Reverberating Words

Repeated phrases play an important role in spiritual life.

“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.” This antiphonal Easter refrain may ring for you. It was not common in my church upbringing, but it is becoming more so today. Phrases like this play an important role in spiritual life. They help us sing our fundamental beliefs and core principles. They reverberate in our souls.

In leading a study on Thomas Merton’s Life of the Beloved, I was struck by two refrains that structure his whole presentation. One is the words to Jesus, and through Jesus to us, at baptism, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” The second is the Eucharistic words “taken, blessed, broken, given.” This made me reflect on what words ring in my life.

A LIST
I made a short and not complete list:

The doxologies – “Praise God from whom all blessing flow.” “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.”

From the Psalms – “The Lord is my shepherd.” “I lift up my eyes to the mountains.” “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, praise his holy name.” “Hallelujah.”

Refrains of Scripture – “I am the Lord, your God.” “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness.” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “The kingdom of heaven is like . . . .”

Liturgical phrases – “Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from the Lord our God.” “The peace of Christ be with you.” “Kyrie, Eleison” (“Lord, have mercy.”) “Lift up your hearts.” “Take, eat, remember, and believe that the body (blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ was given for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.” “In Jesus’ name. Amen.” “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Confessions – “I believe in God the Father, Almighty . . . I believe in Jesus Christ . . . I believe in the Holy Spirit.” “What is my only comfort in life and in death? That I belong, in body and in soul, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” “Our world belongs to God.” 

Songs – “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” “Up from the grave he arose.” “King of kings and Lord of Lords. And he shall reign forever and ever.” “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty.” 

Some of these phrases may ring in your soul. This list may have brought to mind other phrases, and you are surprised that I did not list them. The phrases reflect our tradition and experiences that ground us.

SHAPED BY WORDS
We are shaped by words. Key to spiritual formation are the repeated words that work their ways into our souls. My list has been heavily shaped by worship. When I worship in other traditions or in “contemporary” style, I often miss the shaping words. Where is the greeting or benediction? Why are there no liturgical words in celebrating Communion? I understand that repeated words can become rote and meaningless, but they can also reverberate with life.

Thomas Merton focussed his summary of the Christian life on the word “beloved.” For some this word may sound old, but for him it rang. Being loved is a fundamental and necessary word for our souls. 

For years I have given away pins from a jewelry store chain that say, “I am loved,” in over 10 different languages. Maybe I share these words because it took me a long time to really hear them. Early in my life I understood “do,” “duty,” “earn.” Merton points out that these are the words of the world. The temptations of the devil are “prove it,” and his words are “worthless. meaningless, insignificant,” in more ways than one. The reverberating Gospel word is “love,” but maybe that word has been cheapened by romantism and the jewelry industry. “I belong” reverberates for me.

MISSION WORDS
I have helped churches craft mission statements. Often, they are too long, too hard to remember and do not sing. Churches put hours into crafting the statement and then file it in a drawer. Mission words need to express, shape and sing the mission. For my student ministry, the key word is “explore.” What words reverberate for you and your mission? 

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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