it’s only words, and words are all I have

You think that I don’t even mean a single word I say.
It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.

Words by the Bee Gees

Among God’s earthly creatures, language is uniquely human; and as any lover of poetry, or songwriting, or drama, or philosophy knows, it is one of our most glorious attributes.

Why do we talk? To survive. To be human. To express ourselves. To prove ourselves. To engage with others. To hurt others. To question. To teach.

Language is the primary – although not exclusive – means by which God communes with us, through the Bible from him and prayer from us. It is also the primary – not exclusive – way we create and sustain relationships with each other. I have heard songs written about relationships where neither person speaks the other’s language, and perhaps that happens, but I can hardly imagine a lonelier love.

God’s words are powerful. Genesis says God spoke the universe into existence. When God changed Jeremiah the priest into Jeremiah the prophet, he gave him an idea of the weight and power of his words, which Jeremiah would speak:

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah 1:9-10
John’s Gospel calls Jesus the “Word.” The book of Hebrews says Jesus, the person, is the last and best way God has spoken to us. And in the words of Jesus are life, newness, and salvation:
Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68
Our words cannot overthrow societies or raise the dead. Nevertheless, in our words there is great power.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. Proverbs 18:21

Death and life. There is death in complaining, blame-shifting, name-calling, self-defending, criticizing, distancing, gossiping, misrepresenting. In these we bring death to others and host death in ourselves. We kill relationships and malign the reputation of the Lord.

In praising, thanking, blessing, consoling, advising, supporting, confessing, rebuking, forgiving, there is life. The simplest words can change everything. “I love you;” “I’m sorry;” “We can work this out;” “There is hope.” Life-giving words are the food of authentic relationships.

No one will deny the power of words, for good or evil. At the same time, no one will deny, I think, that our language is limited. I have felt this at many times in my life, and I think it is a universal experience. There are things for which words simply fail. In this life, there will always be some distance left, some of our selves left unshared. The book of Proverbs says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (14:10). There are longings in us, “groanings,” so sharp and so deep, that we cannot even pray them, but must simply, wordlessly, entrust them to the Spirit.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies… Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:22-23, 26
The truth is, we talk too much. Too many of our words are empty and pointless and death-giving. Wise people, people who can really reach others, are people of few words. Most of their energy is spent loving with actions, not mere words (1 John 3:18). When they speak, their words have meaning. Their words echo of a higher way, a royal law, a rare sweetness – even when they are simply asking me for a favor, or telling me a story, or praying for dinner.

here I raise my Ebenezer

 

“Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’m come.” It’s a familiar line to many, being the first line of the second verse of the well-loved hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Robert Robinson wrote the original text of the hymn in 1757 at age 22.

Robinson took the Hebrew word “Ebenezer,” a place-name, from 1 Samuel 7. The chapter describes how God miraculously saved the Israelite army from their Philistine adversaries, and how Samuel, Israel’s greatest prophet and leader at that time, set up a monument at the site of the battle to memorialize God’s miraculous intervention. For centuries, the memorial stone reminded the Israelite people of a specific moment in their history when God rescued them and proved his commitment to them.

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12
Ebenezer means “stone of help.” Students of the Bible may recognize the connection between this big rock, set up by Samuel, and some other significant rocks in the biblical story. One is the rock Moses commanded to spring forth water in the middle of the Arabian Desert (Exodus 17:1-7). Another is the pile of twelve rocks taken from the Jordan River that God told Joshua and the Israelites to set up after he stopped the flowing of the river so the nation could cross it on dry ground (Joshua 20). It too was a memorial:
[Joshua said,] “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it passed over the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” Joshua 4:6-7
God knew the Israelites’ hearts, their fickleness and forgetfulness. Visible, imposing memorials – Ebenezers, “stones of help” – forced them to remember the faithfulness of God to them. He led them out of Egypt, through the desert, across the Jordan, into the promised land, against their enemies; and he would not allow them to forget it. The Torah and the Prophets ring with the constant, repeated exhortation: “Remember I am the LORD your God,” “Remember how I led how you out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, “Remember, remember, remember…” 
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Robinson was on to something when he wrote of himself as “raising an Ebenezer.” Throughout Israelite history, God instructed his people to raise Ebenezers, memorials of his merciful action at specific moments in their lives.

Christian, you may do the same today. You know of God’s mercy to you in the arrival of the Son on earth; you know the cross, the greatest memorial to God’s grace ever constructed. You know the perspective of one whose life has been redeemed “from the pit” (Psalm 103:4), of one who can look back on the entire diversity of life’s experiences, the good and the painful, and see the loving faithfulness of God throughout. At the end of your life, you will be like David, looking back at your life, still calling God your “Rock,” (2 Samuel 23:3), saying, like David, your last words with confidence,

Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part? Will he not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire? 2 Samuel 23:5

David looked back at his experiences and saw a life full of Ebenezers. He recognized the daily grace of God received by him over the course of a lifetime, the staggering power of God in making him, a nobody, a screw-up, great, and the unshakable loyalty of God to his promises. He saw these as the great themes of his life, the great and beautiful reasons for his loyalty to God.

I want to take a page out of Joshua’s, and Samuel’s, and David’s, and Robert Robinson’s book, and “raise an Ebenezer” today. A simple prayer or song commemorating God’s faithfulness to me, today. A quiet moment of gratitude for his mercy, today. A new memory to look back on tomorrow, when new problems, new pains, come. A big rock can weather any storm.

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing by Robert Robinson

human nature: the agony and the ecstasy

I just returned from a two-week trip to London. In many ways the trip felt like a step back in time. Attending church in a building people have worshipped in for more than 1,000 years is a surreal experience. Medieval history saturates London (and the rest of Europe). It’s everywhere. Europeans live with a sense of the past we Americans know little about.

The several medieval castles I visited posed a kind of paradox to me. Their architectural and artistic creativity, design, and genius, amazed me. The religious devotion poured into each of them was clear, and beautiful. In the same building, though, not far from the chapel, a room would be set apart for torture, wherein that same ingenuity was used to design sickening devices meant to cause insufferable pain.

The juxtaposition reminded me of James 3:9-10: “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things should not be so.”

Human beings have incredible capacity for both kindness and cruelty, for beauty and horror. God created us in the pattern of himself, in his image. Psalm 8:5-6 says, “You have made [man] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet…”

Humans create art and music and poetry that draws our souls up to heaven. We perform acts of self-sacrifice and courage that inspire awe, as many soldiers, police officers, and first-responders know firsthand. We are complex and multi-layered, able to love another with love that lasts a lifetime. We are stunning creatures, the pinnacle of God’s handiwork on earth.

At the same, the depth and extent of our depravity is horrifying. The worst suffering we experience is at the hands of one another. Entire societies are completely given over to idolatry, sexual perversion, oppression, exploitation, the destruction of nature. We construct devices for causing pain, like the ones I saw in English castles. We are apathetic toward the God who designed the night sky and gives us life and breath and everything. With the same mouth, we bless and curse. Can you understand these words of the Teacher?

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3
And the words of the Apostle:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves… And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. Romans 1:21-24, 28

American culture believes human nature is basically good and is, at the fundamental level, inclined toward decency and harmony. The truth is that from ancient barbarism to modern progressivism, none of us decline to take part in humanity’s corporate guilt. In modern America the blows are softened by a wealthy society and a history of forward progress. But our immorality is rampant and the seeds for unleashed cruelty are all there. Human nature does not change.

The thing that is really beyond me, that truly inspires awe, is that God freely chose to condescend into our human state, taking on our flesh and blood in the person Jesus. He experienced the greatest cruelty and evil of all, being the Son of God yet hated by his own people, tortured, and murdered. But not without purpose, not without a divine, a heavenly cause. His condescension is the one legitimate hope that exists in an evil world, with the pull of temptation on our souls being so deadly and strong.

And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God… For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 1 John 4:14-15, 5:4-5

Waiting

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning. Psalm 130:5-6
I’m waiting:
waiting for freedom, for a spectacular burst.
I’ll know its appearing, though all I know now is the thirst.
Just a distant echo now, but how could not the symphony be grand?

Yes, I keep on waiting:
waiting for a new dream, a new higher plane.
My ladder is too short, my imagination too small, too sane,
but I’ve craned my neck way back and far outstretched my hand.

I’m waiting; I’m anticipating.
Who wants to know why? Who can say how long?
I wait for you. Exhausted, but still I’ll go on singing your song:
“Faint not. I come! like rest to a body, like voice for a melody, like rain for dry land.”

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Revelation 22:20