God in Motion
I just finished reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s delightful plea for us to renew our commitment to steward the gift of language as the treasure it is. She is not the first to lament the decline of those who truly understand and appreciate the importance of words (a problem compounded in our text-crazy, Facebooked, Twittered world), but her book communicates these points with the grace and beauty you would expect from someone attempting to lure readers back into the simple truth of how words can move us.
One memorable passage has me thinking today. The following comes in one of the earlier chapters where McEntyre is singing the praises of the various elements of grammar and syntax—in this case, the verb:
We depend on [verbs] to reveal the dance of the whole dynamic universe, from orbiting electrons to sucking undertows to swiftly tilting planets. We entwine them in sentences like strands to describe the complex weave of events. A single verb can change our sense of what we are witnessing, as when Mary Oliver writes of preying vultures, “they minister to the grassy miles.” Good verbs invest our gestures with the language of the heart…
And sometimes nouns become verbs because they can’t sit still any longer: so things catapult and flame, and meetings are chaired. Verbs, I think, matter most. Asked for his name, God gave Moses a verb. And even those of us who are, as Cummings put it, “human merely being” can’t be contained in nouns, even buttressed by the best adjectives, but burst and blossom into verbs like Van Gogh’s trees and leaping fields when we are most alive.
What fantastic imagery! I love the picture of nouns becoming verbs “when they can’t sit still any longer. But beyond the imagery and the matter of how language moves us, I think there is some interesting theology at work here as well. That God responded with a verb when asked for a noun is theologically significant and worth pondering, in my view.
We spend so much of our lives treating and talking about and relating to God like a noun, and on one level I suppose that’s unavoidable. But God is also action and motion and unpredictability and surprise. God has always been leading human beings on a journey—a journey where assumptions are challenged and where certainties about “what God is like” and “how God works” are unsettled. God cannot be contained by the nouns we enlist to describe and delimit and manage.
The text for our church’s worship service this past Sunday was 1 Timothy 2:8-15—a passage notorious for its supposedly archaic and morally unacceptable portrayal of women. It is a difficult passage, certainly. It is one of those passages that many of us would prefer to ignore. The view of women that it seems to assume is so far removed from what nearly all of us find acceptable. Paul’s literal instructions to women in this passage are almost nowhere practiced consistently two millennia later (thank God!). Few people interpret this passage as anything remotely like a divine transcript articulating God’s eternally fixed views on the ontological status or nature of men and women.
And yet gender is, obviously, an issue that continues to generate controversy in some circles. A perceived need to understand and implement God’s views of gender as fixed for all time in ancient terms does real damage in real people’s lives (I have been fascinated and perplexed and saddened to observe this in the unusually active comments section of a previous post of mine). And is is unnecessary. In the area of gender and what we think God has in mind about it, thankfully, there is movement—in Scripture itself, and throughout the Christian story—even if the movement is slower and more inconsistent and painful than many of us would prefer.
The issue of how to understand gender is just one area where I am glad to think of God as a verb who communicates to limited human beings in verb-like ways. I am glad—indeed I depend on—the fact that there is movement in how God chooses to reveal Godself to human beings over time. A God in motion is worth worshiping, worth following (how, I wonder, can you follow someone who doesn’t go anywhere or ask or allow any new questions?). A God in motion has to be trusted to continue to speak, to illuminate the meaning of Scripture in the many and varied contexts it is applied, and to guide women and men into truth. You have listen more carefully and humbly to a God in motion. And a God in motion makes it possible (and healthy) for you and I to move too.
I am glad that God didn’t just dispense everything important for us to think and do once upon a time, and that our sole task as human beings is to just preserve it, package it, and open it up unchanged for each new generation. I am glad that God thinks more of us than that—that he gives us the challenge of applying the truth of the gospel to whatever times and cultural forms we happen to inhabit. I am glad that following Jesus provides the freedom to interpret Scripture and live according to wonderful nouns like life and love and hope and grace.
But like McEntyre, I, too, think it is verbs that matter most.