There is a scriptural formula for determining whether the words of a prophet are true. This is set out in Jeremiah, who was saying one thing to the king and to Jerusalem, while the paid priests of the state were saying the opposite. Who was the false prophet? Who was the true prophet? Jeremiah declares, “When the words of the prophet come to pass, then it will be known that he was a true prophet.” Jesus said the same thing to those asking him to justify himself and his words: “Wisdom is vindicated by her children” (Luke 17:35). And, sometimes, it is by her grandchildren.
It takes a while for the validity of a word to be verified by our experience. By then, it is generally too late for us to benefit from it. It would certainly be too late for us to know whether I’m slacking off on my responsibility to say the right word or if you are slacking off on your responsibility to hear it. It is enough for us all to know what we are responsible for. I am here to say the right word. You are here to hear it.
The right word can only be heard by hearts that are at the point of being able to recognize the truth of what is said, but it is too easy for each of us to blame the other if nothing is heard. I could blame you for being “hard-hearted and stiff-necked.” And you could blame me for being ambiguous and incomprehensible. Or, as one dear soul once said, “Jim, why don’t you talk to us about things we can understand?”—which I took to mean, “Why don’t you tell us what we have always heard?” All of which is to say that we have our work cut out for us. I have to say the right word and you have to hear it, and neither of us can blame the other for being obstinate or obtuse.
This means we have to grant the other the benefit of the doubt, as we each endeavor to do our part in saying and hearing what needs to be said and heard. You have to trust me to be working to say the right word. I have to trust you to be working to hear it. The work we do together produces the word that needs to be heard. I need you doing your work in order to speak the right word as much as you need me doing my work in order to hear it. Your hearing enables my speaking, my speaking enables your hearing, and together we produce a dialectic which creates the truth.
This means I am not the authority on what constitutes “the right word.” No word is “right” in and of itself. Everything rides on how those who hear it work it out for themselves, work it into their lives. “Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” You don’t come here and take dictation in order to memorize it so you can repeat it as heard to yourself and others forever. You hear what is said and turn it over, work it into your own soil, make it your own. You may transform it completely.
We have changed the meaning of the words of the prophets and the apostles and of Jesus Christ God’s Only Son Our Lord himself! We say what their words mean to us. We make them ours. We would have to interpret their words to them because of the changes we have made in order to make their words intelligible to our generation. We make the right word right by the way we hear it, by the way we fit it to ourselves and ourselves to it. How do we all know the right word when we hear it? The first rule is: No quick dismissals! We have to sit with it for a while, walk around it, mull it over, reflect on it, wonder about it, let it do its work. I have to do that with the word I say to you. You have to do that with the word you hear me speak.
The right word is yeast in the dough, a seed in the earth, the stone that the builders reject. It is like the dragon hatching, like the new life aborning. It is a threat to all that we have heard before, to the old life based on the old words. The right word can be consoling, comforting, healing, renewing, and it can be a threat and a terror, so we must not dismiss it outright. We have to spend the right kind of time with the words we hear to know if they are right words. This is doing our part.
I’m talking here about the importance of meditation—not blanking out your mind, but focusing it, thinking about the word you hear and what feels wrong about it and what may be right about it. I’m talking about the importance of reflection. About the importance of prayer.
Prayer is primarily attitude, orientation, a certain quality of spirit, of soul. It is openness, and respect. It is honoring the otherness of the other, of the situation, of the word, in a way that brings the other, the situation, the word, in and makes the other, the situation, the word, welcome. Prayer is making all things welcome and offering them, spoken or barely perceived, to the numinous reality that is our home in a way that recognizes our home is with all things, so that nothing is shut out, shunned, banished, but received, heard, understood, honored, and made room for. This is one of those hard words that cannot possibly be right because it is so wrong. How can we welcome all things when some things are so obviously horrendous and atrocious? Well. What would it take to understand the atrocities in a way that allowed us to receive them well? We must not hurry here, but sit, thinking, prayerfully.