This is an exciting time in the parsonage. Our son Jacob is learning to talk.
Every day or so it seems he can spit out a new syllable or two, sounds that for him, at least, shoulder the weight of absolute denotation. He knows what he means when he speaks, and thinks we should. If we do not understand him — well, that only reveals our ignorance, our slowness of ear and insight. He often shrugs his shoulders at our lack of comprehension.
Sometimes he tries to help us, tutor us with changes of pitch and volume, from shrill to shriller, from loud to louder; or by pointing, and repeating, and repeating, and repeating. Sometimes, miraculously, the ice under our caps breaks, the light comes on in the attic, and we understand. Sometimes.
Generally, if we do, it is because our daughter Bethany serves as translator. It’s not surprising that she understands him, I guess, for she has a child’s heart, and a child’s ear; it is fortunate for us that she can guide us along.
We spend much of our time these days listening, trying to learn his language, even as he gradually learns ours.
What makes us pay attention to him? Why do we ‘spend so much time listening? Well, he’s our son, and we want to know him, to know what he is thinking and trying to say, what he is saying, if we have ears to hear. So we work to understand, to respond, to communicate.
And besides, we think it’s cute. That’s good, because he loves to talk.
Don’t all children? Love to talk, I mean. And don’t the rest of us — parent, grandparent, or great — don’t we all get fascinated with our little ones as they start talking? Isn’t it a wonderful thing to watch? And hear? Those excited little voices, babbling to the chair or to the doll, to the book or bird, sounding out sounds for the fun of the sounds themselves.
Those early soundings may strike us as random, or experimental, but there is a grammar to it, I am convinced, this language of our children – a vocabulary and syntax and structure, a style and substance that is on the order of poetry. It is poetry they gladly share with us, though by and large we leathery-hearted adults have not the soul or sense to understand its beauty or profundity.
For us, much of the day and the things that fill it are mundane, the subject — if of talk at all – only of nuts and bolts reporting, bare prose. For us so much goes unnoticed, unspoken, unappreciated.
For our children, though, every moment is momentous, every reality revelatory. Aren’t they amazed by the simplest things, and can’t wait to tell us? And doesn’t it thrill them when we catch on to what they are saying? Theirs is a distilled happiness when they master a syllable or word, a phrase or story. And they love to talk, for there is something in them trying to find expression.
Robert Frost said that all poetry begins with a lump in the throat, with something, some vision or wisdom or sadness or joy inside clawing to get out.
So with the poetry of children. There is something in their spirit before there is a thought in their mind, or a sound in their mouth, something that needs telling. There is something in Jacob — could it be wisdom, perhaps, or joy, or some vision of the world that I have lost the eyes to see? Of such as is in the hearts of children is the essence of God’s kingdom, Jesus said. Whatever it is that is in him, it’s trying to get out. And so he speaks, though all his words do, and will increasingly, fall short.
The disciples’ words fall short, too, and though they are beautiful and powerful, actually having been with Jesus must have been something more beautiful and powerful still.
The disciples saw Him face to face, the Scriptures say, and beheld the glory of the only begotten of the Father. Such glory as they beheld, those simple men, such proximity to the flesh that was 1 John 3:11-18, was too much for their words from the very start, or at least from that first Sunday after His death.
Curious, isn’t it? Except for an occasional ejaculation, such as “It’s the Lord!” or “My Lord and my God,” silence seems their normal mode, from the moment they run to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning to the time they greet Him in the upper room with silence. In Emmaus, they talked with Him only until they realized who He was, then they fell silent. By the Sea of Tiberius, after that incredible catch of fish, they ate in silence.
Maybe they fell so silent toward the end because they remembered how their speaking had tripped them up so often along the way. Peter wasn’t the only one whose words had not served him well. And maybe, too, after seeing Him again, they couldn’t talk for the thickness in their throats.
So soon after Easter, their faith — like Frost’s poetry — was not a word yet, could not be spoken. It was a lump, and a fear, and a tear and a laugh. The disciples’ Easter faith was a flutter of the pulse and a fever in the soul.
The discursive thoughts and theological analyses — the words — came later. Much later.
It was only long after He was gone, when some of the disciples themselves were gone, and the rest were packed and waiting, only then that some of them seem to have begun putting words around the experience, to let language carry the weight of His glory. The Word become flesh became word again, so as to communicate the truth of what they had seen, and done and felt, so that others and other generations could feel and do, and be blessed with belief though they had not seen.
It must have been tough going, trying to get it all down, recalling and retelling all of it, even the parts they wanted to forget — the slowness of heart and mind, the betrayals and failures. It must have been a climb to be on the mountain with Jesus again, and elsewhere, to translate and teach what they most often had not understood, even when He had been there to explain it to them. Jesus had to do a lot of explaining, for His language was a poetry of grace, and the disciples were not graceful men, or prone to it. What He said did not come naturally to them.
The stories He liked the best made no sense, at least no common sense. What landowner in his right mind would give a 4:30-5:00 guy the same wage as the one who skipped breakfast to start plowing early? And what father would let himself be made a fool by a scoundrel son who took him for half of all he had, only to come back to a welcome fit for a king?
The apothegms, the proverbs and beatitudes were no easier. Why should the rich grieve and the grieving laugh? Who forgives even his brother 490 times or prays for his enemy at all?
Jesus had spoken a different language all right, a language that the disciples had trouble understanding all along. But they had been with Him, and they had experienced Him; something of Him had taken root in their souls.
And until such time as it could claw its way out, the lump in their throats and the love in their hearts, the hope in their souls and the service of their hands would be speech enough. Their love for one another would be the language they spoke to one another concerning the life Jesus had given them.
Gradually, their faith found verbal expression, but in any of its forms it must have fallen short, could not have been as poetic as having been with Him.
There appears to me an ironic reversal, really, from that day to now. For those early followers of Jesus, their experience of faith was primary, their verbal expression of faith secondary. There was a faith in them that spoke out only later.
Conversely, for many today who follow lately — to be sure — and distantly — I am afraid — it is speaking that most often comes first, and sometimes with little feeling. I am afraid we know more of faith’s form than its substance, more of its words than its working.
Each Lord’s day we lift our voices to affirm, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” but if we easily forget God in the day to day matters of life, or live our lives oblivious to His claim upon us, then perhaps our faith is more a matter of the mouth than the heart.
Each Lord’s day we lift our voices to affirm, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” but if we easily forget how He loved us and gave Himself for us, if we ignore His sacrifice or try to remake Him into our own image, then perhaps our faith is more a matter of the lips than the spirit.
Each Lord’s day we lift our voices to affirm, “I believe in the Universal Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins …” but if we easily condemn or turn our backs on God’s children, if we quickly see the evil in others and fail to see the evil in ourselves, if we do not love one another as Christ has expressly told us to do, then perhaps our faith is all in the mind and not in our soul.
The language of the Gospel, the Grammar of Grace, is a language of the mouth and the heart, of the lips and the spirit, of the mind and the soul. Either one without the other is heretical language, incomplete and unworthy of the Author of our faith.
I keep thinking of those poor boys in Marion, North Carolina, who scream part of the Scriptures at their classmates — does a 6-year-old know what a whoremonger or fornicator is? And if they do, shouldn’t their parents have taught them about grace and forgiveness instead?
We must all ever struggle to learn more of Jesus’ language, and more of all of it, not just selected parts of it; more of the words and the feeling, more of the grammar and the grace, more of the letter and the spirit. We must grow in love and knowledge, in faith and its expression. And along with our beautiful words there must be a lump in the throat.
So this is the message that we have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, because we have passed from hatred and death into love and life. We have been loved, so we ought to love one another, not just in word, but in deed. We must learn to speak the language of grace, for that is the native tongue of Jesus’ own Kingdom.

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