words fail me

candleThat is perhaps not the most optimistic title for a word-based bloggage!

But there are times when words do fail us. They can fail us when we are overwhelmed – by awe, by joy, by generosity, by tragedy and by grief – by emotions that are more powerful than words can express.

In the tragic circumstances of Peaches Geldof’s unexpected death her father Bob poignantly described the family as being “beyond pain” following the news*. I think I can understand what he is saying. I think it is a ‘words fail me’ moment.

So what do we do when words fail us?

First of all I think we should give up trying to find the words. Let the silence speak.

Secondly I think we should embrace the emotion. Accept that this is how we feel.

Thirdly I think we should take time. Don’t feel the need to hurry to words.

Fourthly I think we should find those who will sit with us and not feel the need to impose words on us either. People who can embrace the previous three concepts, people who will not feel awkward with silence.

The book of Job in the Bible helps us to explore how to respond in tragic circumstances. It teaches us what not to do: Job’s friends try to explain, rationalise, and apportion blame for all that has happened. And it teaches us what we can do – this is from the end of Job 2:

11 When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathise with him and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognise him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. 13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

We need people who will sit with us in our circumstances. Friends and family who will simply accompany us while we are unable to articulate our emotions. People who will weep when we weep and rejoice when we rejoice.

Let’s not assume that words are always the answer. Let’s not assume that we have to offer an explanation for everything. Let’s not assume that someone is asking the questions we have. Let’s not assume that God only inhabits words – he is also present in silence, in hugs, in tears, in companionship… in us.

When words fail, let our actions speak louder than words.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Pray for grieving families: especially those forced to conduct their grieving in the glare of public interest. You don’t have to use words.

I never knew there was so much in it

bible genesisThere is a publication that tells us the times of TV programmes that had the title of this bloggage as its advertising strap-line.

I regularly find myself saying something similar about the Bible. Yes, statistics tell us that there are 66 books, containing over 770,000 words (depending on translation) divided into just over 31,000 verses (to help us navigate around). The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, the longest is Esther 8:9. The middle chapter (and also the shortest) is Psalm 117. The longest chapter is Psalm 119. There are hundreds of other statistics that I could quote to you about the Bible.

But that’s not my point. It’s not the number of words, verses, chapters or books that impress me. It’s how God can reveal new things through the Bible each time I come to it. He reveals new things through familiar passages. I had that experience on Sunday morning when my colleague Lynsey was preaching. I had that experience last night when I was preaching. There is so much more in the Bible than the 770,000 words. I had that experience this morning when I read a passage for my own reflection.

It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the words are just words. The silence is deafening and the pages become flat and one-dimensional. Those are sometimes the occasions when I am in a hurry, when reading the Bible has been reduced to a habit (not a bad one). They can be moments when I feel that God is distant from me (usually because I have tuned him out). They are often when my reading or listening are not accompanied by praying.

But there are other times when the words assume a life of their own and truth leaps out at me from every syllable. Those are moments to stop, to ponder, to listen, to reflect, to take note, to respond and to pray.

This morning I read the passage in John 5:1-15 where Jesus healed a man who had been paralysed for 38 years. He asked him a seemingly obvious question: “Do you want to get well?”

But the man’s response was not, “Yes please!” He concentrated on his problems and blamed others (there was nobody to help him) rather than focusing on the One who would be the answer.

Later, after he had been healed and was carrying his mat back home, the religious people told him off for carrying it on the Sabbath. He blamed Jesus for telling him to pick up the mat rather than getting them to focus on the miracle that had happened.

What’s God saying to you today?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

I used to think that the smallest person in the Bible was Bildad the Shuhite. But apparently it is the man who fell asleep on his watch!

all by myself?

from cartoonchurch.com
from cartoonchurch.com

My wife and daughter have abandoned me.

Temporarily.

They are staying with her Mum for a few days during the half term holiday. I know it’s silly and irrational but the house feels very different when they are away. Even during the daytime, when Sally and Hannah are at work and school respectively and I’m, the only one here, the house feels more occupied because I know they will be here again soon. And as I move around the house I find evidence that they were here earlier in the day.

It might just be me, but sometimes I feel a bit like that about God: that he has left me on my own. There is silence around me, prayers seem to vanish into the ether, the sense of his presence is replaced by an echoing absence.

But I have learnt not to panic in these times. As Elijah found out in the cave (1 Kings 19) God can be more present in the silence than in the loudest, most vibrant, bounciest worship service. Elijah was feeling abandoned by God, sorry for himself, all alone. But he experienced God in the sound of sheer silence. Interestingly this did not change his perspective on life, he still expressed exactly the same self-pitying abandonment. What had changed was that he had discovered that God was there with him in it.

When I am experiencing divine absence it is not because God has gone anywhere. He is still with me in his absence (if that does not sound too paradoxical). My ability to sense him may be impaired by me sticking my fingers in my spiritual ears (often because I have been distracted from him); or by me being too busy; or by me expecting to sense him in a particular way and that’s not how he wants me to experience him on that occasion. Even when the ‘absence’ is because I am in pain God is closer than I can imagine. He is with me, in me, sharing my pain, feeling the impact, understanding better than I do and later I find that to be true.

But sometimes (and bear with me here) it’s as if God is playing ‘hide and seek’ with me. When children play hide and seek they are in it together, they know they will be reunited, and the game is part of the friendship. Sometimes, it seems to me, God is deliberately hiding from me because he wants me to search for him, to look for him, to grow my desire to be with him. In the absence, in the desire to be with him my awareness of who he is can grow because I realise what I am missing.

If I walked around the house now I would find lots of evidence of the presence of my wife and daughter. I know too that they are coming home soon (and phone calls help). In the searching for God I use other spiritual senses to find him than my default senses (looking in the Bible is where I usually start) and I find him in music, in nature, in science, in other people, in my imagination, in creativity, in serving others, in rituals, in mysteries, in bread and wine… and in so many other ways. When I take the time there is ample evidence that he is still around, that he has not gone anywhere.

God is not absent, I have the sense that he is watching from his hiding place, desperate to be found again, perhaps planning to jump out and shout ‘surprise!’

Be blessed, be a blessing.