It was there in those four years of intense formation of college that I was taught and formed by a new vocabulary I had not known before. With each class I took—not just those in my major, but all of liberal arts: Psychology, English, History, Sociology, Communications, Koine Greek, Music, etc.—I picked up words with an excitement mirroring a toddler sponging up and repeating what they hear around them. As I was being shaped and formed with all of these new words and terms I felt a joy towards education I had not experienced before. I had graduated from high school with little-to-no interest in reading, much less writing. With each lesson and class in this new environment, I felt like I was gaining something I had been missing all along—a competency that was not there previously. In spite of this, however, I forgot Uncle Ben’s wisdom shared with Peter Parker (Spider-Man): “With great power comes great responsibility.” New doors began opening in my mind, questions I had never considered spilled from my lips. Yet, this new and growing language I was acquiring was not weighed down with context or experience. Though the words themselves were not void of meaning, I had not taken the time to learn their depth or wrestle with what weight they bore. At first, this new vocabulary wasn’t much more than pretty balloons floating around—inflated with ego, pushed from one direction to another, shading my vision from their deeper meaning.
Entering into seminary with my Theology degree and in some ways an untempered knowledge, I continued learning words and phrases of the trade. My theological toolbox grew and grew—ready for that day when I would need to fix all the church’s problems. Only in hindsight am I able to say that there were professors along the way who challenged my flippant use of words—confronting how I understood and fit them together. My picture of the world was very much only two-dimensional. Yet, still so immature, I moved forward shrugging off many opportunities to pause and ponder the vocabulary I was entrusted with along the way. As I did a summer chaplaincy my first year in an Alaskan hospital, I quickly came face-to-face with life and death situations for which my theological jargon could not be easily used and received by others. I could talk with a patient about salvation; but what did it mean in light of his wife’s sudden heart attack that left him completely alone to raise their two adolescent children while still struggling to provide for the family on his low-wage job. I felt fine talking about God’s pervading nature; but how did it actually look in the young woman’s shambled life, who had been abandoned as a child, molested and abused countless times, and was now fearfully trying to distinguish between drug-induced hallucinations and reality. In no time I began recalling other (four letter) words I had learned long ago to express confusion, dismay, and anger towards my inferiority to speak as was needed of me in that time and place. I survived the experiences—gaining a little bit of humility, but still not fully aware of my superficial hold on the words I was using.
A year later I entered into an internship at a church—learning firsthand under the guidance of a supervisor and congregation the in’s and out’s of what I should come to expect in congregational ministry. Over the twelve months that followed, I was confronted yet again about how I use the theological lexicon I had been taught. In some ways, my supervisor foresaw the temptation and potential for seminarians in general to hide and distance themselves behind their unique language. With that cartoon image of a miniature devil on one shoulder and angel on the other—though mine were a professor and supervisor on either side—I found myself going back and forth with that hypothesis. Though he has since passed away, I still often think about Ralph’s hesitancy to jump headfirst into using theological language. Perhaps he was onto something. A slow and gentle wading out into how we talk about God may just be safer and more meaningful than diving in with jargon flailing about. Not everyone swims, speaks, or thinks with the same proficiency—we all must be taught over time.
Now three plus years into my first call as a pastor, I think lots about words. I don’t always get my words right—many times I get them wrong despite how much thought I give them. Still words are on my mind—my words, others’ words, unspoken words, written words, intended words, God’s Word. My work is daily shaped and formed by words in my interactions with others, comforting and consoling, addressing and affirming. I’ve come to set aside some words I’ve acquired along the way—not discarding them, but rather waiting to use them when the time seems more appropriate and opportune. As I teach confirmation students, we explore all kinds of words—those in Scripture and the Creed, words heard in other worshipping communities, words spoken amongst them, words shared at home, school, and in church, words transmitted over various forms of media. Reading, as I now love to do, I’m always fascinated by authors’ use of words—coining phrases and drawing the imagination to work. In this vocation of pastor, I consider myself a contributor and participator of words. I would never say I’m a keeper of words, if anything a fellow user (hopefully not abuser) and steward of the words entrusted to me.
Our words have the power to bear great depth as an ocean, and yet they can also be as shallow as a puddle. I’m reminded of past times when my words could have been used to help heal wounds, times when they worked wonders, times when they pierced in ways I regret. I’ve been blessed with occasions where the words given to me have illuminated hope in the darkness of despair, spoken the promise of life in the stillness of death, and been an embracing comfort in pain and suffering. In these such moments, though the words may be coming from my mouth they bear the breath of the Spirit speaking through me. I’ve also let my words get the best, and worst, of me—communicating with less than love. Given opportunities to sojourn with others through the wilderness of faith, there have been times when I instead gave quick and empty answers—avoiding the journey together. When my words could have served as a life ring amidst the storm, there have been times when I failed to give that needed solace and security. Words can move us—either toward or away from others. With the words of prayer, I ask God to continue to speak in and through me, to give me the good and necessary words to say, to enlighten my vocabulary and enhance how I share it with others—to transform my shallowness of words by the depth of the Word.