At a loss for words

by Brian Walsh

[I had written this piece before the horrific news came out of Newtown, Connecticut yesterday. As President Obama spoke about the loss of twenty children and eight adults it was clear that as profound as his words were, it was his tears that spoke most clearly. We find ourselves at a loss for words. The point of this Advent reflection, is that God is also at a loss for words.]

I make my living with words.

That’s really what I do.
I speak.
I write.
I talk.

If God has given me a gift, it is the gift of words,
or as my Irish fore-fathers would have put it,
the gift of the gab.

I like to talk, and I remember as a kid,
and right up through my early years as a graduate student,
thinking that if only I could just shut up once in a while,
then my foot would not so permanently reside in my mouth. 

And after a while I started to learn that words could be cheap.
Even words that cost a lot,
words that you only know by paying high tuition,
words that cost you dearly working through scholarly writings
with their own rarefied vocabulary.

But, such words used to advance one’s career,
used to destroy an intellectual opponent,
used to demonstrate one’s own intelligence,
are cheap. Worthless.

And then there were the words that I would reach for when asked a question
to which I had no real answer.
Off I’d go, making it up on the fly.
There’s a word for that kind of thing.
It’s called bullshit.

I have found that too many words can get in the way of wisdom;
too many words can hide insecurity and mask ignorance;
too many words can destroy rather than build up;
too many words can, in the end, be little more than bullshit.

But when it comes down to the most important things in our lives,
when we go to the deepest places,
when we plumb the depths of our most powerful
– indeed, most overpowering –
experiences, longings,
emotions, desires and hopes,
we find that there are very few words indeed.

Maybe that is why we stumble around so much in our prayers.

We just can’t find the words to say.

It’s not simply a matter of no longer being comfortable with the formulae of past pieties,
– although it may well be that –
but more profoundly it is that those deepest longings seem somehow inarticulate.

We just can’t find the right words to give voice to our deepest longings.
We find ourselves reduced to inarticulate groans,
moaning, sighing, weeping,
and sometimes sitting before God in silence
– and often a frustrated silence –
because we just don’t know what to say.

We find ourselves at a loss for words.

We find ourselves entering into Advent with a profound sense of longing,
a deep experience of waiting, waiting and waiting some more,
together with an increasing impatience and frustration,
but we don’t have the words to say what it is that we are longing for.

You know what I’m talking about?

Some of us are waiting for a resolution, a healing, a maturing to happen in the midst of family dynamics that have been broken and stalled for so long.

Some of us are frustrated that gifts that we have received from God seem to remain stuck because we can’t find a vocational path for the expression of those gifts.

Some of us are longing so deeply for a partner with whom to share a life of deep love and intimacy, while others have such relationships of intimacy but they are not welcomed by our families or our communities.

Some long for health in the face of debilitating disease,
and others are waiting to be released from depression or addiction,
or a crushing sense of inadequacy.

These are deep longings,
so deep, that sometimes we find ourselves paralyzed before them.

There are so many things that we long for,
so many things for which we wait.

And while I might have just named some of those things in a way that resonated with you, there is still a sense that neither I, nor you, can find the words to really express your deepest prayer.

St. Paul seems to understand this loss of words, even though he was so elegant and expansive in his own use of such words.

And he wants to tell us two things.

First, he wants us to know,
he wants you to know,
that these deep longings,
this profound waiting that seems to characterize our lives,
is in tune with the very nature of creation.

All of creation, Paul writes, waits with eager longing.
All of creation is waiting for redemption.
All of creation is waiting for the restoration of all things,
not least the restoration of human beings as faithful steward of this good creation.

All of creation waits.

Waiting goes all the way down.

So we are not alone in our waiting.
We are in tune with the very nature of things.

And second, he wants us to know,
he wants you to know,
that God herself, God the Holy Spirit,
groans with all of creation,
and groans with all of humanity,
in the travails of childbirth,
in the labour pains of the new creation.

Waiting goes all the way down,
and all the way up,
and all the way through, and around, and within.

All of creation waits,
and even God waits.

We’re all in this together.

But Paul also takes this a step further.
Not only does God groan in the travails of childbirth with us,
those groans are sighs too deep for words.

You see, the Holy Spirit cannot take our inarticulate prayers
and translate them into words for God,
because the Holy Spirit is just as much at a loss for words as we are.

The brooding Spirit over the face of the deep,
is still brooding,
is still about to give birth,
but like all women in the throes of contractions,
the Spirit isn’t all that articulate in her groanings.

These are sighs too deep for words.

But … God can interpret the groaning of the Spirit,
God can understand the mind of the Spirit,
because the Spirit is groaning on behalf of us,
and God knows those deepest longings.
God knows what we wait for,
because God shares those longings
and God is waiting for the same thing as we are.

It is Advent, friends.

And if you find yourself inarticulate before God,
if you find yourself unable to find the words to say,
then weep,
and maybe even, sit in silence.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.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.

4 Responses to “At a loss for words”

  1. Holly Michael

    thank you for this post

  2. All things work together for good … Really? « Empire Remixed

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  3. believer7

    I was tracking with what you were saying until the “God HERSELF..” reference. Could you please clarify what you meant when referring to God, several times, in the feminine, b/c I don’t understand why you did that. Thanks 🙂

    • B. Walsh

      Thanks for the comment and the question. I would never play around with gendered language for God just for shock value or to be politically correct. Rather, in this instance, the text requires the change of pronoun. If you look at the context, Paul is employing the metaphor of “groaning in labour pains” for both creation itself and for humanity, longing for the redemption of our bodies. This is, of course, a feminine metaphor. Only women give birth. When Paul writes, “Likewise the 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” the reference is back to the previous metaphor. As we and all creation groan in labour pains, so also (“likewise”) does the Spirit intercede for us with sighs too deep for words, with groans to deep for words. The implication is that God is groaning as well. And since these are the groans of labour pains, this is one place where the feminine metaphor for God the Holy Spirit (which is also feminine in Greek) is totally appropriate.


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