. What the reader does not feel deeply the hearer will not feel at all.
  7. Treat every word like an only child. Enunciate.
  8. Treat every sentence like the last bite of a favorite dessert. Be sure to finish!
  9. Remember that microphones are “equal opportunity” amplifiers; they magnify the good and the bad.
  10. Don’t forget to breathe. Words should rise up out of your belly, not be strained through your throat.