“Too Deep for Words” / Romans 8:22-27 / 20 May 2018
Happy Pentecost Day to you! May the winds of the Spirit sweep through all the locked upper rooms in your heart. Let them blow, let them blow, those unexpected winds that dispel the staleness of life, clearing away the dust and the cobwebs of mind and soul. May the fires of the Spirit come and rest on you, burning warm and bright in some secret inner place where perhaps the embers have long since faded to cold gray ash. Though the Spirit’s gift, long ages ago, was ecstatic speech, Paul the Apostle in his lyrically decadent eighth chapter of Romans points out that the Spirit’s usual tongue is silence. The Spirit is at work in us and in all the living world, quietly, gently, utterly binding all things together in the greater life of God. All creation groans for something new, the redemption of the whole created order. And when we, from the most cavernously distant bottoms of our hearts, groan for something we know not what, Paul says, the Spirit is present in those longings. The Spirit turns all our noblest yearning, and all our wishful sighing, and all our pregnant pauses and stony silences into prayers too deep for words.
We know the place too deep for words, you and I. We’ve been there, and most of us don’t like it. I read recently about a fellow who wanted nothing more than a life of silence, and it did not end well for him. In 1986, the year before I graduated high school, a 20-year old man named Christopher Knight drove far into the woods of central Maine. Finally, he came to a spot in the forest where even the narrow dirt lanes for the timber trucks petered out. He parked his car right where the road ended and left the keys in the ignition. Then he struck off into the pathless forest on foot, and there he stayed until 2013. He spent twenty-seven years alone in the woods. In all that time, he only ever encountered one person, a hiker. And to that hiker he said, “Hello.” It was his only conversation in a period of nearly three decades.
Knight didn’t know it at the time, but he’d fallen into the trap of the East Coast hiker. He assumed that because he traveled far, he must be far from people. He was wrong. He’d pretty much driven through the small patch of wilderness and emerged on the other side, at a spot where many Boston families kept summer cottages on the shores of a large pond. He found a place hidden among the boulders where no one ever went, less than two miles from the nearest cottage, and there he settled in. In all those years, he never lit a fire for fear of people following the smoke to his hideout. He lived through the bitterly cold New England winters by bundling up. He quickly became nocturnal. Doing as little damage as possible, he would break into summer homes when people were away, take only what he thought he needed, then leave things as tidy as he could. He stole canned goods, and frozen food, and magazines, and books. He stole liquor, and bug spray, and toiletries…for though he was a hermit he was meticulously clean-shaven. On occasion he stole bedding, too. He never broke a window or kicked in a door. Knight would jimmy a window lock, enter the house, take what he needed, then fix the lock and exit through the front door—locking it, if possible, behind him. (C’mon, you wouldn’t want a thief to happen along and find it open!) One couple opened their cabin in June to find that a mattress was missing from one of the beds. The mattress couldn’t have gone out through the windows; they were too small. The only door was padlocked from the outside. It turned out that Knight had entered through a window, pulled the hinges off the only door, taken the mattress out through the door, and then he came back inside, put the hinges back together, and exited through the window. Clearly, this thief had an ethical code, but people were scared all the same. Children couldn’t sleep at night for fear of the North Pond Hermit—the boogeyman who sneaked around their cottages when they were away. People installed house alarms and locked their doors even when they were home. Women wondered if he was watching them from the trees.
Christopher Knight finally got caught stealing some industrial sized cans of soup from a summer camp for handicapped kids. He’d grown middle-aged and slower in the forest. He just couldn’t keep ahead of the police anymore. His father had died while he was in the woods. His family never reported him missing; they knew he was out there somewhere. He never contacted them in twenty-seven years because he felt so much shame for becoming a thief. He went to prison, got out, and now he struggles with life in such a noisy world as this. Here’s a man who wasn’t exactly bad. He wasn’t a religious man, and the life he chose drove him to theft. But he clearly regretted the harm he did, and he tried to mitigate the suffering of his victims. Knight’s greatest crime, I think, in the eyes of society was not the 1,000+ charges of breaking and entering. It was the fact that he made a life for himself in the place where most of us are so uncomfortable: the place where words run out. He couldn’t stand small talk. He wanted to linger there, in the silence that most of us call awkward, the silence most hate. Knight tried to spend his whole life in a place where most of us squirm to spend three minutes, the place without noise and distraction, the place where ideas aren’t shared, the place perhaps too deep for words. Oh, you know the place I mean, the place where words cannot go. Who wants to linger there for long? It feels like a place of stuckness, a place of failure. But on this Pentecost Sunday, the Apostle promises us that God is especially present where words are not. For there are truths too big for telling and loves too great for uttering. All creation is longing for an unseen and an unspoken good. There’s a place beyond words where all the living (and perhaps all that once did and ever will live) find their oneness in God.
Pentecost once held its own among the great holidays. The day after Pentecost is called Whit Monday, and it’s still a bank holiday in France and Germany. The early church had only three holidays: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Easter was by far the most important, while Christmas and Pentecost followed from behind at about the same distance—two plainer sisters, smiling faintly in Easter’s shadow. But in the first half of the 19th century, two things launched Christmas into a distant first: Charles Dickens and a certain yuletide poem called “The Night before Christmas.” Easter slipped to second place. Pentecost lagged even further into obscurity. It makes sense. Christmas has the loveliest story of the three. Who doesn’t like babies and angels? Empty tombs are okay, too. But tongues of fire and ecstatic speech? Christmas cards are less common than they used to be, but you still see them. Easter cards are not unheard of. But there are no happy Pentecost cards. It’s the last great holiday unsullied by commercialism. In Acts, it tells of all people speaking each other’s languages. In Romans, it tells of the Spirit speaking in our silences. In all things, Pentecost seems to say that we participate in each other’s lives and the life of God. The Spirit somehow turns the deep longings of the natural world, and of our deepest selves, into prayers too deep for words.
The great irony of my life is that I’m assigned to talk for twenty minutes each week about things that can’t be pressed into words. And that is what the Apostle Paul is getting at here with his words, far more eloquent and exact than mine. He’s saying, essentially, that something is not right in our world. Even the created order, the oceans, and the seas, and skies, and all earth’s creatures—for all their power and beauty—all things groan and yearn for a thing that ought to be but is not. It’s a thing that we, too, long for mostly in our silent and solitary moments. And whether we know it or not, the Spirit is at work in all those longings. The Spirit is active in our dumbfounded silences, and our bored silences, and our regular old wordless silences. The Spirit is speaking in us even when we do not know it, calling out for something that is not. This is a revolutionary model for prayer—the idea that there’s a Spirit stirring things within us that even we do not know, and that this Spirit is equally active in the world around us, making all of life a prayer.
I officiated at my nephew’s wedding in Ohio yesterday. This is my sister’s son. Never in my life did I think he would end up with such a wonderful wife. He’s a good kid now, but such was not always the case. His own father was intermittently cruel and absent. When my children were toddlers, this nephew would intentionally frighten them till they cried. He was always saying rude things to people, provoking people into arguments, speaking with a sneering, sarcastic tone. But he and his fiancée had a baby two years ago, and that little girl has caused him to care about the world. I’m the wedding go-to guy for the whole family, my side and Michelle’s, because increasingly, our extended family members do not have pastors of their own. And they all want casual weddings. You would giggle to see me trying to do a casual wedding. Unrehearsed weddings, beach weddings where we all go barefoot, back yard barbecue weddings, weddings in cavernous downtown theaters, never in churches. The sloppiest wedding I ever did was in a parking lot at South Park, where one of the groomsmen found a YouTube video of the wedding march and played it loud on his iPhone as the bride sauntered out of her minivan. It’s at these low key family weddings that I’m reminded just how important it is for kids to spend an hour each week in a place like this—a place with silences, and rituals, and holy words. A place where reverence is not foreign, a place where they’ll occasionally see someone in a necktie. Not that it matters how we dress for church; I’d prefer that people come in T-shirts than stay home in tuxedos. But in an age of endless casualness, it’s also good to see that people can also reach for other things, respect and devotion. All of life doesn’t have to be played in the same improvisational key. This particular wedding was at a place called Strossmayer Croatian Picnic Grounds, just a large pavilion in a patch of woods in the gray Youngstown suburbs. My nephew’s favorite grandfather and two of his uncles are clergy, but he doesn’t even know the words to the Lord’s Prayer. I did not have great hopes for the ceremony itself. I assumed that they really just wanted a token ceremony so that we could rush over to the picnic tables and things could start…flowing. But no. I was wrong. These two kids who knew nothing of church wanted the full package. They wanted the 500-year old words, and robes, and stoles, and prayers, and Bible readings. They were reaching for something they didn’t even know, but the longing was there.
And so, in a picnic pavilion with a rusted out roof in the rusty outskirts of rusted out town, I went bedecked in full regalia, and wrapped their hands in the stole when they made their solemn vows. And I saw that the sacredness of that moment meant far, far more to them than the whole raucous reception that followed. This! This is the work of the Holy Spirit that descended on the disciples at Pentecost! These kids who had no real exposure to God-talk, or ritual, or spirituality were reaching for God all the same, asking God into their family, longing for a thing they knew not what. They’d been praying without knowing it. While I was not looking, the Spirit had been at work in their young lives in ways no outsider could fully see. The Spirit works in the lives of all people in ways we do not see. And not just people, but all living things: squirrels, and sycamores, and beagles, and gnats, and all things that borrow life from their Creator. God dwells within the holy longings that we usually only know in the occasional neglected silences of our lives. All creation is groaning for something that is not! And all creation is subject to the deep inner workings of the Spirit. Your dog has a relationship with God, as do the carpenter ants that are eating up my house. God’s Spirit is present wherever there is life, for there is no life without it.
What does this mean for us on this Day of Pentecost, this last great untarnished holiday of Christendom? It means that there are things too deep for words. It means that every day is Pentecost, and all of life is prayer. This touches every area of our living: it’s an argument against the death penalty; it’s an argument against war; it may be an argument for vegetarianism, though I’ve failed at that more than once. It’s very definitely an argument to put the lives of schoolchildren above the interests of the gun lobbyists. We must attend to the silent, hard-to-see working of the Spirit in our lives and in all life around us. We must expect the Spirit’s mysteries in places we thought we understood. We must participate with the Spirit of Pentecost in redeeming a world where all of life is sacred. The Spirit is at work in us and in all the living world, quietly, gently, utterly binding all things together in the greater life of God. All creation groans for something new, the redemption of the whole created order. Let it be so with us. Amen.