Below is a basic Christianity 101 talk I gave on Friday to students, some of whom were not sure of the existence of God, some unclear about Jesus, some very new believers. Enjoy!
I have had the dubious honor of teaching six whole children to read. A long time ago, when my oldest was facing down kindergarten, my husband and I thought it would be cool, to, you know, “homeschool.” We are both educated people. I have a masters degree for heaven’s sake. I studied comparative literature as an undergrad. I have written a book. Reading is kind of my thing. So Of Course, of all people, I should be able to teach other people, especially children, who basically don’t even know anything, to read.
So, my first child didn’t read very well until age nine, because I thought that if I just named the letters, and then sharply rebuked her whenever she forgot, she would easily get the point. Whenever she didn’t understand, or would sound out a word carefully and then say something completely different, like c-a-t, puc, I took it personally. ‘Why don’t you love me,’ I would whisper to myself. What’s wrong with you? Gradually I corrected my wrong ideas. And so the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th children read without too much trouble. Then I came to the 6th. And because I am still a bad person, though maybe with better teaching skills, God has afflicted me in the way that I probably deserve most. Here is what happened to me recently.
“H-o-n-o-r-e-d…hon-red…honored…Why does it say honored? I don’t want it to say honored, I want it to say child.” She writhed around in misery for five minutes. “Why does it have to say that,” she said over and over. I sat, baffled. “That’s what it says,” I said. “The person who wrote the book wanted to use the word honored and so he did. When you write a book you can use whichever words you want. But you can’t force this person to use the word honored when he wanted to use the word child.” And so she wept.
And really, in some deep abiding way, we all weep with her. We want the words that we use to be the ones by which all creation is ordered, by which everything makes sense, by which other people live their lives. And why is this? Because words are the way that we make sense of everything. They provide the order and structure of our own minds, of the cosmos itself as we each conceive of it.
And this is as it should be, because we are made in the image of the one who said that The Word is the foundation point for all life, for reality itself. “In the beginning,” writes the Apostle John, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He is riffing off those even more ancient words that you might have heard. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We might argue for a hundred years about how the universe came into being—and when—but here, at the beginning of a book, God takes credit for bringing everything into existence. Then, several millennia later, he says that the way he did it was by speaking, and in the same breath he identifies that speaking as himself. He so closely binds himself to language, to communication, to words, that he says of himself that he is The Word—the word by which all other words can even be formed in the thought and then the mouth.
This is quite a claim. Human language is multifaceted and rich, abundantly complex and filled with nuance and meaning, sound and thought. Even more, it is the center of human life, as necessary as breath and pulse. You have to use language to get food, to drive a car, to have clothes, to be here at this institution, to form relationships, to know yourself. And so, inevitably, human words—though so very strong, strong enough for you to be alive—do break apart under the weight of what they carry. You, as I, have probably had serious and painful breakdowns of communication. You might have said something, but the person you said it to heard something different. You might have written something that got you in trouble. You may have not been able to find the right word at the right moment. You, I hope, have probably met someone you didn’t share a language with, and so stood mute, smiling, hopefully, wanting to be friends, to cross the barrier of yourself, but were unable to. More painful even than that is when words are used to destroy people, when someone says one thing and means the complete opposite, when you find that you have been lied to, when the great power of a word is wielded almost as a weapon by one person against another.
So we might concede that it is very shocking that God would take on the difficulties and inadequacies of human language, would so self-identify with language that he takes the name The Word, and would then leave us with a book of translucently thin pages as the primary way to know him. This seems like an ineffective and even ridiculous way forward.
How many of you have read all the way through the Bible? More than once? How many made a good solid effort? Somewhere along the way you probably got stuck either in Leviticus or one of the Chronicles, or Romans, or Jeremiah—that’s usually my nemesis. By the time you get to the end of the minor prophets, if you go through them without stopping, you will probably have developed a true and irretrievable depression. God is by turns angry, sad, exalting, hopeful, but mostly full of lamentation.But as you go along, if you are persistent, you will find something else interesting. You will squint your spiritual eyes and begin to find a strange but still out of focus picture. You step back to look at it and it’s like trying to find the actual water lily in a Monet painting. You can make out the rough lines, you can see a real picture emerging, but the details throw you into unknowing confusion. Why would this book be like this? Why would it be so hard? It seems, honestly, like these words that God gives are the worst way for us to know about him.
Because God does want us to know him. He says so, in a whole bunch of places. It’s the drum beat of Ezekiel. “On that day I will cause a horn to spring up for the house of Israel, and I will open your lips among them. Then they will know that I am the LORD.” – Ezekiel 29:21
Indeed, God created us and the world because he wanted us to know him and to trust him. He didn’t want to be known as a cyborg, as a string of computer code, a proposition, a list of facts—he wanted to be known as one friend knows another, as a father is known by his child, as a husband is known by a wife, as a brother is known by a sister. The scriptures are the revelation of himself to human people. The way, when you see someone you want to know, you begin to tell that person some things about you, your name, what kind of person you are, what things you are doing.
And, isn’t it painful when you divulge yourself, reveal yourself, and the person to whom you are speaking rejects you? That has happened to me one or two times. There you have a painful way in to experience God’s own revelation.
He begins with his name—I AM—and who he is—God—and what kind of person he is—faithful, long suffering, merciful, just, the measure and perfection of goodness—and what he is doing—crossing the boundaries of human rebellion and division to restore the friendship of God with humanity. Some of these revelations sound deeply and hauntingly beautiful to our human ears. Some of them are dark and difficult. Some of them sound incomprehensible, troubling, alien. Some of them are plain and easy and comforting. All of them reveal a God who has the desire and the capacity to be known.
Stand back from the text and try looking at it a different way. The more you read it, the more you will see a particular Word emerging.
God, the Word. What did he do? The opposite of everything that you would have done. He left his glory, his power, the beauty of heaven, and came in the most lowly, the poorest, the ugliest circumstances. And he did it so that he could join himself to you, so that you, who are not God, could look at him and know him, could hear his words and understand his voice. He came and took on human language, revealing himself in the most intimate way. And then, by the power of his preaching, and of the witness of the gospels who wrote down what he said and did, thousands of years later many of us have been saved, have been restored to friendship with God.
Examine his life, his words, his character in the gospel as closely as you can, and then go back through the rest of the text and you will find that every single brush stroke, every single strange detail, every single lost waterlily floats out from the page, emerges in the light, comes into a sharp perfect detailed focused lens to show you the Christ, Jesus, the Word.
As you read and listen you will discover that God can use human language, that he is capable of using human language, and that when we do not understand his words in his scriptures it is not because we are too clever, too brilliant, because we know better, but because we are each like my child who weeps when the words on the page do not say what she wants them to say. In other words, they reveal how much I am, and you are, not God.
Because the property of being human, though imbued with the gift of language, is to adore and worship the self. And so all human language is employed in that direction. My words, my thoughts, my intentions are supreme over the created order. I may use them to communicate and bind myself to you, but even more essentially I use them to measure you, and ultimately to measure God.
I used the word weapon earlier. We use words as weapons to destroy each other. God also uses his word, his strong, unbreakable word, as a weapon—a sword is the word used in Hebrews. But the purpose of this weapon is the opposite of our weapons. The Word has the power to divide you, to cut you loose, as surgeon cuts away a deadly disease, away from the very reasons for which you language, to make yourself into God. Its power is not to wound, to destroy you, to bring you into chaos and confusion. It is rather to send you to the feet of the only true remedy, to the Word himself. You find yourself undone, and you turn to Jesus, the true and living Word, and he binds you to himself, he heals all your diseases, he gives you eternal life, he communicates himself to you, he reorders your cosmos. And most importantly of all, by his own word, the word that comes forth from his mouth, he restores you to friendship with him.