the power of words…

This past Friday my wife and I rented bicycles in DC and rode around, from monument to monument during the evening hours.  Though both the design and craftsmanship of these monuments are stunning, I was struck most by the power of the words.  At the Lincoln Memorial there was an endless stream of visitors having their picture taken in front of his the president’s feet.  Off to the sides though, are two of Lincoln’s speeches.  To his right is the Gettysburg address, offered in the wake of that bloody battle.  To the right is the 2nd inaugural address, the one that Lincoln gave during the civil war.

It’s here, off to the side, in the shadows, that you’ll find people being shaped by the power of words.  They’re standing, reading.  I watch a young man stand and read the entire wall.  I remember reading the whole wall as well, years ago.  We’d arrived in DC at 5 in the morning, and made our way to the Lincoln memorial just as the sun was rising.  We were the only ones there at that early hour, and the words of Lincoln penetrated me, especially the ones about both sides of the civil war appealing to the same God (a topic which is worthy of its own blog post).

Words, which particular ones are used, how they are put together, and how they’re communicated, have power.  I came away from the Lincoln memorial reminded that Lincoln knew how to use words.  The words etched in stone at the memorial were born out from a man who grew up reading, digesting ideas, and learning critical thinking skills.  These were the skills that produced the content.  But beyond the content, Lincoln was a master at delivery, and the truth is that it’s often the manner in which ideas are communicated that determines whether the idea will be embraced or rejected.  I’ve watched debates where the party with better content lost where it matters because of their failure to communicate persuasively.

My wife and I went from the Lincoln Memorial to the Ford Theater (where Lincoln was assassinated), and there learned more about this remarkable man.  As a child, he read broadly, and loved to listen to people who viewed things differently than he did.  When he became president, he appointed his opponent to be Secretary of State!

I fear that this kind of openness, dialogue, and lifelong learning is being displaced in our culture by entrenched camps: conservative and liberal, left and right.  It’s happening in both political and theological circles, so much so that I already know what Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are going to say before they open their mouths.

In contrast,  Lincoln showed us that it’s possible to have convictions, and remain open to ongoing transformation.  But such openness requires a sort of courage, a belief that we won’t fall off the deep end if we engage in dialogue with a Muslim about their faith, or a Christian who also believes in Ron Paul’s small government, or Obamacare, or a soldier, or a Mennonite who believes all war is wrong.  The truth is that we won’t fall off the deep end if we’ve been raised, not on sound bytes and stereotypes, but on a love of truth, which is communicated through the words and ideas of a person.  After all, if we’re lovers of truth, we must be becoming people who are loving God with our minds as well as our spirits.  Here are some ways to develop this:

1. cultivate curiosity – I read Fast Times, and The Sun.  The former is written for millennialist entrepreneurs, the later for introspective poets who’ve dropped out of most of mainstream culture.  In both cases, there’s wheat and chaff.  In both cases I need to sift.  It’s the sifting, the discerning, that keeps us growing, as we try to understand how the truth found in Christ speaks to the issues of the day, and why other people think the way they do.

2. read books – If you’re only reading Christian non-fiction, you’re not reading widely enough.  Paul quoted the Greek poets in his sermons because he read more than the Bible.  I’m reading Tolstoy right now, and on deck is a historical novel about living in an occupied village in France during WWII.

3. know some news – I was surprised to learn, in the Newsuem, the the USA only ranks 18th in the world in ‘freedom of the press’, largely because the accepted notion here is that there’s a liberal or conservative bias to every news source.  It’s because of these biases that I sample my news from many sources.

4. talk with people who believe differently than you – The narrative of the Bible shows us that the best teaching often comes from unlikely sources: a Samaritan, a tax-collector, a Gentile, a leper, a man born blind.  I wonder what I might have to learn from those outside my circle?  I wonder what I miss by preemptively excluding them?

5. Remember that truth is a Person. This should have been at the top of the list because it’s our saturation with, love for, and loyalty to Jesus that is the foundation for all our learning and growing, and if we’re rooted in Him, our words will, over time, and with increasing clarity, impart life.  Miss this foundation of Christ, and you miss everything.

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  • Patrick

    is it fast times or fast company?

  • raincitypastor

    Oops!!! You are right. Fast Company.

  • Amazing that Lincoln wrote two speeches so profound, yet so short they fit on a wall. Amazing.

  • Graham

    Looking forward to the post about both sides claiming God’s on their side. You’re inspiring me to read some war and peace or brothers K. That’s two recent posts with Russian Lit giants…

  • Becca

    Brother’s K is David James Duncan, Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky.

  • Hi Richard,
    Thank you for this posting. I recently moved from Seattle and the BCC community to spend the remaining summer weeks in northern california. It’s a difficult transition in many ways, one of which is the constant dialogue around Eastern thought and spirituality. I’m trying to stay open minded while holding on to the truth of Christ and be sensitive to cultural difference compared to spiritual/religious difference. This post was an encouragement for me.