Focus on Faith

When Idols Rot and Topple Over 

We can hardly be too careful when we’re choosing what we’ll worship.

Most folks don’t read the Old Testament prophets for comedy, but the prophet Isaiah made brutal fun of down-on-their-luck idol worshipers who couldn’t afford to commission a metalworker to cast a custom-made god and hire a goldsmith to overlay it. A high-quality idol can be pricey. Instead, the poorer folks were forced to go with cheaper gods by searching carefully for wood that wouldn’t rot and hiring a worker at least skilled enough to set up the cut-rate divinity so that it wouldn’t accidentally topple over. “You really think you can compare the God of the universe with those?” the prophet was asking (see Isaiah 40:18-20).  

Of course, it’s always tempting for humans to prefer gods we can manipulate with magic or smoke or potions or in a thousand ways. Our “god” becomes the god we own and trot out when convenient. Handiest of all is simply to make a god of ourselves. But what if our mirror-idol begins to reflect some serious soul-rot? What if we realize that self-worship isn’t working, and that “toppling over” is more than a theoretical danger?

Author Dorothy Sayers once wrote that many folks “get along surprisingly well” for long periods of time “without ever discovering what [their] faith really is.” And she listed some strategies people have used to busily shove unwelcome and hard questions about their real faith away. (She didn’t even know about earbuds.)

But then, she wrote, came wartime. Blackouts. Bomb cellars. Gas masks. The “threat of imminent death.” Life eventually pushes us into some sort of corner, and the long-avoided questions show up loudly, intrusively. The “fear” stronger than “distractions” demands, “What . . . do you make of all this? What do you believe?”

Wartime. Or the oncologist’s office. Or the cemetery. Suffering is a solvent that strips away easy answers and defies diversion.

We’ve just celebrated Easter and, I hope, felt its real joy. But it is worthwhile to remember that for the three days right after Jesus of Nazareth died, the disciples didn’t know what to believe. Their hopes and dreams had bled out on the cross with their Lord. The tomb seemed to have swallowed—and won. Most of the disciples had scattered like frightened quail.
When they’d finally coveyed up again, it was without room for any ideas of victory. They were in survival mode, jumping at the slightest sound. Their thoughts were racing in endless confusion, their grief rolling over them in nauseating waves. They didn’t look much like the apostles who would later carry the good news to the ends of the earth, the apostles Jesus said would one day sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. The mood behind those locked doors was as bleak as any the world has ever known.

And that’s exactly when, on “the evening of that first day of the week,” the Apostle John tells us that suddenly Jesus “came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19). Their Lord. Not a ghost. Not a dead man. More fully alive than anyone they had ever seen. And literally bringing peace.

Please, John, tell us more! In the moments between Christ’s appearance and his giving of peace, what looks flashed across the disciples’ faces? I wonder.

But that kind of power. That kind of peace. Oh, that kind of matchless Lord is worthy of all worship. 

What kind of God will we trust? A rotting god won’t do. A god who topples over when life tumbles in won’t do.

Those disciples put their faith in a living Lord: “Then the disciples were overjoyed . . .” (John 20:20).

I believe in him, too. And I rejoice.

What “Stuff” Is Worth Storing? 

Too much stuff. In our society, that seems to be the exact amount of stuff that most of us have. Not exactly a technical term, two words are nonetheless quite nicely descriptive: too much.

Stuff storage. It’s big business and growing all of the time because, well, see Paragraph One. People who have as much stuff as we do, and are continually adding more to their mounds of stuff, eventually run out of places to put it. Perhaps we don’t want to disappoint archaeologists who will come along mega-decades from now. They like to dig through mounds. So, we keep creating them. Mounds, that is. Of stuff.

But already, smart folks who are not archaeologists have taken wise action. They’ve seen their compadres covered up with stuff that they mostly don’t use and mostly don’t need, and these intelligent entrepreneurs can fill a real need. A need for storage space.

Notice some questions that ripple along the surface of this deep and turbulent subject of stuff.

At least theoretically, some of the stored stuff must be worth something. But my first question is, how much of it is truly of value? And my next is, to whom?

Whether the stuff being stacked in the rented space is worth storing is a question the stacker would have done well to ask earlier, but there seems to be a point where most of us stacking stuff have long ago left that question in the dust. Or there’s so much stuff stacked on top of it, that the question has simply vanished.

What’s the difference between high quality stuff and low quality junk? If you pronounce “garbage” in questionable French with the accent sweetly lifted up from the last syllable, is that vastly different from the one-syllable word “trash”?

We don’t seem to need much temptation to keep adding stuff to the stuff we already have, but isn’t “tempting folks to buy more stuff, a vast majority of which they probably won’t use for long and likely don’t really need anyway” part and parcel of something called advertising? Talk about a big industry!

And so, yes, we have too much stuff. We have vast industries to help us store stuff and to convince us that to be happy we really need more stuff. And, as the whole cycle spins on, we get pulled even farther in by a proliferation of experts who sell “systems,” conduct seminars, do on-site “interventions,” and write books about how to unclutter our lives.

You know where those books end up, don’t you? I’ll bet I have three of them stacked among other stacks in my closet right now as I’m sitting six feet away from its door and writing about not stacking up stuff. That closet is the one I’ve been meaning to unstack and clean up. Way too much stuff.

Jesus got right to the heart of the matter long ago as he pointed to our hearts and warned us (my very loose paraphrase, Matthew 6:19-20) that stacking up too much stuff here is fool’s work. We stack up “treasures” here, and what happens? Moths eat it. Rust corrodes it. Thieves steal it.

Christ’s answer? Well, it’s not “climate-controlled storage” or some sort of stuff-cellar installed under your casket vault. It’s to make sure that the “stuff” is truly treasure, the kind that will last past a grave and still be of priceless value—real treasures of love, mercy, grace, and hope that can only be stored in heaven.

Easter, Joy, and the North Pole 

It’s almost Easter, and here I am thinking about an almost-Christmas ride to the North Pole. I wrote one of these columns about that ride fourteen years ago. I just reread what I wrote, and, if you don’t mind, I’ll write some of it again.

I started by saying that the North Pole was surprisingly warm on that ride, but it was less surprising when you realize that my wife and I and our sweet little two-and-a-half-year-old giggling granddaughter were riding from Lubbock, Texas, to Brownfield, Texas, on the “Polar Express” train then in service and available. We were enjoying hot chocolate and elves and Santa himself, but, most of all, we were enjoying two big brown eyes wide with delight (even if they did get very sleepy before the journey was over). We made some delightful memories.

And I’m thinking again about this Yuletide tale just before Easter because I’m remembering getting home and then remembering some fine words from C.S. Lewis.

Lewis said he’d been told about a young boy who was heard “murmuring to himself” on Easter morning a poem he’d made up on his own about “chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.” Lewis commented, “This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety.”

He went on to observe that the time would surely come when the boy would learn the difference between the “ritual” aspect of Easter and its “festal” aspect, and then “chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental.”

Then, Lewis wrote, will come a decision as the poem-maker has to “put one or the other first.” And here’s the important point: “If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will be no more than any other sweetmeat. They will have taken on an independent, and therefore a soon withering, life.”

I went on to write that if we discard or ignore the deepest truths of faith, it’s pretty hard to find much deep or lasting joy in Easter eggs and “Jingle Bells.” But for those whose faith is in the Christ of Christmas and Easter, who believe that God did indeed enter our world incarnate at Bethlehem and that death itself was no match for our risen Lord, then we live all year long in the wonderful glow of those deep truths. And those holidays become joyful holy days.

Ah, and we get a very nice added bonus. Focusing on the central truths of those holy seasons, we can add in as many fine Easter and Christmas traditions as we wish. We can hunt the eggs (chocolate eggs are still my favorite), dye real eggs any colors we wish, light the lights, dance around the tree, and squeeze all of the joy out of every moment.

You see, those who know the Source of real joy—not conned by this world’s many counterfeits—need have no fear of experiencing too much of the genuine thing. Joy is a gift our God delights in giving, and his supply is unending.

Easter joy. Christmas joy. All of the genuine joy-glow. (I include grandchild giggle joy, of course.) Joy’s sweet little glimmers. Heaven’s utterly magnificent tsunami of joy. All in God’s time. Let’s thank our Father for all of it. 

When Time Chimes in the Universe 

As I begin to write, I’m about ten minutes away from hearing a beautiful sound. In ten minutes, our chiming wall clock will ring out a quarter past the hour. You won’t notice, but I’m listening, and I’ll be pausing for a moment.

You see, our clock has been away, taking time for a bit of a sabbatical for its health. For decades, it has been hanging on our living room wall and, as long as I remember to wind it, it has quite precisely and faithfully fulfilled its sweetly-toned chronological duty.

Ah, but clocks, and clock owners, are ironically prey to the onslaught of time itself. Our clock recently began to chime out (or not) a few warning signs that it needed some cleaning and fine-tuning. So, we took it down and entrusted it to the daughter and son of the skilled clockmaker from whom we’d bought it long ago. (What a fine and vanishing craft it is to be able to build and/or repair such an instrument.)

While it was away, I missed that clock terribly. Perhaps I’d not realized how often each day I’d gazed at our well-trusted timepiece. I’d not realized how accustomed my ears were to hearing the “quarters” rung out in the familiar Westminster fashion or how often, even in the night, I’d counted as it chimed the hours. I’d rather count from my pillow than roll over to gaze at the alarm clock which will soon—too soon, whatever the time is—be shrieking through my head. I much prefer the gentle chimes.

So, for a time, all I could count were the number of times each day my eyes focused on a sadly blank wall. My ears were so hungry for clock music that they tricked me into hearing some “phantom chimes” once or twice. But the clock is now back in its place, and I smile to report that some order has been restored to our place.

Time itself is one of the deep mysteries of our existence. We live in it. [Wait! Here come the chimes.] But we never really feel at home with it. It seems to move too quickly or too slowly and always inexorably. I remember C.S. Lewis’ assertion that humanity’s discomfort with time is a clue that our Creator had something far better in mind than for us to be time-bound, time-chained.

I wonder, and I marvel, that the eternal God of the universe, so far above and beyond time itself, is so divinely “aware” of the “right” times. The Apostle Paul writes, for example, that God sent his Son into this world “when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4).

As I write, we’re just days away (hear the clock tick) from another Holy Week which will begin with Christ’s “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus gives hints that he is completely aware of “the time.” He knows when it’s time for him to “be about his Father’s business.” Later, he’ll perform incredible miracles, but almost as surprising to us as the miracles themselves are the times when he warns (I’m paraphrasing), “Don’t be loud about what I’ve done.” The Son, it seems, was deeply aware of the Father’s “timetable” for the culmination of that ministry. It must not be rushed.

But then perhaps you could say again that it was precisely “when the time had fully come” that the Lord enters Jerusalem as a triumphant king in a way that no one could possibly miss. And he says that, if the cheering crowd was silent, even “the stones would cry out.”

It seems clear that the disciples were deeply confused about what was coming and the kind of King he would be. But it seems just as clear, though profoundly mysterious, that the Lord of the universe was divinely aware of “the time.”

When You Need a Friend 

One of my three favorite daughters-in-law has written a children’s book called The Rowly Growly Bear. Not in print yet, it soon will be, and I’m very proud of what she’s done.

Danetta is a great wife, mother, and teacher, and a good while ago, she began writing this sweet book. It’s based on a story her father spun for her when she was just a small child. The main character in the book is a little bear—the “Rowly Growly Bear,” of course. And the little bear is looking for a friend.

It’s not always easy to find a friend when you need one, but the little bear works hard at it. He thinks that Mrs. Bird would be a great friend, but she has some serious nest-building to do. It seems that Mr. Fox might be a fine friend, but he’s too busy finding food for his pups.

Ah, but in a surprise twist (I hope I’m not giving away too much here), the little bear meets a caterpillar who is open to friendship. The caterpillar is not much of a conversationalist; in fact, it doesn’t talk at all, but it is surprisingly good at playing “hide and seek.”

All goes well for a time, until… Well, until it’s chrysalis time for the caterpillar who “hides” quite effectively in its chrysalis and then, most surprisingly to the little bear—and perhaps to the caterpillar as well—emerges as a beautiful butterfly and flies away to do what butterflies do.

I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that a very nice little rabbit shows up as the story ends quite happily. Since it is a children’s book, if any rabbits anywhere might actually be eaten by bears who don’t have friendship in mind, that’s not happening here.

I’ll also mention that one of the nice things about the book is that the very talented illustrator Danetta has worked with has been a friend of hers since third grade. Friendship all around.

The little bear in the book is learning a lot about friends, how to find a really good one, and how to deal with the changes in life that affect and color friendships. Those are good things for all of us to know, and it’s great for kids to get an early start as they grow and as their friendships also grow.

Oh, the little bear is right that a real friend is an incredible blessing. To share your joys and your struggles… To experience with a dear friend the good times and good things you both most enjoy and then recall them again and again… To laugh and talk and be amazed later to look at the usually relentless clock and realize that even time itself seems to have surrendered to make room for the joy of friendship… To feel completely safe in the presence of a friend… What a precious gift!

Speaking of gifts, we do well to listen awestruck as Jesus tells his disciples how to love each other: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). We hear, and we know what is coming, that Christ’s love will be written in red blood on a cross and shake the universe.

After we catch our breath, we need to keep listening and be astonished anew at another wonder-filled tribute to divine love as the Lord continues, “I have called you friends.”

What a loving Savior! What a Friend forever!

“I Had All the Answers” 

“When I was twenty-four years old, I was pretty sure I had all the answers.”

So said one of my dearest and, I think, wisest friends. He’s the kind of guy I always enjoy talking to, not least because in the midst of our “shooting the breeze” laughter, he always gives me something to think about. He’s lived a lot of life and taken both its deepest joys and most difficult sorrows with the kind of faith in God that I aspire to have myself.

After making the statement, or confession, above, he chuckled, “It’s been pretty much downhill ever since.”

I laughed, too, because I knew what he meant. A mentor as well as a friend, he is a deep thinker who has learned the right questions to ask and has never been (well, at least, since he lived past year twenty-four or so) willing to settle for easy and trite answers. As he has sought real answers to real questions, he’s encouraged many others in the same endeavor. If he’s in an analytical mood, which is often, you’d better not say, “Good morning” without being willing to back up your assertion with facts. But laughter will probably follow.

“What does it mean to be a spiritual person?” he once asked. I’ve spent years trying to hone the answer to that question, and it’s been good for me. It’s kept me from buying our society’s general view that if you enjoy sunsets, birdies, and mountains, you are “spiritual.” That answer is too thin and wispy. Most easy answers are.

The big questions are the hardest; they are also the only ones that ultimately matter. Does God exist? Is God both loving and good? Can we have a real relationship with the God of the universe? Who is Jesus Christ and what is the meaning of the cross? How can a loving God allow pain in this world? Why do good people suffer? Does prayer really matter? And so on.

In our lives, the answers to such questions are far more practical than many people tend to think. They make a difference in how we face each day and meet joys and sorrows. They make a difference in how we do business, greet a newborn, face a funeral, listen to a diagnosis, make vows at a wedding. They color how we live, and they shape how we die.

Oh, once we’ve lived much past whatever “twenty-four” might be for each one of us, we usually are much more aware of not having “all the answers,” but we’ve learned a lot more about how important the big questions are and what big answers really matter. Being less “full of ourselves” means that we have a lot more room in our souls for some humility.

As blessed as I’ve undoubtedly been in my life, I’d tell a much younger me that life will be both a lot harder than you think—and a lot better. Both. The sorrows will be deeper than you can imagine, but so will the joys.

And I would tell that younger me not to dodge the big questions. I’d say, “You may not like to hear this, but when you’re older, you will have many more questions than you do now. The good news is that you’ll also believe you have good and tested reasons to trust in two big answers: God is good, and God is loving.”

And I’d say, “By the way, don’t buy the popular notion that faith is unreasoned or unreasonable. God is big enough to allow us to ask questions even about his goodness and his love—and his very existence. How very good and loving of him!”

Thinking About Foolishness and Fools 

Months ago, I jotted down a few words about, well, fools. It was probably a foolish thing to do, likely motivated by my foolishly reading too much news. But here’s what I wrote.

“We all at times play the fool. Only a fool will install each of the bars of his own soul-cell by flaunting freedom for license, trading love for lust, parodying self-less patriotism with mindless populism, mocking virtue’s civility with soul-rot’s untamed tongue, confusing strong opinion with eternal truth, assuming that ear-shredding volume is more consequential than quiet, soul-stirring integrity, replacing strong spines with plastic and expecting a proliferation of courage, bartering with fool’s gold for cheap and fleeting results and expecting pure gold’s priceless permanence. The bars we build for ourselves go up, one by one, and we don’t even hear the click of the cell door behind us when it shuts.”

Okay, I suppose. Foolishness certainly does carry some very real consequences, and it is never in short supply. But I found myself seeking some wisdom from some of the Bible’s wisest words warning us about fools and foolishness. And that quickly led me to the Bible book of Proverbs, the sweet spot, in so many ways, of the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament. Let me paraphrase a few verses. The “real ones” are better, and I’ll list the references, but what follows is my take. (Thanks to the folks at dailyverses.net for a handy listing of verses; if you want a really great—and fun—paraphrase, check out these verses in Eugene Peterson’s The Message).

“Spend time with people who are wise, and you’ll become wise, but run with fools, and you’ll end up bruised and bleeding” (see Proverbs 13:20).

“Those who are wise are quick to recognize and apply wisdom, but a fool chatters on, listening to no one, and is always crashing into brick walls with his mouth running” (see Proverbs 10:8).

“A wise person avoids arguments, but people who would rather fuss than breathe are certified fools” (see Proverbs 20:3).

“A fool is easily and often ticked off, but the wise know when it’s best to be deaf to insults” (see Proverbs 12:16).

“Fools never experience the priceless joy of learning from others because they bask in the counterfeit pleasure of loudly proclaiming their own opinions” (see Proverbs 18:2).

“The flapping lips of fools propel them into continual trouble, and their mouths full of nonsense are tempting targets for a therapeutic slap” (see Proverbs 18:6). 

“Those who honor God and follow him are on the path to wisdom, but fools worship themselves and reject even their Creator’s instruction” (see Proverbs 1:7).

And I think my personal favorite is this one: “Even fools who keep their mouths shut and stay silent may be mistaken for people who are wise and prudent” (see Proverbs 17:28).

Some patterns worth noticing begin to show themselves here, and I know how badly I need to take them to heart. It seems clear that the foolishness of fools is most often proven by an inability to control their own mouths and a self-destructive love of their own voices. And I suspect that one of the most foolish mistakes that any of us might make is to think of ourselves as being wise.

A little humility is for us all a big step in the direction of wisdom. And some silence is certainly wise. I need to be quiet now.

Flat Tires and Some Perspective 

Flat tires. I don’t know anyone who enjoys them.

Does anyone enjoy the raucous rumble of tire rubber flapping against the road and your vehicle’s fender wells?

Do you relish the opportunity to make the suddenly crucial decision as to how long to glide your once-smooth-now-loudly-limping ride to a stop? You’re actually faced with more than a few decisions that could well be discussed a bit—but not when you have scant seconds to make them.

It’s clear that you’re stopping but how quickly and where? Safety needs to be paramount, so you want off the road far enough. Nobody enjoys the roar and rocking motion as other perfectly operating crafts fly by feet away in a blur of terrifying wake turbulence. But you don’t want off the road so far that you bury up to your bumpers in sand or mud or get lost in tumbleweeds. And you’d prefer not to destroy the tire or rim if such hasn’t already happened.

Some flat tire psychology, even PTSD, might be at work. Perhaps some of the multitude of feelings flowing along with your adrenaline-charged blood are due to previous experiences. Do you enjoy berating yourself, maybe yet again, for not conducting a serious inspection of your tire-changing equipment and its location and use? Didn’t you promise yourself last time… Maybe it really would have been a good idea some time ago to conduct a trial run in the relative comfort of your driveway, but who thinks that far ahead?

Maybe you now remember the specific gut-wrench that came from a long-ago flat tire experience when you finally had the spare tire on and, as you began lowering the vehicle while your stranded family watched, discovered that your fear was more than theoretical. The spare was headed to the ground. All the way. About as flat as the tire you’d taken off. Time for Plan B. And that was what exactly?

No, I can’t think of many lovely memories connected with flat tires and automotive marooning. But I do think of a lesson or two from it, and, not least, I find it pushing me toward some perspective.

Flat tires happen in this fallen world. Sometimes we drive in our lives into places and situations we surely would have been wiser to avoid. Sometimes we just pick up a nail. But living very long at all in this world should produce in anyone who has ever been stranded by trouble a tendency to be merciful toward others presently in trouble.

And perspective matters. Flat tire sorts of problems can be intensely frustrating, and yet most of us can quickly think of much more serious difficulties—even tragedies and suffering and trials so terrible and heartbreaking that we wonder how anyone could survive them.

Without making too much of life’s flat tire problems and much too little of life’s tragedies, it’s true to say that the Lord Jesus was being utterly realistic and covering an incredible range of “tribulation” when he warned his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). That simple statement squares with the reality we see around us in this fallen world—from its annoyances to its heartbreak. 

But I think Christ’s is the perfect perspective when, after warning us to expect trouble in the territory, he continues, “But be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”

If we think the Lord is making light of pain, we certainly don’t know the suffering Savior. And we’ve forgotten some very important nails and a cross.

Driftwood and Eyes That See 

Driftwood.

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. For my mother, driftwood was treasure. She was a country girl, born and raised in Coke County, Texas, and I remember that, even after she’d been grown and married and had long since left Coke County, she had a love affair with driftwood. At least, that’s what I always called it, and I think she did.

It’s quite possible we were using the term inaccurately. I just looked up a definition or a few. One dictionary says that driftwood is “wood drifted or floated by water.” Another describes driftwood as “wood that has been washed onto a shore or beach of a sea, lake, or river by the action of winds, tides or waves.”

The wood that Mom was on the lookout for was, to be more precise, generally pieces of mesquite, the kind of wood Coke County has in plenty. What the county doesn’t have a great deal of is water upon which such wood could “drift.” Seas and lakes and, thus, shores and beaches, are not in large supply. These days, especially, with rivers dammed or diverted upstream and the droughts that have oppressed a large part of the area, even the bodies of water that remain have barely remained. When a lake is estimated to be two percent full, I assume that means ninety-eight percent empty, and even if it manages after rare rains to ramp on up to eleven or twelve percent full, it can be a pretty good hike from the end of a little-used boat ramp to actual water. And managing to drown in what passes in West Texas for a river or creek may take some effort. And yet I’m sure that a once-in-a-blue-moon “gully washer” might fill up a creek enough to wash out some mesquite.

But most of the pieces of mesquite Mom considered treasures were just old pieces of broken down or “cleared” trees that ranchers in the area are happy to grub out, pull down, pile up, and be rid of. And that is where Mom had a valuable ally. My Granddaddy Key, her father, was a rancher in Coke County, raising and trucking cattle and sheep. Granddaddy had plenty of occasion to run across exactly the kind of treasure Mom was after.

I remember, as a boy growing up in Amarillo, Texas, the wonderful times when Granddaddy and Grandmother would come to visit. In the back of his pickup bed (a place my younger brother and I loved to climb around in as we became cowboys, Indians, or various brands of soldiers) was almost always a load of mesquite wood pieces.

For a good many years, Mom would take those pieces of wood, pick out the best ones, clean them up, drill through them in the right places, and thread in the wiring, “lamp pipe,” and sockets. She would apply varnish, affix some artificial greenery and/or flowers, install a bulb or a few and an in-line switch, and add a lampshade if such was called for. That piece of “driftwood” mesquite was transformed into quite an ornate table lamp, television lamp, or night light. Mom was creative enough to work with a wide range of sizes. I can only imagine how many folks received these sweet craft pieces as completely unique gifts. For Mom, and for my grandfather, I’m sure, the whole process was a pleasure.

Handcrafted. The word itself says a lot. And a large part of the wonder of such a creation is that it is often made of the most common materials. What is uncommon is the eye that sees the beauty residing in the “ordinary.” You can’t get more ordinary than a mesquite tree. Ah, but Mom saw the beauty.

Eyes to see beauty. Eyes to see potential that many might look right past. How thankful we should be for parents, friends, teachers, and all of those who have seen in you and me something worth cultivating and encouraging, something precious and beautiful that might remain dormant were it not for eyes of wisdom and love.

Don’t doubt for a moment that our God sees us with such eyes. All of the time.

Of the Counting of Many Words 

No surprise, I enjoy words. I am amazed that, in the English language equipped with an alphabet of 26 letters, those letters can be combined to create hundreds of thousands of words. And that brings up an interesting topic.

If you have some time on your hands and are interested in doing just a very little bit of easy research (as in, internet search research), you’ll probably find the number of words in the English language variously estimated at being anywhere from a bit under 200,000 words to over one million.

I wasn’t surprised to find an incredibly wide range of estimates, but I was quite surprised to see in a few different articles an exact figure: 171,476 words. Not 171,475. Or 171,477.

Ah, but then that minor mystery was solved. In an article on the Word Counter website, Allison Dexter writes, “The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use (and 47,156 obsolete words).” Bingo! Citing the venerable OED is bringing in a pretty big gun. But Dexter wisely notes that those numbers do not include “slang and jargon” which significantly increase the total. Word-counters are wise to seek wiggle room.

Of course, any person or organization undertaking this subject will be quick to point out that new words or combinations of words are being created all of the time, and not just a few words start out in another language and make their way straight into English usage. They count, too. Fancy an enchilada? The fact that the language is able to change and grow is an amazing strength. It is also one of many good reasons that no one will ever be able to nail down a specific number of words in the language. I suppose, too, that a word-counter would need a rule about how many forms of a particular word should be counted as their own separate words. No wonder this counting task is well nigh impossible.

Now, Pet Peeve Alert! I do wish that folks would slow down a bit in the process of trying to turn every noun in the language into a verb. Just because it’s often easy to do doesn’t mean it should always be done. If you enjoy such discussion, do an internet search on “verbing.” The word is an interesting example of the very phenomenon it describes. In your search (and you might include “verbifying” or “verbification”) you’ll quickly find that folks who care about these things have some strong opinions. I can envision a fight breaking out over such in a bar frequented by English majors.

For my part, I’ve largely made peace with “contact” as a verb. Even “impact.” I only cringe slightly now when someone talks about “gifting” or “regifting” a gift. And I admit to chuckling when I recently read of someone describing an elderly person as “turtling” down the hall. No turtles were harmed in the verbing.

By the way, it’s never bothered me at all that we “salt” our eggs or “butter” our bread or “table” a motion. Those nouns have been so successfully “verbified” ages ago that we no longer even notice. (I’m embarrassed that I needed someone else to point out those examples.) We “google” things all of the time now, and the language remains healthy.

So, yes, I guess I can be magnanimous enough to make allowances for lots of word-morphing in moderation, in good taste (some nouns really do turn into monsters as verbs), and when it’s done to accomplish the desired effect in one’s wordsmithing.

If you choose to start counting English words, let me know if you plan to count “salt” as a noun and “salt” as a verb as one word or two. And, if you come up with a word total for the whole language, I’d like to know. In the meantime, I’m quite content with this statement from the Merriam-Webster website: “There is no exact count of the number of words in English.”

For my part, I’m a lot more worried about word quality than word quantity. And I close these rambling thoughts with words easy to count but filled with meaning and mystery the whole universe cannot contain: “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1).

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