When Necessary, Use Words
I come from a long line of storytellers—an uncle who can turn a nugget of memory into a family legend, a dad who wants everyone to understand “the rest of the story,” and a father-in-law whose favorite saying is “let me teach you something.”
It’s a trait that has its ups and downs. On the upside, I have a rich sense of who I am and where I come from. On the downside, I possess an impulse to talk everything to death!
Too much explanation strips symbols of richness. Too much talking renders faith impotent. Do you stop to explain the ritual of blowing out candles and singing “Happy birthday to you” at birthday celebrations? Of course not. You just do it and trust the ritual to do its own teaching.
In the 1991 movie Grand Canyon, Steve Martin’s character resolves to quit making violent movies but refuses to talk about it. He thinks “if you talk about stuff, maybe that takes the place of doing it.” He may have a point.
There’s no doubt real life is messier than the Catechism. The Ten Commandments can be taught in words, but actually living them takes something more. Jesus had a lot to say, but even he didn’t sit on a soapbox and preach all day. He healed people, raised them from the dead, offered acceptance, forgiveness, and a fresh start. Faith is more than a statement of beliefs. The parables of the city on the hill and the light of the world make this clear. Our beliefs must manifest themselves in action. Otherwise, they’re just an empty shell behind which we can hide.
It’s easier to talk about loving our neighbor than it is to actually do it. But oh, when we manage to, it’s powerful! Several years ago my daughter Julianna was in the ICU. People came out of the woodwork to help us—from sitting in the hospital so we could leave to eat or take in a breath of fresh air to bringing care packages or meals so we didn’t have to cook. They didn’t have to say why they were there or why they gave of their precious time. Their actions said it all.
When we act, we have the chance to touch lives, to be a larger part of the Christian community. One of the most effective witnesses to Christianity in our time was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. All too often when someone starts spouting Bible verses and personal witness, people tune out. But when Mother Teresa spoke, everyone listened. Why? Because the most jaded individual could see that her words rested on a solid bedrock of action. They meant something.
Like Mother Teresa, our actions mean something. Of course, there are times when we have to use words. But there’s a danger in leaning too heavily on them. Words have a tendency to paint themselves in black and white, and the world is Technicolor.