But life to me is not a thing to waste words on, provided that when I finish my race I have carried out the mission the Lord Jesus gave me—and that was to bear witness to the good news of God’s grace.
Acts 20: 24
Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you; for the words that you have given me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me.
John 17: 7-8
As I sat to reflect on this morning’s scripture readings, I received word that the poet Franz Wright had died a few days ago at the age of 62. Franz was the son of the poet James Wright. They were the only father and son to both win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. From his earliest days, having been abandoned by his father, through his struggles with addiction and loneliness which his poetry describes, Franz experienced the struggles of life as perhaps only one with such a sensibility can. In later life, however, in the love of his wife and in an experience of religious conversion, he seemed to access the hidden beauty and mystery at the heart of the painful human experience.
In the two readings today, we hear what seem to be contradictory views of human words. In Acts, Paul says that “life to me is not a thing to waste words on . . . .” While in John, Jesus prays in thanksgiving for the words which are gifts from the Father and which he has, in turn, given to his disciples, who have received them. We know, of course, that the very “mission” of Paul was carried out in words. So what are the words that he does not want to waste his life on?
Paul, as we, had experiences in life where his words were facile and glib. In today’s reading from Acts, he seems to suggest that he could waste words in the service of self-justification and self-aggrandizement but that would betray the mission of love and service which Jesus gives him. There are words that come easily to us, but those, too often, are in service to our own fears and self-promotion. They are words that, in fact, block our access to the words that God gives us for the sake of the world. Those words, the words of God of which we are merely servants, are the mission for which we have been given life. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” (John 17: 4)
We are called to speak uniquely the words of God’s presence and love that are God’s gift to us. Those words are formed in us in mysterious and often incomprehensible ways, including all that we are and all that we go through. There is lots of noise in our contemporary society, but there is an amazing lack of true speaking. Personally, I am often amazed at how often I “swallow” the real words that are given to me and are seeking to be expressed. At such moments, I often replace those words that are given with the kind of wasteful words of my own of which Paul speaks. For example, I neglect to generously offer words of encouragement or challenge to the person before me in favor of speaking about that person to others. Often instead of taking the time in silence and prayer that a serious question or concern requires before responding, I speak “off the top of my head,” withholding in laziness the real contribution that God is asking me to make. There is also the pervasive tendency to refuse appropriate words of self-expression in evasion of the intimacy and vulnerability that such words would evoke.
The words that Jesus reminds us are God’s gift to us are not “cheap talk.” In fact, they are very costly – costing no less than our very lives. Jesus has completed his work because he has spoken the words God has given him in love for those whom God has given him. Far too often, we live and die without completing our unique work in this way. It is striking and painful to see how little true communication and speaking occurs among those who share life together. In at least one moment today, may we have the courage and generosity to speak the word that God has given us, as Franz Wright struggled to do throughout his life.
Sunlight and silence stood at a bend in the path suddenly;
wind moved, once, over the dark water
and I was back.
Far from the world of appearances,
the world of “gain and mirth.”
there will be nobody
here going on
and pain and change. No one here!
Spoking hallways of pines where the owl, eyes wide open, dreams—
there is a power that wants me to live, I don’t know why.
Then I saw again
like a massive haunted head
lumbering after the egg laying toward
the water and vanishing
into the water, slowly
in that element half underworld, half sky.
There is a power that wants me to love.
Franz Wright, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard