A Thought in the Mind of God

NASA image - emerging universe

Second Sunday in Christmas | John 1:1-18

A Thought in the Mind of God

In the very beginning there was a word, an idea, a thought, the first thing that ever was, and the thought was hanging out with God. In fact, the thought, this thinking idea word-thing, was God.

Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s fragment, recto

That is how the Gospel of John starts. In the beginning was the logos…the thought, the idea, the word.

We say that words are not powerful. Words can’t hurt you, we hear from our elders when other children taunt us, but it is a lie—words can hurt us, more deeply and longer than any wound to the body.

They are powerful, words are. Just like God. Nothing more than an idea, really, a concept, a thought, but like God words are something that cannot be touched and cannot be destroyed, something capable of immense and unmeasurable power.

We struggle with knowing which is more important, words or actions. Most of the time, what we do is truer than what we say. What we do ultimately informs us as to who we are, as though each act is a personal sacrament — an outward sign of our own inward truth. If we say we are clean and sober while we pour another drink, our words are just the deception of an addict, the long slow con, a lie we tell ourselves in order better to deceive others.

Don’t tell me, we say. Show me. As revealing as our actions are, they are only true on the outside. It is the idea that drives the action, the thought that is the truth within us, the word that is us.

Rylands Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s fragment, verso

There is power in our thoughts, power in our words. There is a value to the articulation of our thoughts, and there is a truth in stories that cannot be told any other way. Give me a rule, and I’ll forget it or I’ll break it. Give me a story and I cannot forget it. We are wired to story, our brains evolving over millennia to learn from stories we heard around cooking fires, stories painted on the walls of our caves. All those clay paintings of bison and antelope are more than art: the sharing of these images was an act of communion.

The thought-that-was-God came into this world, to live in this world. That is the gospel message. The idea-that-was-God burned, shining, brilliant in the midst of dark ignorance all around, and the ignorance could not to quench it.

We read the story in the first verses of John’s Gospel, and we are no longer amazed by it. Perhaps it was a page turner two thousand years ago, an opening that caught the imagination of the ancient world: In the beginning was the Word… Imagine, the Word, the idea of God, walking as a human, standing in the wild places, listening to John the Baptist cry out his sermons to crowds by a riverside. It is an astonishing thought, but not to us. We are immured, buried and insulated by the profusion of words that surround us.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet  III, iii

That is how Shakespeare put it, and maybe he was onto something. Empty words. We have found ways to separate thought and word, to speak without thinking. Our words are everywhere, on signs, menus, T-shirts, screens, phones, emails, broadcasts. The value of our words is diminished by their pervasiveness, diluted by the ease with which we record them.

We no longer know the holy when we see it. We may no longer believe that anything is holy, let alone that words might be.

…I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
― William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Nevertheless, ancient cities fall into the dust, and the pyramids crumble, but their stories remain. In the end, the most ancient relic and the most enduring aspect of humanity is found in our intangible untouchable diaphanous words.

In the stories of scripture, God calls all that there is, all of the cosmos, into being with a word. When speech was added to thought, when the idea was expressed, the universe exploded into being.

What we think may be more real than anything we see. What we say may be more lasting than anything we build. In the end, the words that tell our story are all that we leave behind us. The atoms that make us may spin and fly, returning to the stars that made them, nothing but stardust, but our lives remain, a thought in the mind of God.

Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Sunday Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Here’s a bonus—a short (45 second) video from NASA as part of WMAP, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe project. In NASA’s summary: The structure of the universe evolved from the Big Bang, as represented by WMAP’s “baby picture”, through the clumping and ignition of matter (which caused reionization) up to the present.

The Crush of Words

The Crush of Words  |  Matthew 21:33-46

They were not good for much, these old men, not any more, but you could not get them to believe it. They graced the temple with their leadership, in their minds, and they had the robes to prove it.

GrapesWhiteWideHere sat this nobody of a man, a carpenter who hailed from Nazareth by way of Capernaum. He had the gall to sit in the temple and teach. Worst of all, he was popular. The crowds ate it up, as though anyone needed another reason to despise the fellow.

Those old men might have let him get away with it, might have let him have his moment of glory and move on. There was always somebody the nitwitted public was ready to follow, somebody with a strong voice and smooth promises that these fools were ready to hear. It never lasted long, and when the latest song fell so far off the charts that the crowd couldn’t even remember how to hum it, the priests would still be there. Yes, they might have just waited him out, let him have his few minutes of fame, but he went and started telling stories.

It’s bad enough to be made the butt of a joke, but it’s even worse to be made the point of a story. People might laugh at the joke for a while, but eventually they would suspect it was a little mean hearted, maybe even an untrue exaggeration. A story, though? Long after people forget how to tell a joke, they still remember a story.

Jesus told the story of a man who left his winery under the care and management of a crack team of businessmen. They stole his profits, killed his auditors, and even murdered the heir to his fortune in a botched attempt at a violent corporate takeover. We don’t knowGrapevines whether this winery was in Sicily, but we’re familiar with the kind of criminals this bunch of businessmen turned out to be. While the story pointed out the self-serving nature of the temple leaders, the tale also points to a truth about our world. We are not all honest; some say none of us are. Some of us are even willing to use violence to satisfy our greed, and some of us disguise our violence as the unintended side effect of a free market.

Jesus used words to dismantle the establishment. Jesus used stories to question authority, to stick it to the man.

That’s one thing we can take from this passage—the power of words. Jesus was in a position to stand up and lead a revolution that even the Romans would have respected. Instead, he sat down and told stories to the crowd. The revolution he started was in their minds, and ideas can’t be stopped, not by Roman soldiers or riot police.

Isaiah offers a fresh version of the promise the Lord makes with the faithful, people whose minds are engaged in the story of God:

…my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the Lord, from now on and forever.  —Isaiah 59:21, NRSV

Words. They separate us from the other animals. Words form our human inheritance, inform our civilization, serve to bring the presence of God into our lives. Words are powerful, as useful as cornerstones and as dangerous as a falling rock.


Photos by Granny™