I Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 – the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany – for January 15, 2012
“As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” (I Samuel 3:19)
When a youth struggled or an adult seemed exhausted during church backpacks I led, I might ask this inane question:
When I snap a picture, does the film weigh more because there’s an image on it?
Such a silly query! What a nonsensical notion! Whether my camera used old-fashioned Kodak Ektachrome or a modern SanDisK Ultra Card, I relished engaging them in a meaningless chat. And yet my words served a deeper purpose. They could inspire conversations and reactions, and therefore cause my fellow weary hiker to stow away their own troubles for a few trail moments.
Of course film stock or a memory card won’t weigh more after capturing scenes of mountain lakes, glorious alpenglow and friends grinning around a campfire. Or . . . would it?
How much do memories weigh? Can an anguished memory weigh you down, a tender memory lift you up? Does the depiction of a sublime sunrise expand a soul while the snapshot of a burned forest shrinks the heart? Pictures and memories. Some are overloaded luggage dragging you down, others lighter than feathers. G. K. Chesterton rightly mused, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
And what about the very words spoken or written to convey our experience? Do they add or subtract weight?
This week I enjoyed re-reading the Bible’s account of the prophet Samuel’s summons from God. Still a child, Samuel lives with the aging Eli, his mentor and a judge of Israel. God beckons Samuel, and once, twice, three times the youngster scampers to Eli, thinking the old man had called him. The third time is the charm, as they say, and Eli advises his charge to listen instead for God’s voice, God’s desires. Toward the end of the tale of Samuel’s calling, a verse declares . . .
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.
Whoa! What an image! Do words have weight? Can they not “fall to the ground?” Well, the useless ones could. The unnecessary ones might. But words that matter won’t; God promises Samuel’s honesty Holy truth and will never become mere dust or litter. Samuel, like Eli, would grow old, proclaiming uplifting, forceful, essential nouns and adjectives, answers and questions.
A day after reading about Samuel’s gravity-defying words, I became enthralled with another verse. In Psalm 139:17, the psalmist/poet rejoices . . .
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
Whoa! Grammar possessing girth. Verbs with volume. Thoughts tipping the scale.
The Bible I keep close for reading and study is an NRSV translation with a soft red cover. Some pages are wrinkled and torn. There are grape stains (I’m a good Methodist when it comes to communion). Traces of breadcrumbs might be detected in the binding. Bookmarks—Post-it notes without much sticking power left—are scattered here and there. An old nametag with Day of Silence printed on it clings to the front page. I recall wearing that tag during a protest while serving as a campus minister in the early 90s . . . and then I tucked it into my Bible. Why is it still there? I suppose the tag reminds me of a long-ago activity with and for college students. I recall trying to help them sense the vibrancy and relevance of faith. Truth be told, they taught me more than I ever taught them.
I brought out my kitchen scale and weighed my well-worn Bible. 1.69 pounds.
Now I know for sure how much words weigh.
Which is silly. Nonsensical.
And not. Jews, Christians and Muslims all rightly claim to be “people of the word.” Each faith can file in its computer or grasp in its sacred tomes chock full of words and numbers, indexes and concordances, verses and chapters, history and faith, theology and poetry. Samuel’s words did not mix with and blow away with the dust. The Psalmist sensed the vast, vast sum of the Holy’s words. The ancients, those first Jews, first Christians, first Muslims claimed a hope and scrawled it onto leather, papyrus, paper and even their own flesh.
What of you? What of me? How easy it is to abuse or ignore all these words gifted to us. This I believe . . . early in my faith, I embraced the cliché, “I don’t take the Bible literally, but I take it seriously.
And what do I take seriously? Words do have weight. Words of faith can expand or contract a soul. My soul. Your soul. I joke about images in a camera. I tip a scale with the Bible’s 66 books and 1,189 chapters.
And later today, after I finish writing these words, I guarantee I’ll meet or phone or text a friend or stranger or second cousin and what I say to them, influenced by faithful, weighty words, will either add a burden or help them take themselves lightly.
I pray to choose words that help another take flight.