Bonhoeffer wrote: “Meditation is not having great thoughts, but loving the words you hear and letting them shape you” (“The Way to Freedom,” pp. 59-61). Let’s open the doors to words and conversations that may shape us. We may not have “great conversations,” still we can have “pretty good conversations” – ones that feed our souls.
But, let’s be honest – let’s pause and ask:
· With the speed of our lives, who has the time?
· With our infatuation with tolerance, who cares?
· With our propensity toward entertainment, who has the desire?
· Given the significance we invest in financial results, what possible difference would such conversations have on the bottom line?
See who we are?
Too often we are self absorbed – we listen with half an ear – we fail to engage – we love to cruise through life. Cliché can indicate a hollow heart and a shallow environment. We have created an atmosphere where the writers of a rollicking movie, “Brave” (Disney, Pixar, 2012) conclude with the listless ache of this schmaltzy cliché: Our fate lies within us. We just have to be brave enough to see it. If that is true, woe are we.
God knew that we needed wise and pithy sayings – so he gave us Proverbs and James. We need aphorisms. Paul told the church in Corinth: In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Cor. 14:19)
I had been thinking about that verse when I came across one of my favorite fall poems, “The Wild Geese” by Wendell Berry:
Horseback on Sunday morning, harvest over,
we taste persimmon and wild grape,
sharp sweet of summer’s end.
In time’s maze over the fall fields,
we name names that went west from here,
names that rest on graves.
We open a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise, pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us, pass,
and the sky closes.
Abandon, as in love or sleep,
holds them to their way, clear, in the ancient faith:
what we need is here.
And we pray, not for new earth or heaven,
but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear.
What we need is here.
Notice the last line: What we need is here. Five intelligible words. Five words that express a profound thought. That struck me.
And, when Wendell Berry writes: And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, I hope he means: Not that we don’t ever pray for a new earth or heaven – but that sometimes we focus on seven words: Give us this day, our daily bread. So, by God’s grace, as we speak those seven simple words in this uncertain world to the Father of all fathers, we can be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.
Five intelligible words – words to ponder. Often we live on sound bites: “You did a great job.” “Son, I love you.” “Daughter, I love you.” Scripture also often speaks to us in sound bites. But, to avoid being clichés, these sayings need to be TRUE.
Hear this warning: A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it — be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters. Orwell wrote at the end of WW2: ‘One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language… (Dana Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?” 1991).
These essays are a call to conversation – to adventure beyond the decay of language into the realm of contra-cliché – to stand against (contra) – the well worn calluses of cliché.
Cliché – from French – is a technical word in printer’s jargon. Cliché is an attempt to mimic the “clicking” sound – made over and over again – during the printing process. Will we accept the persistently repeated impressions that our sound bite culture makes on our souls? No, let’s be contra-cliché. Strangely, we resist cliché by being tender toward the truth.
“Cliché” is related to “stereotype.” Stereotype – 1798, “method of printing from a plate,” from French – stéréotype – “printing by means of a solid plate of type.” The French is derived from Greek stereos – “solid” + type – “type.” Thus the meaning was: “image perpetuated without change.” The sense of “preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group” is recorded from 1922 (OED).
Let’s get past pigeonholing stereotypes. Let’s add some moveable type to our lives by meeting real people – even God!
As we essay into that kind of life, we find that before there was cliché or stereotype, there was an Archetype – and there still is. “Archetype” is the “original pattern from which copies are made.” It’s from Greek arkhetypon “pattern, model” – from arkhe– “first” + typos “model, type, blow.” The Archetype – The Alpha/Omega – has such personal vigor he typecast us all in his dynamic image. Wonder-full.
But then, catastrophe – our parents believed a wicked cliché. “Catastrophe”- “reversal” – from Greek – katastrophe “an overturning; a sudden end,” from kata “down”+ strephein “turn.” Catastrophe makes us susceptible to the false comfort of cliché and the stultifying solace of stereotype. Sound bites and deep-seated prejudice do not satisfy our souls. We need real words, true words, pure words. Gioia says: Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. And, we need a person – The Person – who can speak truly to us.
Tolkien, wordsmith, story teller and poet, coined “eucatastrophe” – where “eu” – “good”- reverses the catastrophe. What he means by “eucatastrophe” is the story of the good news of Jesus. Tolkien wrote: There is no other tale ever told that men would rather find was true. This tale answers the aching thirst inside of us. The Archetype is such a Lollapalooza (appropriately, the origin of this word is unknown!) of Grace that, at great cost, he has earned the right to transform our catastrophe into eucatastrophe. He has entered our burning house – rescued us – took the fire that should have consumed us – so that, in the place of a smoldering wreck, he can build a new and enlarged home. He invites us in – to eat and drink with him. He has absorbed our shallow clichés, our wicked stereotypes, our moral failures, our persistent distancing ourselves from him and each other – so he could eat and drink with us. As we begin to appreciate his companionship, we find a growing love for his purity and compassion. His work and words shape us.
When everything is made new, Jesus will speak these fresh, pure words: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning (the Arkhe of Archetype) and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death (Revelation 21:6-8).
Let’s join our Archetype.
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,