Behind the words

Martin Malina_sermon audio version_behind the words

“We will bury you!” 

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said those words in 1956. He was speaking to American diplomats at a reception in Moscow. In 1956, those words caused quite the stir.

In fact, those words—“We will bury you!”—helped spur the rapid arms build-up which during the Cold War in the last century pushed the world’s two superpowers to the brink of World War Three and nuclear annihilation.

What did Khrushchev actually mean by saying to the Americans, “We will bury you!”? It’s impossible to tell exactly. Because history suggests he was a man prone to brashness and exaggeration. Some say those words were based on a failed Marxist philosophy that the masses (proliterate) would be the undertakers of the monied bourgeois. Khrushchev may very well have been speaking out of a specific worldview and his belief in how history will unfold. 

Yet, these words were widely misinterpreted to suggest burial, literally, under mountains of radioactive rubble. Because Khrushchev was in 1956 one of two men in the world who had the power to launch a nuclear catastrophe.[1]

Words matter. The words we say or write have power, for good or bad.

In the current Canadian federal election campaign, there are lots of words coming at us from the candidates. I don’t believe I’m alone in sometimes noticing a difference between words I read on a page or screen, and those same words I watch and hear spoken.

On paper, the words alone suggest one thing for me—good, bad, indifference. But when I see and hear the person speaking those very same words, I can have a completely different impression altogether and derive a completely different meaning. As is often the case, the way in which those words are spoken—the medium, you might say—is the message.

There’s more to the words alone.

I’d like to do a simple exercise with you. Listen to this short sentence, six words long. I will repeat this sentence six times, the same words in the same order. How does the emphasis on different words change the meaning of the whole sentence? 

I didn’t say you were wrong.

didn’t say you were wrong.

I didn’t say you were wrong.

I didn’t say you were wrong.

I didn’t say you were wrong.

I didn’t say you were wrong.

When I was first introduced to doing this exercise as the listener, I presumed the same six words would convey the same meaning no matter how often repeated or regardless of which word in that sentence was emphasied? Was I wrong![2]

The book of James is popular for Christians for its practical advise. In the text assigned for today, James first lashes out against the tongue and how evil it can be.[3] “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” In truth, Khrushchev’s tongue and words in 1956 almost did set the world aflame.

The opposite is true, too. Even good words, warns James, can be a hypocrisy if spoken without authenticity. It’s hard to believe even good words if not conveyed by a credibility and trust in the person giving them. “From the same mouth can come blessing and cursing.” Words have that duality to them, if treated alone, on the surface.

To know Jesus, then, is to know more than merely the words recorded about him. These are nonetheless beautiful and important words to help us on our journey of faith. Yet, to know Jesus, and to be an authentic follwer of Jesus, is to experience the presence of the living Christ in your own life today.

And that involves more than words on a page.

What we don’t say has just as much to ‘say’ as any words might. The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote, “A person does not speak only with words.” You could call this non-verbal communication—our tone, body language, posture, eye contact, maintaining physical distance, smiles or frowns, inviting facial expressions or with engaging, open, curious energy.[4]

In a word-infested world where we are bombarded and assaulted by so many words—many good, some bad—the Gospel points us to a deeper way, a more authentic starting place behind any words we might say, write or read.

The prophet Isaiah gives us direction on this path of a deepening experience of God. How does Isaiah do good with his words – a prophet who is known for his words, who had a lot of words to say? How does Isaiah “sustain the weary with a word?”

Isaiah listens first. “The Lord God … wakens my ear, every day, to listen as those who are taught.”[5] Listening to another opens the pathway to authentic relationships, as we respond out of a heart that receives the other first.

What is behind the words for a Christian?

Love. In the end, words are not enough. Words—like technology—are very good, capable tools for life. But words are means; words are not ends in themselves. 

Love is the true end and starting point. Without love, our words are lifeless. Truth cannot be communicated apart from a heart of love in relationship. In the service of love, out of a heart of love, our words find place and purpose.[6] As Jesus did for those he met, healed and to whom he spoke. As Jesus does for us, out of God’s heart of love.

Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, The Emotion Thesaurus. WritersHelpingWriters.net 2012, p.106

[1] Giles Whittell, Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War (New York: Random House, 2010), p.44

[2] Adapted from “Creative Listening” in Frontline, Earl A. Grollman (Summer 2021).

[3] James 3:1-13,17

[4] Ibid., Grollman

[5] Isaiah 50:4

[6] adapted from Br. Keith Nelson, “Knowledge”, Brother, Give Us A Word (www.ssje.org, 2 September 2021)

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