Let’s Remake the World with Words (The Day of Pentecost)

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I didn’t grow up in a household where poetry was read or eloquent prayers were prayed. But, I did grow up in a household where nighttime stories were shared and where proper grammar mattered. I have distinct memories of my brother and myself curled up alongside my father in our over-stuffed 80s Lazy Boy recliner, as he read ‘The Hobbit’ to us – complete with character voices and dramatic cadence. I also remember being gently corrected and encouraged to use ‘may’ and ‘can’ properly, along with ‘I and me; she and her; he and him, and exacting the art of ‘whom.’

Language mattered in my household.
Words matter to me now.

It’s why I write a full manuscript when I preach. I place an infinite amount of weight on each word and worry that if I just spoke off the cuff, I might somehow do injustice to God. Many of my colleagues don’t need the security of the words in front of them; I envy their ability to speak smoothly and coherently. Now, I’m aware this is more related to my insecurity as a public speaker than the actual power of my words…

However, I believe that undergirding of ‘words matter’ is why as I’ve grown older, I’ve found much solace and truth in poetry and lyrics, in Biblical stories, and in memoirs. All these genres use words to summon worlds into being, which is a long standing tradition of understanding within rabbinical thought.

And so, when I read these words by Gregory Orr this week they took my breath away. They speak deep Spirit truths and stirred anew the hope of our forefathers and foremothers.

So, if you hear nothing else I say today, please pause in this moment and hear this:

“Let’s remake the world with words.
 Not frivolously, nor
To hide from what we fear,
But with a purpose.
As Wordsworth said, remove
‘The dust of custom’ so things
Shine again, each object arrayed
In its robe of original light.
And then we’ll see the world
As if for the first time,
As once we gazed at the beloved
Who was gazing at us.”

For me this is a beautiful poem about chaos and responsibility and how our words help shape the world into order and make something of it.

And, I think, this is undeniably the meaning of Pentecost.
Utterly undeniably. 

And yet, it is so curious to me that these words are spoken into being by Gregory Orr (the poet) who claims he has no faith. He says he lost his faith on the day he accidentally killed his brother, at the age of 12. He says that nothing within religiosity provided consolation and in fact, the words of religion attempted to provide premature consolation by saying, “Oh, it’ll be fine – your brother is in heaven now.”

I don’t really know, but I think since the words that were spoken to him held no consolation, helped to establish no order, and did not reflect his reality, he began writing and speaking words into the world which did provide consolation, order, and reality.

Which is, in essence, what God does with words. God speaks and seizes the world – not roughly or by the scruff, but fervently and tenderly.
At the dawn of creation; at the incarnation of Jesus; and at the invocation of the Spirit – God’s words summon worlds into being.

In our story from Acts, it must have felt like the Creation story all over again, with wind and fire, and words and chaos…something new bursting forth everywhere you looked.

With all the drama and excitement of that day, it is words that really made a difference.

On that first Pentecost God inspired humanity’s language, granting us sacred, powerful words and insight to help shape the world. It is an awesome and dangerous responsibility. Our words can sanctify or they can scar the world; they can create shimmering light or barren darkness; they can heal a heart or shatter a soul.

In short, our words, similarly to God’s words, can bring about order and chaos, darkness and light.

It seems to me that lately, and social media anonymity probably has a lot to do with this, there is a lack of sensitivity to words. Of course, you’d expect this statement from someone who loves words. But, mostly we regard words as tools; we forget that words are a gift of the Spirit. Over and over again the Spirit has come to us and been expressed through words.

I know this may sound dramatic, but I believe that one of the great tragedies of our times is the primary vessel of the Spirit is broken, namely speech. Our words are broken, our speech unrecognizable to God.

We need a Pentecost experience today to refresh our appreciation and wonder of the mystery of words. Not for the sake of words, but for the sake of the working of the Spirit. Because there is no question that Creation needs revived and our World needs new order.

Unfortunately, by our own power we cannot do this. And we would be wise to admit we cannot. The story of the Tower of Babel is ripe with evidence of what happens when people try to be God or supersede God’s power.

We need the Holy Spirit today more than ever.

I know we don’t often call upon the Holy Spirit. We are tame people – at least in church. We don’t rise up and shout from the rooftops; we don’t fall to our knees overcome with emotions. But, we need Her. We need the flames of passion and the winds of change to take hold of us and set us winging.

We need to pray for the Holy Spirit to, as Gregory Orr puts it, “remove the dust of custom” from our lives: to kick off the grime that has infested our world, the staleness that has mucked up God’s church, and the rust that has corroded our vocabulary.

I don’t know what words were spoken that Pentecost day. I also don’t know what words were silenced that Pentecost day. But, I do know that on that day the question that must’ve been stirred in each and every soul was, “Are we not of interest to one another?”

This must’ve been the question that the Spirit posed to each heart. Because, suddenly they saw the ‘other’ with kindness and wonder. Suddenly, they were interested.

This Spirit poses this same question to us today.
Are we not of interest to one another?
And by ‘interest’ I don’t mean: Oh, I wonder where she got her shoes? – OR – He sure has a fascinating job.

I mean something much deeper than that.
The Spirit is pushing our thoughts much deeper to consider whether we are people who are in community with one another? Do we call to one another? Do we heed one another? Do we seek to know each other?

I’m not sure we are those people…
But, I hope we’re being formed into those people for the sake of the world and for the sake of ourselves.

As deeply as I know my children, I do not know what’s in their heads, but I crave knowing them that deeply… This is how it is with those we love most intensely.

BUT, I think it’s also the way we are being called to encounter anyone we don’t quite understand or even care to understand: refugees, LGBTQIA individuals, our ex-spouses, the boss who makes our skin crawl, the sibling who has let us down yet again…

We are called to be interested in others.
To use our words and our listening to be curious.

I know it sounds simple or silly even, but I believe our words are a gifting of the Spirit.
And I desperately believe they matter now, because there’s so much discord, disconnect, and division in the world.

I once had someone say to me in reference to sexuality, “You don’t have to understand. You just have to believe me.” Such powerful words. So illuminating. I don’t have to understand. I just need to heed the other. To believe. To listen. To speak. To love.

Maybe on that day, what they finally understood was the mightiest word is: love.
Maybe the word of the Spirit is as simple and as complex as that.
Maybe that’s the greatest word we can speak and enact.

Not just as a romantic word. There’s so much more to it. The word is sober. The word is grave. The word is not just about something light and happy and pleasurable. The word calls up deep, deep responsibilities and deep, deep relationship.

One of the unintentional nuances of Gregory Orr’s poem that I love, is the use of the word, “Let’s.” It is such a small, unassuming word, and yet… it matters greatly.

When God, the Three in One, creates the world it’s, “Let us…”
But, when the people tried to build a tower to the heaven it was, “Let us…”
And so, when God disturbed their speech, and it was, “Let us…”

There is much potential in working together as one; in being an ‘us.’

So, let us dust off custom and apathy.
Let us be interested and of interest to the other. 
Let us use words to provoke curiosity and kindness.
Let us remake the world with love.
Let us see the world as God does.
Let the Spirit speak anew through us.