Word before World

Had another thought provoking day in seminar with Bishop Willimon. This guy is certainly probing thinker. Here’s what I’m chewing on from today.

The world belongs to whomever can name it. 

Think about that. You’re in a brand new situation. Maybe it’s an unknown situation. Maybe it’s an awkward one. Uncharted waters. No one knows quite what to think. And somebody stands up in the midst of the naked moment and gives it words… fitting words… appropriate words… the right words for the right time. And everyone nods in affirmation. At that moment, the world belongs to you. Think about Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. He stood up at a very precarious time and named the moment. This happens all the time. The coach in the locker room. The minister in the tragedy. The wife at the dinner table. They dress a bald moment with words. They gave it a name and thus gave it meaning.
If there’s anything we can thank Post Modern philosophy for it’s this: words provide life with meaning. For, would life have any meaning without the words we give to it?  You don’t have an experience just because it happened to you. Willimon said, “Our experiences provide the crude data – very crude – that the mind must make into something worth knowing.” Have you noticed that when something happens to you and you don’t know what to call it you feel a bit lost. I think that’s why people who are sick search and search until they get a diagnosis and once they do it settles a lot of things for them. It’s named. Having words constructs space for us to deal with anything that comes our way. Willimon says, “Word precedes World.” And he says as preachers you’re constructing a world for your people… an alternative world… a biblical world. A world with all its particulars. It’s kind of like a student in a chemistry class… once you learn the words a whole new world opens to you. You become a chemist.  In a sense, there’s not a world for a small child until you give them words for it.
All cultures are custodians of language… like the baseball world, the mechanic world, the journalism world, the church world.  That’s what preachers are… language custodians of the church. They keep the language clean. They polish them up. They guard them. They showcase them in the right ways. It’s been said that the biblical prophets are best thought as poets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and all the prophets were not great innovators… they just were scripture saturated, trafficked in the mother language, and were able to name the moment with the right words.


  1. “0 Comments” ooh, an opportunity to write something down, before anyone else.

    I know this one isn't as long a commentary for you as others, which doesn't reduce it's significance in any way. But I'm still trying to grasp the content here. And maybe I never will fully, but I believe there is some real depth here that is easily swept over because it is quick to read. As I write this I can't help but picture a very human Jesus, right now, on the edge of his seat hoping that I get what he's trying to tell me – knowing it will change my life. A Jesus who knows that if I keep pursuing and digging, it will be a priceless gift what I find.

    And yet, I could just read this “Word before World” with slight interest and think to myself, “huh, that was cool. moving on…”

    *More rambling* – And perhaps the truth of the matter is that if I have eyes to see, the simple would be the most profound in my life.

    You know D, we are both dads, how much do we get to see the practical application of this in our children. As we see them learn new words. It's kind of where the rubber meets the road.

    This is definitely another one for the “MH” category.

  2. Unfortunately, I can't help but think of the negative aspect of this. Maybe it's just the cynic in me.

    But we place words to describe the world, and we define it for ourselves and those that learn from us: we put 'labels' on things. We categorize things to make them safe and understandable.

    For example: Christian, radical-Christian, religious, Denomination, non-denominational, pre-emergent, holy-roller, church kid, black, white, queer, liberal, conservative, rich kid, poor kid, mexican, illegal. I could go on and on. I have spoken these words, I have placed labels on people to define them, so I can feel comfortable in their definition.

    I've been through some experiences later in life that have showed me how I define things by labels. But my labels never tell the whole story. Labels prejudice. I don't like being called a Christian. If people ask me if I am – I say that I follow Christ, He is my God, but I'm not sure what 'Christian' means. Because it may define, to this person, a bigot, racist, hater, religious, close-minded, church-goer, bible-basher. If that is there experience with Christians, that is their label. And for the most part, this is the label that I come across the most.

    On a personal note, when I was young, I spent a lot of time with my grandpa on the farm. He was in charge of irrigation. And he trained us how to do it. It was a great experience and I learned invaluable things about work ethic and life from him. But he also was flawed. He was born and raised in Missouri. Socially, things were different down there in the early 1900's. And he spoke words to my world during this time. He would say to me, “joe, never look a mexican in the eye for too long. They have animal blood in them, and will attack you unprovoked.” Or, “Never raise your hands to a mexican, he will think you want to fight – because they have animal blood in them.”

    He spoke words to my world. I loved my grandfather very much, but he was a flawed man. And times were different in Missouri – I can't even imagine. But that was how he defined his world.

    I enjoy how you wrapped up your thought. You are a language custodian of the church. I am a language custodian to my children, I can shape how they see the world.

  3. Dude, you are PROFOUND. You always carry my thoughts a step further. And seem to connect the wires to everyday life better than I do. Thank you. I will have to spend some time thinking about what you just said. Good stuff here, bro.

    These reflections were from my preaching seminar with Will Willimon last month. He had us do a lot of reading. And these posts are really the fruits of that time. This post on 'Word before World' was actually the title of a section Willimon had us read. At first I think I was a little fuzzy on it (even disinterested). But, as I read more (and listened to Willimon more) I think I began to catch the vibe of what he was saying. Don't know if I even get the the total gist of it quite yet, but you definately helped me get a step further.

    You connected something for me real well. You helped me understand the value of being custodians of the language (in whate ever sphere of life we find our selves in). Just given the fact that over time words morph and take on different meanings and connotations. And to express the same thing we did 10-15 years ago might require a new way of saying it today. This is because language is fluid; the way we use words change over time. Words acquire baggage and words get worn out(hence cliches). That's why rote communication won't do us any good. “This is how I have always explained it,” is not gonna cut it when we sit down with our kids. Custodians keep things clean and functional and when it comes to our communicate we want things clicking at a high level. You talked about labels. Good point. What could've once been considered a decent word may degenerate over time into a label, which might behoove us to re-conceive a better term for what we're trying to say. This is all custodian work. And if we forsake our communication can get bogged down. But, then there may be other words worth fighting for, which would require us to define our terms anew. A tune-up, of sorts.

    And wow, vivid example of how your grandpa spoke words to your world. Love it. And you know, my grandpa did the same things about negros. So it's ironic that the only grandson he ever knew turned out to be half-black!! Anyhow, that's what we do with those in our world. We shape it, define it, and give it meaning by the words that we speak.

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