Sometimes Words Don’t Work
A preacher’s job often involves trying to put words around experiences or ideas that are too big, too deep, too strong or too painful for words to describe. Try as we must, there are times in all of our lives when human language cannot contain what we feel; times when words don’t work.
By God’s providence, the Florida Annual Conference met in Orlando last week, the first time in living memory that we met there. Still reeling from the attack at the Pulse nightclub, we prayed, sang, lit candles and reached out to support our pastors who serve the Orlando community, particularly those who have a history of welcome and support for LGBT men and women. We affirmed a powerful statement from our Bishop and Cabinet. First UMC of Orlando hosted an amazing Interfaith Prayer Service and St. Luke’s UMC (the church we birthed 37 years ago) became a center of hope and healing for folks in the Disney-Universal community.
And yet…words simply won’t work to carry the full weight of this tragedy and what it represents in our community and nation. The tragedy is only compounded by the inability of the Senate to approve reasonable gun control legislation that is support by 85-90% of the American people.
At times like these, I’m grateful for Paul’s promise that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26 NRSV) J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase says “agonising longings which never find words.”
Perhaps providentially, one of the devotional guides I use in my personal prayer life quoted John Bunyan last week: “The best prayers have often more groans than words.”
I think the writer of the 77th Psalm might have been feeling that same loss for words.
I cry out loud to God—
out loud to God so that he can hear me!
During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord.
At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb;
my whole being refuses to be comforted.
I remember God and I moan.
I complain, and my spirit grows tired. (Psalm 77:1-3)
But Paul doesn’t leave us speechless. The word that works when all other words fail is hope.
We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24-25)
Again, Bunyan wrote: “Hope has a thick skin, and will endure many a blow.”
When CBS News asked my friend Tom McCloskey, the Lead Pastor at First UMC, Orlando, how he keeps believing that things will get better, Tom said, “My faith says that one day all will be equal.”
That’s hope with a thick skin. It’s hope that is grounded in the assurance that one day God’s kingdom will indeed come and God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
For the psalmist, that hope was rooted in remembering God’s work in the past.
But I will remember the Lord’s deeds;
yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past.
I will meditate on all your works;
I will ponder your deeds.
God, your way is holiness!
Who is as great a god as you, God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples. (Psalm 77:11-14)
When other words won’t work, the word that works is hope.
Grace and peace,