Water and word

Posted: Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Southeast Alaska enjoys an abundance of water. Though I grew up in Missouri, about as far from any ocean as anyone can get, I still enjoyed water's abundance.

Raised where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet, water was never far away. This summer, Missourians and southeast Alaskans shared the experience of an overabundance of water. Rains here, and floods there, were powerful reminders of water's tremendous presence on earth.

I knew growing up that a river was not an ocean. Until I was 10 years old, I knew of oceans only through pictures, films and stories.

I longed to see the ocean for myself, to stand on a beach and experience the deep emotion that comes from seeing and not seeing at the same time. Seeing the ocean is grand, because in our hearts we know that the ocean is grander still, extending far beyond the reach of our own horizons.

In English we generally use the word "water" as something the grammarians call a non-count noun. We do not speak of "waters," whether we're talking about a drop, a river, or an ocean, just like we do not speak of "weathers," "furnitures," or "homeworks." We can have more or less water, but not many, or fewer water.

However, the word "word" - except in a few significant instances - is spoken of as something we can count (for this article, I'm asked to keep the word count to 600). But one of the delights of life is to discover that the "word" for something is not the "thing" itself. We are blessed when experience trumps language, as when God pierces our neat theologies with truth that only a direct encounter with the Almighty can teach.

Smooth talkers and spin doctors have no power over us when we are grounded not in words about reality, but in reality itself. To paraphrase Jesus' teaching about the Sabbath, we were not made for words, but words were made for us.

This does not mean that either language or the Sabbath is unnecessary for a full life. It does mean, however, that the Deceiver, the Father of lies, can turn language and the Sabbath, which are meant for our good, into things that keep us from the truth. So, to help keep the Devil at bay, I want to point out an instance where we use "word" as a non-count noun. In this instance "word" is not something to be counted or comprehended, but is something more like the ocean, a sign of something grander than the eye can see.

Just this morning a parishioner called to complain. Because of this parishioner's age and health, her family and friends kept news from her that a dear friend had died. Her complaint was this: "Why didn't someone tell me? Why didn't I receive any word?" In such human and real moments words lose their individual distinctions and become more like water for a thirsty soul.

When something is quantified - and our culture's greatest deception is that everything can be quantified - it easily becomes a tool for domination. Money, megatons and munitions are the perennially favored count nouns of nations. Wisdom confronts the might of numbers with a singular focus, saying there is truly only one of everything, and that one God, one hope, and one faith is more than enough for the world.

Wisdom also says that we do not have to drink the whole ocean to know it's salty. Neither do we have to have all knowledge to know what really matters in life. May you always have water to quench your thirst, and word to lead you to the truth.

• Jesse Perry is the pastor at Northern Light United Church.

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