A Community of the Word

(A meditation on James 3.1-18 at Wine Before Beer on July 22, 2014)

We are a community of the word.

We are a community born,
nourished,
shaped
and transformed by word.

Through words spoken and prayed,
recited and sung;
words carefully and lovingly crafted,
words that seek to bless and not curse,
that seek to set free and not bind,
words of love and prophecy,
of lament and wisdom,
words that confront and words that resonate …
through such words we have been born.
And through such words we are nourished.

It all begins with a word,
“Let there be.”
That word becomes flesh in Jesus,
and God gave us birth by that word.

James says that
the word of truth
has been conceived in us,
has given birth,
and we are children of that word.

And so be doers of that word,
live out of that word.

Like the Word who has given us birth,
bear the fruit of the word,
enflesh the word in all that you do.

Speak in a way that is faithful to that word,
and reflects that word.

A word of liberty that sets the captives free,
a healing word that binds up wounds,
a word of blessing and not curse,
a word of life, not death.

James is concerned about how we talk.
He knows that discourse shapes life.

He knows that how you talk about the world,
how you talk about your neighbour,
how you talk about your enemy,
how you talk about those who are different from you,
even how you talk about yourself to yourself,
forms, shapes and legitimates how you live,
for good or ill.

It is said that talk is cheap.
I’m not so sure.
In fact, I think that cheap talk can be very expensive.

Cheap talk will mouth platitudes that will cost you dearly
when you need a real word of truth and comfort.

Cheap talk will revert to a syrupy sentimentality
that cannot sustain you in the midst of real pain and crisis.

Cheap talk will make quick and easy promises
that will evaporate when the going gets tough.

Cheap talk can be very expensive in the long run.

But true speech already knows the cost.
True speech invariably is born in pain.
Such speech knows that truth is never cheap, but always very expensive.
A true word of liberty only emerges out of oppressive captivity.
Words that can heal are always crafted in the face of deep wounding.
Words can bless only when they are wrestled from the grip of curse.
Words bring life only when they have faced death with tear-filled eyes.

It is true that you can talk a lot and do very little.
I’ve seen the tee-shirt: “Less talk, more action.”

And it is true that some of the best things are said
without words at all.
There is more than one way to speak.

And yet, words matter.
Maybe we don’t need “less talk” and “more action”
so much as we need “better talk” that engenders “better action.”
Maybe we need to find richer ways of talking,
deeper ways to speak,
a speech with a deeper wisdom,
a language that gets to the heart of things,
a discourse that breaks some of the rules,
in order to set us free.

That is why we are so grateful to our wordsmiths in this community.

Those who craft our prayers,
choose the words that we will sing,
utter sacramental words over bread and wine,
and have a pastoral word (often surrounded by the silence of listening)
at the right time in the right place.

And so it is that we do not shrug off broken words and broken relationships.
When we pray words of blessing over those who are departing,
those who are about to be ordained to ministry,
those entering into the covenant of marriage,
those reaffirming their faith,
or receiving the waters of baptism,
when we make promises to each other,
when we bear witness to promises of covenant,
we know that these words have power and weight
and we dare to hold each other to our words.

Words that are life-giving are no one’s property.
Such words emerge out of community and are for community.

And so it is that we find ourselves drawn to those who have such words.

Many of you know some of the wordsmiths
who have helped to shape my vocabulary:
Bruce Cockburn
Wendell Berry
Ani Di Franco
Bruce Springsteen

And you also have your own list of wordsmiths.

We are drawn to wordsmiths who give us words
when we don’t have our own.

We are drawn to wordsmiths who employ language to
open up vistas that we have not seen.

We are drawn to wordsmiths who somehow engage the world
with such clarity,
attentiveness,
open-eyed honesty,
care,
and hope,
that
we can see “beyond the range of normal sight,”
we can “rest in the grace of the world,”
we won’t be sold out on any cheap “optimism tonight,”
and we’ll have the imagination “to carry the fire and light the spark”
as we “stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

That’s right.
When employed by the likes of
Cockburn, Berry, Di Franco and Springsteen
words can actually do the heavy lifting of setting free our imaginations.

But I would like to close with another wordsmith, another poet.

My friend Bud Osborn died on May 6 of this year.
This poet laureate of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver
had never thought that he would live to be in his 60’s.

You see, he went to Vancouver to die.

Death was Bud’s constant companion,
his tormentor, his possible escape
throughout his life.

And yet … he was amazingly alive.

here I am
amazingly alive
tried to kill myself twice
by the time I was five
sometimes it’s hard to take on more breath
inside this north American
culture of death

but here we are
amazingly alive
against long odds
left for dead
lazarus couldn’t have been
more shocked than me
to have been brought back
from the dead

That’s Bud Osborn – a modern day Lazarus.

And so, bearing the scars that death had laid on him,
scars that bore a remarkable resemblance to Jesus,
Bud lived his life with other deeply scarred brothers and sisters:

affirming their humanity,
naming their pain,
celebrating their generosity,
railing against their oppressors,
seeing their deep spirituality,
advocating for their justice,
giving voice to their hope.

Bud could organize, cajole, protest
and get in the face of the authorities with the best of them.

But it was his words, animated by his own resurrection,
that made him a beacon of hope in the Downtown Eastside.

so here I am
here we are
amazingly alive
against long odds
left for dead
north America tellin lies
in our head
make you feel like shit
better off dead

so most days now
I say shout
shout for joy
shout for love
shout for you
shout for us
shout down this system
puts our souls in prison

say shout for life
shout with our last breath
shout fuck this north American culture of death

shout here we are
amazingly alive
against long odds
left for dead
shoutin this death culture
dancing this death culture
out of our heads

amazingly alive

In the death of Bud Osborn,
we have lost a priest, a prophet and a poet.

A priest because he mediated the pain of the most vulnerable,
bringing it before the throne of God.

A prophet because he proclaimed to the powerful the cries and demands for justice.

A poet because through his words he gave voice to what was inarticulate,
and engendered an alternative imagination of hope in the midst of the pain.

May we be a community that raises up such prophets, priests and poets.
May we be a community of such imagination.
May we be an amazingly alive community
dancing this death culture out of our heads.

Bud’s poem “Down Here” is a long and devastating litany of pain.

And he ends that litany with these words:

let my words
sing a prayer
not a curse
to the tragic
& sacred mystery

of our beautiful
suffering
eternal worth

In such words,
a harvest of righteousness,
a harvest of peace,
is sown.

My friend often spoke hard words,
words of judgement,
prophetic words of confrontation,
but at heart, these words were a prayer,
a testimony,
a blessing
not a curse
to the tragic
& sacred mystery

of our beautiful
suffering
eternal worth

We seek to speak such words,
but we need mentors like Bud Osborn to do so.
Bud Osborn.
Amazingly alive.
Presente

(“amazingly alive,” from Hundred Block Rock, Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999)

(“Down Here,” from Lonesome Monsters, Anvil Press, 1995)

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

One Response to “A Community of the Word”

  1. Words Can Actually Do the Heavy Lifting of Setting Free our Imaginations. Amen. | Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

    […] is a meditation on James 3:1-18, made by Brian Walsh over at Empire Remixed. For the full text, go here. Walsh is clearly a wordsmith, and we’re all, all the better for […]

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