We all understand the power of words. “Words can never hurt me,” we used to chant, but words can wound just as deeply as sticks and stones. Words like “I never loved you.” Like “This marriage is over.” Like “hate” and “sub-human” and “declaration of war.”
Yet words also liberate and bind and inspire. “Four score and seven years ago.” “Tear down this wall.” “I love you.” “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son.” In fact, we Christians are so committed to the power of the word that we call our most sacred text “The Word,” and we even refer (after the manner given to us in the Word) to the second person of the Godhead as “The Word,” or Logos.
I recently had my own encounter with the power of a word. It was not spoken in a moment of world historical significance. It was not a fancy word, not spoken eloquently or by a famous person. It was spoken by my daughter, who is now 22 months and 2 days old. What was the word?
I don’t know how many words my daughter knows by now, but she knows quite a few. Scores, as Abraham Lincoln might say. And every now and then we hear a new word come stumbling half-formed out of her mouth. Recently we’ve heard, “Watch out,” “That’s funny,” “How are you?” and “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” Every night she asks me for a “Gou-gou story.” Gou-gou means “dog” in Chinese, and she gets very upset if I say the words, “The little gou-gou was very sad,” and she laughs with relief when I end each story with “And the gou-gou was so happy. In that moment, he was the happiest gou-gou in the whole world.” The words sad and happy have great meaning to my daughter right now.
Of all the words she had said before, however, she had never said the word home. We have lived in three different places now during her young life. When she was born, we lived in an apartment in Dorchester, MA, on a seventh floor overlooking baseball and soccer fields where she would watch the local high school teams practice. Then we shared a house in Cambridge for a year with our good friends Jeff and Tara, and their two wonderful sons.
We moved to Atlanta about 6 weeks ago, and I remember the incredible burst of energy I felt once I pulled the moving truck up to our house. I arrived at 3pm after a long weekend with a lot of driving. My wife wanted me to wait until help arrived, but I couldn’t wait, so I started unloading the truck myself. Without stopping for longer than a minute or two to eat half a slice of pizza, I did not stop unloading, packing and assembling until 3am the next morning. Then I woke up at 7am and started working again, and did not stop until 2am the morning following. It went on like this for a week, as my wife stayed at her parents’ home and I stay up late every night, preparing our house.We’ve been married for nearly 10 years now, and we put off purchasing a home while my wife went through law school and I pursued a Ph.D. It was – I confess – frustrating to see friends from my undergraduate years who went straight into the working world, or even who took law degrees or medical degrees, both of which take much less time than my chosen course of study, and they were able to purchase homes for their families. Although I knew that these were not the values that I shared with my wife, I felt at times that I was not providing. And when my wife felt overwhelmed by the stresses and financial pressures we faced, I felt shame deep in my gut — and those feelings only intensified after she gave birth to our daughter. I wanted to provide for my wife so that she could choose freely whether or not she wanted to work, and now I had to provide for our daughter so that she could have every opportunity to succeed.
So I was thrilled to prepare this home for my wife and baby girl. As we bought furniture and settled in, I relished seeing my daughter running around gleefully inside the house. And then, when I was bringing her home at the end of the day, I was moved, choked up, when I heard her say that word. She said it clear as day. A simple statement of fact: “Home.”
That’s right, I thought. She understands. We are home. This is our home. A place of warmth and shelter and safety, a little world that we inhabit together as a family, a world we only really share with one another.
I was deeply grateful in that moment. Deeply happy. Deeply in love with my daughter. Deeply moved by the power of this word. And proud to provide a safe haven in which my daughter could grow in body and soul.
I could not help but think, however, of all those who are losing their homes right now due to our national financial distress. I could not help but feel the pain of those many thousands of fathers – and mothers – who have had to look their children in the eyes and tell them that they were losing their homes. We see the statistics and worry for our economy, and the political blame game is played. It is important to understand the causes of the housing bubble and collapse, but it important for us as Christians to appreciate, and to feel, the immense human cost behind every house that is lost, the anguish and disappointment, fear and depression. The emotional toil of this great recession is vast and oceanic.
Put aside the political issues for now. I am not talking about those who took homes they could not afford, or government agencies that pressed home ownership beyond responsible bounds. Or those lenders who sold loans they should not have sold. I’m just talking about the national tragedy of millions of families losing their homes.
On this Sabbath, let’s pray for those families. And for those of us who have homes now, let’s give thanks to God for giving us not only a spiritual home as we are “found in Christ” (Philippians 3:9), and not only an eternal home in the everlasting mansions, but a home in the here and now.