My little sister used to whisper to herself. On family road trips, in the olden days when kids wore no seatbelts, I lounged on the dash of the rear window and listened to my parents’ conversation in the front seat, audible mainly as the soothing susurrus (whisper) of my mother’s soft replies. It often lulled me to sleep, especially when I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. But sometimes I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, my little sister Sharon staring out the window and mouthing the last thing anyone said. “We’ll be there in ten minutes,” my dad would tell us, and then my sister would repeat in a tiny whisper, “Ten minutes, ten minutes, we’ll be there in ten minutes.” Even as a six-year-old boy, I was aware of the way the words sounded as she murmured, fascinated by the way she seemed to savor them. Soon I tried it myself, enjoying the way they felt as they floated out of my mouth like bubbles, full of meaning and mystery. (Mystery, mystery, meaning and mystery.) All the while, my mom’s gentle voice rose and fell like the hiss of ocean waves in the front seat of the Dodge Colt.
Words were everywhere. Books lined the halls of my youth. Commentaries on Romans, Ephesians, the Gospels on one shelf, and on the shelf below were classics by Twain, Poe, Dumas, Dickens. We memorized the books of the Bible, and I remember the relief I felt whenever I blurted the rhythmic finale of the Old Testament: “Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.” At church camp, I helped other kids memorize the books, verses, and weird pronunciations. If the leaders needed someone to read aloud, my hand shot up, so eager was I to demonstrate my mastery of “Melchizedek” and “Methuselah.” And every preacher’s kid knows that of all the Sermon Survival Resources at one’s disposal, along with “Doodling on the Bulletin” and “The Mid-Sermon Bathroom Break,” the most unobtrusive and accessible may be “Hymnal Browsing.” Oh, the archaic language of the hymns. The orderly rhyme schemes, the unsung third verses, the odd truncated words (such as heav’n and e’en), all available in a maroon hardback hymnal while my dad preached every Sunday morning and e’en.
Back to my sister. Somewhere along the way, I developed (and may have perfected) the skill commonly referred to as “teasing,” or, more accurately, “being a huge jerk.” At first it was just older brother mischief, but it soon turned into something sinister. I employed words like “stupid” and “moron.” Of course, I got in trouble. I claimed that I was only kidding, no harm done, though I secretly understood that the words caused her pain. And it was the pain that got my attention. Words, I realized, have power. They can bludgeon just as surely as they can bless. I have since apologized to my sister—using words.
This all brings me to another memory that crystallized things even as they deepened the intrigue. At church camp I had to memorize John 1:1. For some reason, that verse and the rest of John’s opening passage has always fascinated me. It has haunted and delighted me, like a secret place in the woods that I keep coming back to visit without knowing why:
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 were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
I didn’t know what it meant, but I liked it. These words about the Word, obvious in their loveliness and yet pulsing with deeper meaning, have orbited in my heart since I was a boy. Who was this John, I wondered, and who was this Word? John, of course, knew Jesus personally. Can you imagine writing something like that about someone you’ve eaten dinner with? Either John was off his rocker or Jesus was God. I whispered those words as I lay under my Star Wars sheets staring at the glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling: “The Word was God. In him was life. . .in him was life. . .life. God. Word. Life.”
Somewhere along the way, I gave my heart to that Word that had made His presence known all along the road in a quiet, constant murmur, like my mother’s soothing whispers. He wrote me into His hymnal. When I was nineteen, I asked my dad if I could sing a song in church. No, I assured him, it was not a Van Halen song. It was about the gospel. I wept my way through every verse. I had for so long understood the power of words but had denied their true purpose, which was to build the kingdom, to draw attention to the Word that was God, to declare His love, all for His glory. Twenty years later I can close my eyes and feel His pleasure as I sang at last of His great grace and power. I was cut to the quick that my words had been so wicked for so long. This same tongue that had uttered such cruel darkness was at last, in weary and joyful submission, saying, “Let there be light.” And do you know what? There was light. Hallelujah.
Go ahead, repeat it to yourself a few times.