Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote,
“Listening to music is a shattering experience, throwing the soul into an encounter with an aspect of reality to which the mind can never relate itself adequately…This shattering experience of music has been a challenge to my thinking on ultimate issues. I spend my life working with thoughts. And one problem that gives me no rest is: do these thoughts ever rise to the heights reached by authentic music?...Music leads to the threshold of repentance, of unbearable realization of our own vanity and frailty and of the terrible relevance of God. I would define myself as a person who has been smitten by music, as a person who has never recovered from the blows.”
For me, I am very aware of the power and limitations of words and the captivation of music. Some of my most poignant worship experiences haven’t been in church. They have been while sitting in the back of an orchestra with a trombone stuck to my face, blowing away in a Brahms symphony or Mozart’s Requiem.
In worship, especially when I preach, there’ve been times when I was overwhelmed by the inadequacy of my words and I approached the pulpit with much fear and trembling. Given the power of many of our hymns, I was almost ashamed or afraid to speak my little words after a particularly moving musical selection. Music boldly ascends to heights where mere words fear to tread.
But, in our day to day lives, words are what we are stuck with. We talk, chat, muse, reflect, gossip, instruct, inspire, bore, harangue, lecture, spiel, blather, and pontificate. These are the tools of everyday communication. Even given the limitations of language, there is something divine about the spoken word.
The bible says that God spoke creation into being. John’s gospel says that Jesus is the “Word made flesh.” So our words, however frail and limited, are vehicles of grace, sacraments of salvation, when speaking the good news that Jesus calls us to share with the world.
Jesus knows that words, with all their limitations, can heal, liberate, and save. They can also condemn, wound, and enslave.
Some folks have expressed concerns of some of the language that I’ve used in the pulpit. I welcome such concerns. It shows that language is dynamic. Even dangerous. We have a God who speaks hard poetry through the prophets; poetry that judges and poetry that redeems. We have a God who speaks life and creation with a single Word. We have a God who tells us stories of forgiveness before we even know we have sinned.
So, I’ll continue to grapple with language. Some days I will succeed. Some days I will fail,even offend. I ask your forgiveness ahead of time as I struggle to find words for what cannot be described; as I labour for language to illuminate the saving love of God revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The day will come when music and words will converge and we will all sing the song of salvation together in the Kingdom of God.
Grace to you and peace,