Savoring the words

“The most dangerous passages in the Bible are the familiar ones,” writes the professor, “because we do not really listen to them.” Perhaps you thought that it’s good, even important to be familiar with scripture, but the professor suspects that familiarity breeds contentment, and “the sharp stone of God’s Word, smoothed down by the river of time, no longer cuts. Instead of being challenged by hard thought or hard choices,” he writes, “we lean back and savor pretty words.”[1] The professor wants to counter the “soporific effect of the too-well-known,” wants to give the smooth stone its sharp edge back, and he does so with scholarly depth and precision.

I don’t mean to make fun of the professor, although it may sound like I’m setting the scene for a punch line. I don’t really disagree with him on the dangers of familiarity, especially when the seemingly too-well-known is not known at all. No, I want to suggest that the savoring of pretty words, something he seems to dismiss as merely superficial, is actually a way to open those words for us, and us to the Word of God that comes to us through them. Savoring words of beauty is a mode of knowing that has less to do with penetrating study, and more with not swallowing too quickly what has barely been chewed and tasted. Savoring words of beauty is a more contemplative mode of knowing.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” we hear the words read from scripture, and the professor suspects that we stop listening, with our hearts strangely warmed by nostalgia rather than the fire of God’s Word. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” we hear as we have heard countless times before, and yet it is a beautiful, life-giving word when we hear it spoken to us. “Blessed are you, poor ones in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” The word for them, heard so many times before, becomes a word for now and for us, a promise, a blessing for you and me.

When you hear “poor in spirit,” what comes to mind? A group of tired cheer leaders? Folks with an F in spirituality? I find myself in a kitchen with a mother and her 9-year-old daughter. It’s a scene I will never forget; it has stuck with me ever since I first stumbled upon it.[2] The little girl was sitting at the table, eating a bowl of cheerios, and mom was packing her lunchbox. The radio was playing in the background, the news was on, the usual sound track of a weekday morning. Suddenly the child looked up and said, with great sadness in her voice, “Mom, is that war still not over yet?”

She had been listening to the news, and it almost doesn’t matter if the war was in Iraq or Afghanistan, Libya or Syria, does it? “Mom, is that war still not over yet?”

“I could feel my soul draining through the soles of my feet,” is how the mother described it. Do you know that feeling when something’s just not right, but you can’t be angry or sad about it, because it’s too big for ordinary feelings, too overwhelming?

The little girl in her sadness gives voice to God’s own grief, and you tell yourself that it’s not right for such a little one to already know in her bones how broken our world is, and you want to protect her, you want to make things right, and in the same instant you realize that you can’t.

What do you do? You speak the truth as love has taught you. You take her in your arms and hold her; you whisper that it breaks your heart too, and you hold her a little longer before you kiss her on the forehead and say, “It’s gonna be OK, pumpkin, it’s all gonna be OK.” And off she runs to catch the bus.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. When you know that the world doesn’t have the answer to it’s brokenness, despite its shoddy promises and props of power and wealth, when you know that none of us hold the answer to our own brokenness, you are blessed in your poverty because the kingdom that has drawn near in Jesus is for you. When you hunger and thirst for righteousness and you feel like you’re going to bed hungry every night, you are blessed because Jesus is bread for you. When you speak the truth as love has taught you, when you speak it with your tongue, with your arms and feet, when you seek to receive and give mercy with your whole being, you are blessed because you speak the language of heaven. When you follow Jesus on the humble path of compassion that leads to the cross, you are blessed because it’s not the proud, the arrogant, or the violent who will inherit the earth, but the crucified one who is risen.

The blessings Jesus utters are words to take along on the journey, words to savor and remember and make our own. It’s gonna be OK, it’s all gonna be OK because God is faithful. The way of Christ may look like fool’s avenue in the eyes of those familiar with the workings of the world and its wisdom, but for us it is the way of redemption, the way of peace, the way of life. In Jesus’ healings and teachings, in his compassion for the poor and his meals with sinners, the joy of heaven embraces the earth and holds it, holds us in all our brokenness. He never lets go as he enacts the justice of God’s mercy and embodies the kindness of God. He walks humbly all the way, pure in heart and fearless, never letting go, trusting that the final word would be God’s.

When we say to the little girl, “It’s all gonna be OK,” we tell her the gospel truth, a truth much bigger than anything we can promise. We tell her, and telling her we remind ourselves, that God is faithful beyond anything we do or fail to do. And so, poor as we are in spirit, hungry and thirsty as we are for righteousness, we serve the kingdom of heaven Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated. We savor his words of blessing as they open themselves to us and draw us in. We savor his words of blessing as we open ourselves to them and let them make our hearts their home. We savor his words of blessing and we give the precious gifts of comfort and courage to each other, each time with different gestures the love of Christ has taught us.

Fifty years ago, Studs Terkel wrote and produced a radio documentary, titled, “Born To Live: Hiroshima.” He created a collage of music and voices, strong, gentle, life-affirming voices, cradling the small voices of young children who were afraid of nuclear war, young children deeply worried about the future of life. Among the voices woven into the loving choir of adults, holding the children and surrounding them with hope and courage are Pete Seeger, then in his 40’s, Georgia Turner, an elderly sharecropper from Tennessee, Miriam Makeba, James Baldwin, and many others. And about halfway into this symphony of life and hope, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. begins to pray, “Because we love the world, we pray now, O Father, for grace to quarrel with it, oh Thou, Whose lover’s quarrel with the world  is the history of the world, grant us grace to quarrel with the worship of success and power; with the assumption that people are less important than the jobs they hold. Grant us grace to quarrel with the mass culture that tends not to satisfy, but exploit the wants of people; to quarrel with those who pledge allegiance to one race, rather than the human race. Lord, grant us grace to quarrel with all that profanes, and trivializes, and separates [human beings]. (…) Lord, number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth from this [place] longing for only those things for which Thou dost make us long; [people] for whom the complexity of issues only serve to renew their zeal to deal with them; [people] who alleviated pain by sharing it; and [people] who were always willing to risk something big for something good. So may we leave in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, a little more beauty than would have been there had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not, but still could be. Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them; and take our hearts and set them on fire.”

I listen to this prayer and I don’t hear words that are fifty years old. I hear words of comfort and courage whose time is always now. Words that will rise again and again, as long as the church leans forward and savors the beautiful, life-giving words of Jesus.


[1] John P. Maier, “Matthew 5:3-12,” Interpretation 1990, p. 281

[2] I believe it was written by Barbara Kingsolver, but I wasn’t able to track down a reference.

The quote from Stud Terkel's radio program is from the liner notes of the Smithsonian Folkways recording.