Meaning what you say isn’t always easy

I have a brilliant friend who, by the time he was about 30, was teaching graduate-level classes and was on track to become a full-fledged professor. Though he hadn’t yet finished his dissertation and didn’t have his doctoral degree, the school hired him with the understanding that he would complete the doctoral work within a certain time.

Pressed with the demands of academic research as well as those of his job and growing family, he had to push forward with his graduate work. He struggled with the dissertation, but believed he did not have time to start a new project.

Finally, he completed the document, and as he delivered it to the committee, promptly sank his own ship before it had a chance to leave the harbor: “Here,” he said, laying the massive tome before them, “I don’t believe a word of it, but it’s finished.”

In relatively short succession, his dissertation was rejected, his Ph.D. was left incomplete and he lost his teaching position for lack of credentials.

As someone who makes a living in large part by having something worthwhile to say on a regular basis, I can identify with the pressure of regularly pulling together meaningful material. My wife, who preaches nearly every week, relates as well. Though I don’t think either of us would preface something we presented in print at a pulpit with the claim that we don’t believe a word of it, there are times when you feel less confident than others to stand behind the claims you’re making.

Each of us has been in a situation where we feel forced into offering words when we’re less than inspired. Maybe we’re visiting relatives with whom we have little or nothing in common. It can happen when someone comes to us in crisis, seeking comfort or answers.

One hard lesson I’ve had to learn in my first seven years of marriage is that sometimes there are no appropriate words. Sometimes, it’s best just to shut up and listen. Often, our very presence and attention can be more comforting than any words we can muster, particularly those that fall back on old cliches or sentiments that sound nice, but that we don’t really mean.

In Romans 8, Paul assures that the Spirit intercedes, even when we can offer nothing more than “sighs too deep for words.” In some instances, the best thing we can do, rather than trying to fix the problem, is to sigh, struggle or mourn alongside someone. It’s a lot harder than offering a trite phrase or poorly timed humor, but those moments of presence and compassion can go a long way toward healing.

In those instances when we feel compelled or forced to use words, the wisdom of Theodor Geisel – aka Dr. Seuss – comes to mind. One of my favorite books from childhood was “Horton Hears a Who,” about an earnest elephant that cares for a small community of creatures no one else even seems to notice.

The Whos are understandably guarded about his offer to help, not only because of his tremendous size and power, but also because they are so used to being overlooked. Horton’s response is simple. He says, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, 100 percent.”

Meaning what we say, and saying what we mean, may seem easy enough. But too often it’s more efficient to say what sounds good rather than something with real meaning. Sometimes, in those weeks when nothing I feel I can stand behind has come and my deadline is fast approaching, I start with a prayer. Instead of staying in “author” mode, I think of myself as a vessel, often laden with sighs too deep for words.

Eventually, the words come, not always on command, but so far, so good.

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