Spring 2011 Chapel - January 12th

Words & the Word

Opening Chapel Message

Spring SemesterNorthwest Nazarene University

January 12, 2011

Welcome back!  Welcome to the Spring Semester of 2011. Welcome new students!

I.  Words

I hope you had a wonderful break!  Quick survey.  How many of you read for pleasure over the break, in other words, read something that wasnt assigned?  How many of you didnt read much of anything, instead you caught up on a stack of DVD movies you wanted to see?  How many of you have already been to the bookstore or on-line and purchased your books for this semester?  Are they heavier or lighter, thicker or thinner than last semester? 

This morning, in the first chapel of the spring semester, I want to focus on the fact that to come back to school is to come back to words.  In fact thats what I want to talk about todaywords. 

How you ever stopped to consider where words come from?  Maybe thats like the chicken and egg question. 

Do words come from here?  This is a dictionary I bought the first semester of my freshman year of college.  Is it the source of words?  What came first, the idea, the action, the emotion, the object or the word attached to the idea, the action, the emotion, the object?  Whats really in a word?  What do words tell us?  Are there different kinds of words?  If I were to ask you, could you list for me your favorite words?  How about the most powerful words?

Maybe some words to define word will help:

WordA speech sound or series of them, serving to communicate meaning and consisting of at least one base morpheme; a letter or group of letters representing a unit of language; morpheme:  the smallest meaningful unit of language.

Well . . . maybe not.

Let me ask you this, do you think zebra existed before the word zebra existed?  Do you think tears fell from an eye before the word tear left someones lips?  Or what about joy, or fear, or wonder?  Its probably not a chicken and the egg thing is it?  The idea, the action, the emotion, the object, they all existed prior to the word that came to be attached to zebra or tear, or joy or fear.  In word-speak, verb preceded noun.

In fact, if youll recall in the creation story, God gave humankind the responsibility of naming things, making words to symbolize and identify the creatures of the world God had created.

We use words.  This is love.  This is true.  This is important.  This matters most.  But a word, in and of itself isnt love, isnt true, isnt important, doesnt matter most.  Our alphabet and all alphabets, and all the words they can be sorted and resorted to convey, do not actually carry the essence of what they symbolize.

Words house.  Words store.  But the real meaning lies beyond and before the word.

I believe this to be true, with one reality-altering exception.

Let me tell you what I mean.

You have just returned from Winter Break.  During that time Christians around the world celebrated Christmas, the coming of the Christ Child. 

We retold the story that has transformed reality.  God, who has always been, but who was inapproachable, inaccessible by virtue of His very nature and power chose to make Himself accessible and approachable.  God came to earth in the most vulnerable, nonthreatening of formsthe infant Jesus.

II.  The Word Became Flesh

Remember these words, penned by John in his gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  John 1: 1-3

There is a Word, capital W, that has always been.  A Word that was with God, a Word that was God.  The Word of Godthe mind, the wisdom, the reason of Godthe very essence of God.  This expression of God, this essence of God came to be among usEmmanuelGod with us.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a fathers only son, full of grace and truth.  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Fathers heart, who has made him known.  John 1: 14, 16-18

Jesus is the Word of God.  But unlike any other word in existence, He has always been.  From the dawn of creation to the moment just past, He is.  He is not word as symbol, in Him, Word is essence.  The Word of God took on flesh to reveal to us what other words could only allude to.  The Word became flesh and lived among us.

Have you ever wondered what it means to have a God with skin? 

God in the flesh.

He who invented life now enters life.

He who knows everything now comes to be fully known.

Essence becomes example.

Idea becomes physical reality.

Ideal becomes temporal.

It was too marvelous, and yet there He was, the Word of God.  Peter shouted His identity, You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  John remembered and testified for us to hear about the realness of Jesus:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of lifethis life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. 

I John 1: 1, 2

We have come to call itthe incarnation.  The God, who was afar, is now close.  The God of mystery is now the God of tissue.  Jesus the Christthe noun and verb of God.

The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.  This is truly a great mystery.  But theres another mystery of equal importance for us, and one that like Christmas is observed when school is outthe mystery of Pentecost.

III.  The Word WithinThe Mystery of the Gospel

Listen to the Apostle Pauls description of this gospel secret:

 God gave me the responsibility of serving his church by proclaiming his message in all its fullness to you Gentiles.  This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to his own holy people.  For it has pleased God to tell his people that the riches and glory of Christ are for you Gentiles, too.  For this is the secret:  Christ lives in you, and this is your assurance that you will share in his glory. Colossians 1: 25-27

Not only has the Word of God taken on flesh, the Spirit of God now dwells within those who believe in God.  This is the life that God intends for us.  A life where meaning, truth, grace, and love, reside within us in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Word of God, the eternal Word, the life-giving and light-giving word, exists within our fleshly frame, dispelling the darkness and giving us access to the life we are meant to live.

Let me pause a moment and ask you, Does the Word of God dwell within you?  If not, Jesus awaits your invitation.

Now, take the idea of the Word, capital W, and hold onto that while I turn our attention back to all other words.  Back to the reality that you and I live in a world of words.

I think its extremely important we are fully aware of the nature and scale of the world of words in which we live.  In fact, let me take a moment and provide you with a visual aid. 

This is 80 books.  It is the average number of books you will go through and hopefully master in pursuit of your bachelors degree.  Take a look.  As a college student you live in a world of words.

IV.  WordsMeaning & Mastery

Lest you think Im only trying to be clever with this phrase, let me quickly identify the four primary word worlds in the history of humankind.

First, words were spoken.  That may sound obvious, it may sound odd, but until 6,000 BC people in families and tribes talked to one another, or perhaps a neighboring tribe.  Words, in that world, had limited reach, a specific context, a local meaning.

The next major world of words emerged over the next several millennia in different parts of the world as papyrus was pounded, and rice paper was formed and alphabets were designed.  Words were no longer just spoken and remembered, words were being written and shared with more people and from generation to generationthe keeping of history, a record of humankind, became a function of the written word.

Then in the 16th century AD, the written word to a limited few, was supplanted by the printed word, and a new world of words emerged.  More words, to more people, access to ideas and information began to spread beyond conventional boundaries as countries and cultures learned of one another via Guttenbergs printing press.

Several centuries later, another world of words was brought into being.  In the 1800s, wires were strung in Europe and America, so many that a long series of wires literally stretched across America.  These wires and the electromagnetic current they conducted allowed people to use Samuel Morses inventionthe telegraph.  From this very modest invention, a whole new world of words came into being.  Someone you did not know could send out a series of words, words without context, words disconnected from the family, the tribe, the community.  In one sense, this new world of words was nothing different than having access to a larger library, but in another sense it represented a set of disconnected, de-contextualized data without a story, without a narrative, no story-teller, no narrator.  [Im indebted to Neil Postman for many of these insights.]

Scores of technologies followed the telegraph connecting the world through telephone, radio, television, Internet.  Each technology gave us the capacity to create, store and share more and more datamore words, or numbers, which like words are symbols, until we now live in an age where the sheer volume of words and information grows exponentially.  We text, we Facebook, we email, we fax, we call on the cell, those of us who are really old have land lines, and the truly old remember rotary phones and 8 tracks.  Scores of ways to send and receive.

This is not in and of itself a bad thing.  In fact, I read a book over the break entitled, The World is Open:  How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education.  Take a look at the ten developments that the author identifies as having the potential to change the way we learn and what we learn.

Curtis Bonk. The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education

Web Learning Opportunities

1.      Web Searching in the World of E-Books
2.      E-Learning and Blended Learning
3.      Availability of Open Source and Free Software
4.      Leveraged Resources and OpenCourseWare
5.      Learning Object Repositories and Portals
6.      Learner Participation in Open Information Communities
7.      Electronic Collaboration
8.      Alternate Reality Learning
9.      Real-Time Mobility and Portability
10.  Networks of Personalized Learning

Curtis Bonk, the author submits that anyone can now learn anything from anyone at anytime.  Hmmm.

I said all of that, and stacked up all these books to make this point.  There are now so many words and so much data, that we cannot, on our own, properly map out the world of words, and data and facts in which we now live.

I think I think that when I see a fair number of you line up for the book buy back at the end of the semester, its not just about the money.  Its that its just too much.  We feel compelled to discard some of the words that weigh us down, the dead weight words that we perceive to have no long-term meaning for us.

Let me tell you a story about my daughter.  About seven years ago she had graduated from college, a school a lot like this one where I worked at the time.  She was going to get married in six months, so she lived at home while the wedding was planned as she worked to save up some money.  The summer passed and soon came the time when the fall semester was to begin, and I noticed she was sad.  Why are you sad? I asked, Are you missing your friends?  No, she said.  Im sad because I dont get to go back and have anyone help me learn the meaning of things.

And that, my friends, is why you come to college.  The meaning of things.  We exist to help you gain understanding, to move beyond mere data exposure to knowledge, and from there to seek the understanding that leads to wisdom.  We strive to be equipped to help you pursue the mastery of a particular discipline, a skill, a craft, a body of knowledge.

We want to speak with you about facts, but we also want to talk to you about values. We live in the same world of words that you live in.  Like you, we are engaged in the process of determining what words matter, and what words matter most. 

We do all this in the context of our Christian faith, for we believe our faith affects what you study, how you study and how you use what you study.  It is our privilege and duty to guide you and work and learn alongside you; to take these disconnected data, these facts without context and integrate them into a coherent view of life. (Sommerville, The Decline of the Secular University)

In each and every academic department on campus we want to see you come to grasp the nature of what you pursue, understand it and master it.  (Let me interject here that mastery isnt always linked to the highest grade in the class.  It took me a bachelors degree and half of a masters degree before I realized that learning and grade performance were not synonymous.  Learn well and the grades will come.  Focus on grades alone, and you may merely be regurgitating words without true understanding.)

V.  Words, the Word & You

Early in my remarks I directed our attention to the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh.  Now, consider the idea of incarnation on the human scale.  The idea that a word, with all of its meaning, can become real, be fleshed out, thats what Id like to call incarnational learning.

In a very real sense that is my hope for each of you in your chosen field of study.  To move beyond learning words to owning wordsincarnating words.  It is not enough to know a pile of words in your area of interest and gifting, you must grasp and master what the words represent.  That is what we expect of you, I hope it is what you expect of yourselfultimately, its what God expects of you.

The mastery of the words of your life enables you to better serve the Word.  For you see, the Word is no longer flesh.  New flesh is needed.  God still intends to reveal Himself in flesh.  But this time its not His Son, its you, His children:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; ye the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  John 1: 10-13

I mentioned my daughter a moment ago.  She married and she and her husband moved to Dallas where they built a life together and she continued her education pursuing a masters degree in counseling, with a specialization in play therapy.  And now she and her husband are spending a year in Swaziland, a country in southern Africa with the highest per capita percentage of HIV/AIDS on the continent.  And what is she doing?

Shes using the concepts within the words she mastered to work with AIDS orphans; in particular, she often works with the oldest child in the family, for when the mother and father die, the oldest child, ages 10, 11, 12 becomes the head of the family.  She guides them, coaches them, providing coping skills, and on occasion, using play to help them once again feel alive and childlike.

Not only is she mastering the words that comprise the art and skill of counseling these young children, she has become the Word.  Thats right.  The Word of God, alive, incarnate, in her.  With her life, she speaks His love; she embodies His compassion and care.

The author, Barbara Brown Taylor says it well when she says:

God has no hands but ours, no bread but the bread we bake, no prayers but the ones we make, whether we know what we are doing or not.  When Christians speak of the mystery of the incarnation, this is what they mean:  for reasons beyond anyones understanding, God has decided to be made known in flesh.  Matter matters to God.  The most ordinary things are drenched in divine possibility. (Taylor, Altar, p. 201)

As you live in and learn to sort through the world of words that are your reality, do so with a constant awareness of the Word of God within you.  Live in the mystery of this twofold incarnation, of craft and of Christ.  God wishes to infiltrate every fiber of your flesh and make it His, and in so doing, equip you to be used by Him.

The gospel reality, this sweet mystery, can only be grasped well when seen lived out in another.  You are called to become the flesh that embodies the essence of Gods Wordso go, learn to be Gods verb, active in a world of words.


Recommended Reading:

Bonk, Curtis J.  The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing

Education.  San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2009.

Brown-Taylor, Barbara.  An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York:

HarperCollins, 2009.

Postman, Neil.  Amusing Ourselves to Death:  Public Discourse in the Age of Show

Business.  New York: Penguin, 1995.

________________.  Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language,

Technology and Education. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Sommerville, John. The Decline of the Secular University.  New York:  Oxford

University Press, 2006.