silence

the desert

A few years ago, Spike Lee directed the movie, 25th Hour.  It stars Edward Norton as a guy convicted of selling drugs.  He has one day left before he goes to prison.  He has one day to say goodbye to his friends and to imagine what could have been—if he hadn’t gone down the path he chose.

At the end of the movie, his father, played by Brian Cox, is driving him to prison.  They’re going up the interstate, and they’re approaching an exit that would take them out west.  He doesn’t want his son to go to prison.  His father says to give him the word, and they’ll just take off.

1 desertIn a beautiful monologue, as they’re traveling across America with its vast array of scenery, his father lays out the alternative.  He tells his son he can still have another life.  Find some little town out west and just blend in.  And he talks about the landscape.

He says, “Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die.  Nothin’ at all for miles around.  Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky.  Not a soul in sight.  No sirens.  No car alarms.  Nobody honkin’ atcha…  You find the silence out there; you find the peace.  You can find God.”

In the early church, in the 3rd through 5th centuries, people known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers went out into the wilderness.  They lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia.  They also were seeking God.  They were fleeing the corruption of the cities, as well as a church that more and more identified with the state, the Roman Empire.  Christ and Caesar were becoming indistinguishable.  (We often have that problem today!)

Brian Cox’s character in 25th Hour would likely agree with the Desert Mothers and Fathers.  The desert is a place to flee the corruption and madness of civilization.  It is certainly a good place to find solitude.  Still, if the motivation is to simply escape the stench of society and of other people, then that is not a path of love.  It is a path of self-deception, and ultimately, a hatred of those we would flee.  And the terrible irony is if we don’t make an effort at peace, then we carry those people with us—and not in a good way.  It’s a burden.

Solitude need not only be found in the desert.  It can and should be found here in daily life, in times of withdrawal from the busy voices filling our lives to hearing God.  (But maybe escaping the stench of others still applies!  I’m including myself in the category of stinky!)

The desert is a place of contradiction.  God can be found there.  It can be a place of new life, of renewal.  But it is equally a place of death.  It is a place of thirst.  When moisture is at a premium, we shouldn’t expect to find lush gardens.  But it can also be a place of great beauty.

2 desert

The desert can be inhospitable, especially for those who do not respect it.  The desert is not a place for arrogance.

In his book, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton speaks of those desert monastics, the desert wilderness, and the way we often treat the desert—to our peril.

Regarding the Desert Fathers and Mothers, he says that they “believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men [and women]…  The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone…  God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.”[1]

There is something supremely counter-cultural when looking at the desert this way.  It is a rejection of what we usually believe is important.

3 desertFor those who would indeed reject the comforts and gadgets that we become enamored with, it can in fact be a place to be alone with God.

Still, as Merton points out, there are other aspects.  “First, the desert is the country of madness.  Second, it is the refuge of the devil…  [Remember, the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the desert, and he was tempted by the devil.]  Thirst drives [us] mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has [imprisoned] himself in it and closed out everything else.”[2]

I suppose there is a bit of madness, a bit of craziness involved in choosing to live in the wilderness—maybe a good kind of crazy, but still, a craziness that has to be held in check.

In Mark 1, we see someone who’s a bit of a madman, John the Baptist.  He’s been out in the wilderness, and his diet and appearance might be considered slightly crazy.  (Perhaps I’m speaking out of turn.  Do we have any connoisseurs of locusts and wild honey?)  Despite all of that, people are going out to him so that they can be baptized.

4 desertNotice what he says about the coming One, the One whose advent is near.  “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  John uses water, but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and as Matthew and Luke add, with “fire” (Mt 3:11, Lk 3:16).  The Holy Spirit is often associated with fire, as on the day of Pentecost.

How appropriate it is, while in the desert, to speak of one who baptizes with the fire of the Spirit.

If we can summon and practice patience, we can hear the voice of the Spirit in those lonely places.

In Isaiah 40, the prophet speaks words of comfort.  In verse 3 we hear, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  The desert is indeed a place for listening.  But we have to be silent.

Verses 4 and 5 add, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”  According to the prophet, the desert is not only a place for listening, but for listening to good news.

Mark borrows words from Isaiah, agreeing that the desert is a place for listening—and listening to good news.  However, he adds a new dimension, a different perspective.  Here, it is word that Messiah is coming; the advent is near.

We need that word in the desert, because as I mentioned earlier, there is also the reality of human arrogance in the way we treat the desert.

In his book, Merton also talks about this.  With our technology, “the wilderness at last comes into its own.  [We] no longer need God, and [we] can live in the desert on [our] own resources.  [We] can build there [our] fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal and experimentation and vice.”[3]

In our desert southwest, with moisture at a premium, metro areas have been built.  And when we think of experimentation and vice, what better example of a metro area is there than Las Vegas!  And thinking of fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal, what better slogan is there than “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”?

5 desert

He goes on, “When [we] and [our] money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere.  Everywhere is desert.”[4]

I imagine you’ve figured out “desert” as a place of building those protected cities of withdrawal, of human arrogance, is not simply a literal desert.  It is the desert in our own lives.  At the same time, desert is the place where we listen for good news.  The desert is where we can find God.  As I said before, the desert is a place of contradiction.

What are the deserts in our lives?  Where are those places of contradiction?  Where do we need the crazy ones to bring us water—to plunge us into water—and bring good news?

The prophet comments on our fragility, saying, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (vv. 6-7).  And in one of the most powerful lines in the Old Testament (in my humble opinion), he declares, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8).

6 desertAs the rock band Kansas once sang, “All we do / Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see / Dust in the wind / All we are is dust in the wind.”  Even our plans are dust in the wind, or perhaps, sand being blown by the desert wind.

Desert experiences, be they uncertainty, abandonment, bereavement, whatever, can be barren and trying.  Even so, there is that voice in the wilderness, crying out to prepare the way of the Lord.  Even in the desert—or maybe, especially in the desert—the Spirit blows where it wills.  That Spirit of fire calls us to good news.  Even in the bleakest of places, the coming One welcomes us.

When we acknowledge and embrace and take joy in that, then the desert will bloom.

 

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958. eBook edition, 2011), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 2, paragraph 1.

[2] Merton, 1.2.3

[3] Merton, 1.2.5

[4] Merton, 1.2.6


fasting just in time for Advent

In recent years, we have been reminded there are more obese people on planet Earth than those who are malnourished.  There are a number of reasons: love of fast food and of huge portions in general, lack of exercise, and oh, let’s go again with huge portions—at Thanksgiving dinner!

1 Is 58I’ve never thought of myself as particularly gluttonous, though I can’t claim I never over-indulge.  Still, if I had to name a single spiritual discipline I’ve been most reluctant to follow, it would probably be fasting.  At first glance, considering the note I mentioned at the beginning, it seems that I’m far from alone.  Still, as we continue, we’ll see how fasting is about more than abstaining from food.

Banu mentioned last week about the tradition of Advent, of how it’s about self-denial, waiting in expectation for the coming of the Lord.  With the madcap rush of the economically-driven invented holiday called Black Friday, we are encouraged—no, ordered—to jettison our sense of self-control.  It regrettably (or perhaps, fortunately) demonstrates our need for spiritual discipline.  It shows our need for spiritual disciplines, plural.

Here’s something about spiritual disciplines themselves.  They are practices, things we do.  They aren’t feelings or emotional states, although spiritual disciplines could possibly foster them.  No, spiritual disciplines, at least Christian spiritual disciplines, are to shape us into being more like Jesus, having the faith of Jesus.

And they are indeed practices, things we weave into our everyday lives.  Examples would be fasting (as mentioned), reading the Bible, prayer, worship, service, being accountable to someone loving and wise.  And there are plenty others.

I will confess I often have a problem with meditation.  I too often focus on the “monkey mind,” just jumping around.  I’m thinking about everything in the world.  “Wait, I need to write that down…  I need to fidget with that object on the table…  Hey, who’s that walking outside?”

One thing the disciplines are not is showtime!  They are not about self-promotion.  This isn’t something you post on Facebook.  If you encounter someone who says, “What has two thumbs and is becoming more Christlike every day?  This guy!” then clearly that poor soul is sadly mistaken.

2 Is 58

There’s a little bit about spiritual disciplines in general.  Now let’s get back to our feature story!

I think many of us have almost a fear of fasting.

I imagine we’ve all had our blood drawn to check medicine levels or whatever.  Sometimes that means fasting for 12 hours or maybe just skipping breakfast.  I remember one time going to the clinic to provide a sample, which required fasting after midnight.  The next morning, some of the people there were saying how they wanted to arrive at 8:30, as soon as the place opened, so they could hurry up and get something to eat.  Apparently, they were starving to death!

I don’t want to spend too long on the mechanics of fasting.  Suffice it to say that it doesn’t always mean consuming nothing whatsoever.  There are many different ways to fast.

In her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun says the purpose of fasting is “to let go of an appetite in order to seek God on matters of deep concern for others, myself, and the world.”[1]  Clearly, “an appetite” can refer to many different things.  As St. Paul says in Romans 13, we’re to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ [like a garment], and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v. 14).

Here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It speaks of the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence taken to extremes.

When we take self-indulgence and the temptation to self-promotion we just looked at, we find our scripture reading in Isaiah 58 deals with something like this.  This last part of the book of Isaiah is often dated a few years after the return from exile in Babylon.  The initial joy of the exiles has faded as they deal with opposition.  They’re confronted by those who were never sent into exile—and by those who have settled in the land since then.

Their faith is faltering.  And as we look through the scripture text, we can see evidence of the ways in which many of them have stumbled.  We can also see evidence of their attempts to make things right.

3 Is 58

Right off the bat, we know something’s up.  The prophet is told, “Shout out, do not hold back!…  Announce to my people their rebellion” (v. 1).  Apparently, they’re not living in a way that befits God’s people, even though “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” (v. 2).

The people in our scripture reading say some things to God that might sound familiar.  “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (v. 3).  Where are you, God?  Why aren’t you paying attention?  Why don’t you help us?

The people are behaving as though fasting and other pious actions can compensate for injustice.  They think some acts of worship can cover up their crimes.

What have they been doing that’s so bad?  According to the scripture, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (vv. 3-4).  Eugene Peterson says, “The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground.”  The people are just going through the motions.  They’re not letting themselves be changed.

And here’s something else spiritual disciplines are not.  They are not magic.  There are no incantations to utter that will compel God into doing anything.  God is a God of love.  God is an ethical God, which means God cares about ethics.  It matters what we do; it matters how we live our lives.

This is the fast God chooses: “to loose the bonds of injustice…to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (v. 6).  Verse 9 has something I find especially interesting.  What’s disapproved of here is “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.”

The pointing of the finger.  We see this all the time.  We like to blame others; we try to avoid taking responsibility.  It becomes really obvious during political campaigns.  Advertisements flood the airwaves: ads which insult our intelligence and present the opposing candidate in the worst possible light.

I mean that literally.  You might hear a voiceover saying something like this: “Millions lack health care, but fat cat Joe Blow just doesn’t care!”  Meanwhile, the opponent is presented in a black and white still photograph, or worse, moving in slow motion.  That’s a neat trick.  You can make anyone look bad by showing them in slow motion, especially if they’re about to sneeze.  (I don’t know if anyone’s actually done that, but it would make the person look stupid.)

4 Is 58
Gesundheit!

And then when we switch to the candidate the ad is promoting, muted colors burst with the power of the rainbow, people are smiling, children are laughing, joyful music is heard—the kingdom has come!

Unfortunately, “the pointing of the finger” isn’t restricted to the political realm.  It is alive and well in the church.

“Fasting is an opportunity to lay down an appetite,” Calhoun says, “an appetite for food, for media, for shopping…  Fasting exposes how we try to keep empty hunger at bay and gain a sense of well-being by devouring creature comforts.”  Speaking of creature comforts, when the power goes out, I want it restored as soon as possible!

“Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us.  Our small denials of the self show us just how little taste we actually have for sacrifice or time with God.”[2]

I said earlier that I think many of us have a fear of fasting.  When we include these other appetites, it’s probably safe to say that we have a terror of fasting.  Americans in particular are afflicted with this terror.  Our entire civilization seems designed to keep us distracted.

Calhoun continues, “Skip the radio or TV for a day and become aware of how fidgety you are when you aren’t being amused or diverted.”[3]  I would say it’s become more of a challenge to avoid the internet or to stop fiddling with cell phones.

She asks a couple of questions.  “When you feel empty or restless, what do you do to try to fill the emptiness?  What does this tell you about your heart?”[4]

That’s some powerful stuff.  We all feel empty and restless, some more so than others.  What do we do about it?

When we fast from our appetites (and everyone has their own), we say to them, “I don’t need you!  I don’t have to be your slave!”  We begin to set ourselves free from our own chains, and we’re better able to show others how to be free from their chains.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, though this sermon really hasn’t been about that.  (Unless we consider Christ to be the ruler of our appetites!)

Do we really need to hear about fasting, just in time for Advent?  As I said earlier, the season of Advent has been a time of penitent reflection, of waiting for the Lord.  But you know the old saying, “No good things come to those who wait.”  (Hold on, do I have that right?)

5 Is 58

What are some things we need to fast from?  Can we fast from doing and allow ourselves to be?  Can we fast from busyness and allow ourselves to be silent, allow ourselves to listen?  How would that affect our relationships with each other and with God?

What does the prophet say?  “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (v. 10).  Let’s have a proper fast, and let’s let the light shine.

 

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook:  Practices That Transform Us (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2005), 218.

[2] Calhoun, 220.

[3] Calhoun, 220.

[4] Calhoun, 221.


the enemy of Thanksgiving

Looking ahead to a special ecumenical service for Thanksgiving, I figured, “Well, at least I know what my theme is!”  For some people, the holiday of Thanksgiving is mainly about the history.  For others, it’s about the turkey, the pumpkin pie, the (fill in the blank).  And for some other very sad souls, it’s about football—especially the Dallas Cowboys!

Still, focusing on the theme of thanksgiving, of gratitude, while avoiding some of the clichés—it’s not as easy as it would seem at first.  I’ve found that sometimes the best way to understand something is to look at its opposite.  Having said that, thinking of the opposite of “thankful” as “unthankful,” and the opposite of “gratitude” as “ingratitude,” might not be much help after all!

1 thanks

I want to bring up something we don’t often hear about in sermons or Sunday school, and that is, the seven deadly sins of the medieval church.  Can anyone name them?  We have envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath.  There’s one of them, sloth, that a lot of people think isn’t so bad.  But that would be a mistake!

The original Latin word for that specific deadly sin is “acedia.”  Over time, it became lost in the term “sloth.”  Most of us think of that as laziness. (Plus we have the image of those cute critters hanging from trees!)  It is laziness, but not simply the kind meaning you’re a couch potato.

Acedia literally means a “lack of care.”  In early monasticism, it was called the “noonday demon.”  It’s a condition of spiritual apathy, a state of sluggishness, in which the afflicted person is unwilling or unable to care about much of anything at all—at least, it ends up that way.

Fred Craddock, the well-known preacher in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), describes it this way.  Instead of mere laziness, he says it’s “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’…Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’  It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”[1]  I don’t care.  But it can manifest itself in ways other than some obvious lack of caring.

If we can rouse ourselves enough to study sloth, then I think we’re getting close to the opposite of gratitude.  In her book, Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris goes into great detail at how she has seen the noonday demon at work in her own life.  As I read her book, I felt like some of my theories were being reinforced.  For a long time, I’ve believed that of the seven deadly sins, sloth is the deadliest!

Norris quotes Soren Kierkegaard from Either/Or.  It’s like a strange twist on Dr. Seuss.  “I do not care for anything.  I do not care to ride, for the exercise is too violent.  I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous.  I do not care to lie down, for I should either have to remain lying, and I do not care to do that, or I should have to get up again, and I do not care to do that either…  I do not care at all.”[2]

Has anyone else ever felt that way?  It’s almost like all the color of life gets washed away, and all that’s left are blah shades of gray.

2 thanksThere’s a passage in Norris’ book that reminds me of a line from the movie The Usual Suspects.  It’s when Kevin Spacey says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”  In the movie, he’s referring to the notorious criminal, Keyser Soze, but it’s clear he means more than that particular villain.  The quote ends, “And like that…he’s gone.”

This is what Norris wrote: “I am intrigued that over the course of the last sixteen hundred years we managed to lose the word acedia…  We are tempted to regard with reverence those dedicated souls who make themselves available ‘twenty-four/seven’ and regard silence as unproductive, solitude as irresponsible.  But when distraction becomes the norm, we are in danger of becoming immunized from feeling itself…  Is it possible that in twenty-first-century America, acedia has come into its own?  How can that be, when so few know its name?”[3]

Obviously, we don’t need to know the name of something for it to control us.  We can even forget that it exists.  Are we too “slothful” to identify and resist acedia?

In our scripture text, St. Paul urges Timothy “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone,” including those in authority (vv. 1-2).  None of those items are on Mr. Sloth’s “to-do” list.  None of those look very attractive to Ms. Acedia.

Something the apostle urges Timothy to do, as well as us, is to look outward.  No one can do the things in that list while constantly focusing inward.  It’s impossible to live a life of supplication, prayer, intercession, and thanksgiving that way.

Paul’s expressed desire in verse 2, that we “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” may lead some to say we should leave well enough alone.  Let the world outside take care of itself.  But guess what?  That’s another way acedia raises its slothful head!

Perhaps the greatest sin of sloth, the worst assault of acedia, is the effect on the imagination.  Its biggest crime is what it does to creativity.  As Norris says, “Acedia can flatten any place into a stark desert landscape and make hope a mirage.”  It can make our world “obscenely small.”[4]  That’s a compelling statement.  If we believe the lie that we have nothing to offer—that we aren’t creative—then the problems in life will start to feel too overwhelming.  We will lose our ability to care.

“To someone in the grip of acedia, the beauty of sunlight, and of life itself, can only reinforce a bitter ingratitude.”[5]

What’s the opposite of love?  Is it hate?  Could it be indifference?  As the saying goes, there’s a thin line between love and hate.  But where indifference resides—where the lack of caring reigns supreme—the vitality of life gets drained away.  And that is a sin.  And that is deadly.

3 thanks

So, in a few days, pray for the gift of thanksgiving.  Ask for the grace of gratitude.  (Actually, that’s not a bad prayer every day!)  Let it lead you into the world “in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (vv. 3-4).

 

[1] Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008), 115.

[2] Norris, 16.

[3] Norris, 45-46.

[4] Norris, 39, 85.

[5] Norris, 202.


silence


“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” That’s how chapter 8 of Revelation begins. What in the world, one may ask, is going on?

In chapter 6, John has a vision of the Lamb opening the first six of seven seals on God’s scroll. (This is the Lamb “standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes,” from 5:6.) As the six seals are broken, scary stuff happens—judgments are revealed. Chapter 7 features the servants of God being marked with a seal on their foreheads. The enigmatic number 144,000 appears. Then, as the seventh seal is opened, there is silence. Artistically, this is great. There’s a dramatic pause before… Before what?

In her contribution to the Anchor Bible, Revelation, J. Massyngberde Ford acknowledges this “ominous silence” with its “important dramatic effect.” (134) But more important is the theology. She mentions another apocalyptic work, 2 Esdras (also known as 4 Ezra), which speaks of the silence at creation. This book purports to contain visions of Ezra. In chapter 6, he speaks of creation, when “the spirit was blowing, and darkness and silence embraced everything; the sound of human voices was not yet there” (v. 39). In chapter 7, his angelic companion tells him of the “primeval silence” (v. 30).

Still, the overriding theme is that of judgment. A book from the apocrypha, 1 Maccabees, begins with Alexander the Great, of whom it is said, “He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up” (1:3). His foolish pride results in his being judged.

But of course, more than any of these other examples, John is referencing the Old Testament. There are many cases of silence associated with the judgment of God. A prophet that John makes liberal use of is Zechariah. In 2:13 of his book, we read, “Be silent, all people, before the Lord; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.”

There is silence. Then there are seven trumpets given to seven angels. And we get to go again!

Here’s a question. What precisely do we mean by the judgment of God?

(The photo of sunset was taken from our front porch in June 2010.)


wilderness of words

I like words. I do; I love words. I’m fascinated by the whole concept of language. When I was young, I seriously thought about a career in science. I was, and still am, fascinated by mathematics—which is its own kind of language. Still, as I got older, I discovered a love of the humanities, the liberal arts. Language is central to the liberal arts, be it history, literature, philosophy, or a number of other fields, including my college major, political science. (That term “political science” is strange to me. I’ve tended to think of it as more an art than a science!)

Unfortunately, no matter how much one may like words, they can prove to be slippery little devils. Words aren’t always the best way to communicate. That’s true, even when we’re careful with the words we use.

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com
In a meditation on “choosing words wisely,” Henri Nouwen underlines the necessity of thinking before we speak. “When we are boiling with anger and eager to throw bitter words at our opponents,” he says, “it is better to remain silent. Words spoken in rage will make reconciliation very hard. Choosing life and not death, blessings and not curses, often starts by choosing to remain silent or choosing carefully the words that open the way to healing.”*

But even when we choose our words carefully, there’s no guarantee that the recipient of those words will understand or receive them in the way we intend. There’s plenty of puzzling over what is, in fact, being communicated.

In 1 Timothy 1:1-11, Paul is guiding “his true-born son in the faith” on the pros and cons of using words. He warns him of “certain people” who are “teaching erroneous doctrines and devoting themselves to interminable myths and genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation, and do not further God’s plan for us, which works through faith” (vv. 3-4). You may find this impossible to believe, but there really are people who enjoy using words, not for the sake of clarity or faith, but rather, they’re motivated by listening to the sound of their own voices—or seeing their own words in print or on the internet.

The instruction of the apostle to his younger colleague—which includes correcting those who are disrupting the well-being of the community—“has love as its goal, the love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a genuine faith” (v. 5). If this is absent, everything else is useless. We can have true words, but without that love, they become false.

Paul alerts Timothy to those who go off course. It’s easier to notice when someone is spouting complete nonsense. What’s more difficult is when the teaching—or ordinary conversation—is apparently in line with the truth. In verse 6, Timothy gets this caution from his teacher: “Through lack of these some people have gone astray into a wilderness of words.” That’s how it reads in the Revised English Bible. I must confess; I believe I have spent some time in that wilderness. There have been times when I was talking about stuff I really didn’t understand.

The Greek word mataiologia literally means “vain” or “empty talk.” The neglect of love leads to empty talk. When we’re more concerned with winning a debate than seeking the truth, we wind up in that wilderness. Paul warns against those who “do not understand either the words they use or the subjects about which they are so dogmatic” (v. 7). Here’s how the Good News Bible puts it: those who “do not understand their own words or the matters about which they speak with so much confidence.” Unfortunately, we have no shortage of that.

When love is absent, our actions are worse than useless; they’re positively harmful. Jesus is not served through hateful words and deeds. He weeps when we indulge in that spiteful foolishness. And it’s especially bad when we do that stuff in his name—when we claim that our Christian faith leads us to do horrible things.

When we yield to the powers of death and hate within us, we have no gospel. We have no good news, for ourselves or for others. We only have bad news. We demonstrate how poorly we know and love Jesus.

Fortunately for us, Jesus knows all about wilderness—even a wilderness of words. In the wilderness, he is tempted by the devil. And in what form do these temptations come? Don’t they come in the form of words that sound true? One of the temptations is even backed up with scripture.

Jesus shows us a world without fear, anxiety, or rejected emotions. He shows us a world where his words bring about the reality of his truth as the living Word. Jesus speaks into the wilderness without his words being a weapon manipulating the reality of love. When we sense that we’re lost in the wilderness—even a wilderness of our own choice—we do indeed spend our energy on controlling, oppressing, hurting…without patience, forgiveness, mercy, but only passing judgment.

As I just noted, yielding to the powers of death and hate within leave us with no gospel: no good news, for ourselves or others. We only have bad news. We keep Jesus at arm’s length.

But Jesus is the one who leads us to safety. Our job is to fight the appalling appeal of hardening our hearts. Remember that our words alone do not convey truth. For that, we must submit to the living Word who is Jesus the Christ. May he shine in and through our words.

www.henrinouwen.org (from Bread for the Journey, Daily Meditation for 5 September 2010)