“Over the last few decades we have been inundated by a torrent of words. Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed, or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited, or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words in many sounds, many colors, or many forms; words to be heard, read, seen, or glanced at; words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump, or wiggle. Words, words, words! They form the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of our existence.”
These words, penned by Henri Nouwen almost forty years ago, resonate ever more deeply today. There is no way that Nouwen could have imagined the proliferation of words that the birth of the internet would bring.
Nouwen, however, sensed the trajectory we were on. He lamented that words had “lost their creative power.” They had become little more than a distraction, background noise to the day-to-day hum-drum.
“The word no longer communicates,” he said, “no longer fosters communion, no longer creates community, and therefore no longer gives life. The word no longer offers trustworthy ground on which people can meet each other and build society.”
For someone whose job it is to work with words, I find this prospect terrifying. Christianity is, after all, a “wordy” faith. I don’t mean that in the way we preachers can get long-winded and cause parishioners to be late for Sunday dinner, though that is certainly true.
Rather, our scripture teaches that the word is an essential part of God’s nature. In John’s Gospel, we read, “In the beginning was the Word. And the word was with God and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
We read in the opening chapters of Genesis how God’s creative energy was on display as the whole cosmos was spoken into existence through the power of the word.
And yet, as I look around at our current social discourse; as I observe online interactions; as I listen to conversations spoken in hushed tones by those who don’t think anyone is paying attention, I see a different power at work.
In today’s society, words are carelessly, endlessly, and recklessly thrown around. We share online posts that are filled with empty words – words devoid of truth – merely because they confirm our preconceived ideas and commitments.
I have no desire to be the “social media police,” but I cannot begin to tell you how many people of faith I see – many of them my own church members – that contribute to the erosion of the word’s power by such carelessness.
The Rotary Club has a guideline for the ways in which its members speak and live. It is called “The Four-Way Test.” It asks: (1) Is it the truth? (2) Is it fair to all concerned? (3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? (4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Surely, people of faith should hold themselves to an even higher standard than this. However, from where I’m seated, this would sure be a great place to start.