Oh, My Word, Part 3: Little Words and Big Ideas

Words have the power to captivate and communicate, sometimes even better than images do. That’s one of the reasons movie adaptations of our favorite books can fall flat. They deviate from what our own imaginations did with the words we read. Take, for example, this silly sentence from an unknown source: “The bulbous woman ballooned toward me.” No picture is needed for such a sight; the mental image conjured by the words is amusing enough.

Likewise, this famous line from Carl Sandburg needs no help from a video: “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.” Such a scene can’t be filmed; it can only be conveyed by a creative and strategic use of words. Similarly, Truman Capote painted a feast of images with this memorable line: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” I can almost taste the town just by reading the sentence.

My all-time favorite line in English comes from Alexander Pope’s description of Jesus turning the water into wine. The verse he crafted portrays the miracle performed in Cana in a rich and unforgettable way: “The conscious water saw its master and blushed.” 

Here the poet personifies the water, giving it a consciousness, the capacity to see, and the ability to feel embarrassed. The profound theological message conveyed in this one verse speaks volumes about the relationship of the creation to its creator (one of subordinate humility), as well as the exalted identity of the one who performed the miracle (the creator himself, incarnated and living humbly as a craftsman in Galilee). Can a picture do all that? Probably not.

I happen to love words, and I enjoy learning new ones. I also love reading the works of others who use them better than I do, sharpening my own craft in the process. I was an English major in college, so I had the opportunity to read broadly across the literature spectrum. Anchored now in the truths of a biblical worldview, I’m untroubled by reading works outside my own tradition. It expands my perspective and allows me to peer into how other people think and use words. 

I also enjoy the weekly challenge of crafting a “big idea” for my sermons, encapsulating the entire message in a single sentence. Vivid, pithy language with turns of phrases and symmetrical touches can serve the homiletical task well. There’s no shortage of good examples on how to do this.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (President John F. Kennedy)

“Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” (Oscar Hammerstein)

“In the blue grass region, a paradox was born: the corn was full of kernels, and the colonels full of corn.” (John Marshall)

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Steve Allen (though variously attributed)

Factor in the gospel, and there are all kinds of possibilities when it comes to words that evoke vivid images and big ideas. Who can forget the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial? Over time his big idea became the title of his message. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.” Dr. King did exactly that.

Good communicators get this. Andy Stanley writes, “Every time I stand to communicate, I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and know what to do with it.” Finally, as if to model the very technique he advocated for so many years, Haddon Robinson said, “A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot.” Here are some big idea bullets I’ve fired recently on Sunday mornings:

Hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives.

To outlive your life, yield it completely to the Author of life.

Many babies have become kings, but only one king has ever become a baby.

When God stretches your faith, he will also strengthen your heart.

Love God not to get him to love you but because he already does. 

The activation of God’s promise is joined to the asking of God’s people.

If you’re wandering around in a spiritual desert, you need to have a moral compass.

A fake gospel cannot deliver a real salvation.

The grace of God will remove sin, but it will not redefine sin.

Finite human beings are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary.

The big idea of the biblical text must always be located within the Big Story of the biblical plot, lest the forest be missed for the trees. (Big ideas and big stories need each other.) For this reason, I read both exegetical and hermeneutical materials. I do this out of enjoyment but also out of a sense of calling to “tell the people the full message of this new life” (Acts 5:20), as described in a previous post. For me it’s a labor of love.

But sometimes my words are not vehicles of love—toward God or toward others. Too often they’re self-centered or dispiriting. Too often they’re unhelpful or unkind. That’s why this is yet another area where I need to keep making progress. Specifically, I need wisdom, power, and grace from God to eradicate my complaining and eliminate my criticism—even when such impulses remain unarticulated. They’re still under the surface.

How can I properly handle God’s words in Scripture if I continually mishandle my own words in life? The incongruity is a red flag. As Marilyn McEntyre writes, “What is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.”[1]

On those occasions when I become a “negaholic” or a “complainiac,” I’m not using the power God gave me to a good purpose. More on these two verbal vices next time.

Image Credits: krqe.com, wallpapercave.com; cultivatingethos.org.


[1] Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 21.

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