I had to write two birthday cards recently to two of the three most important people in my life – my eldest son and my fantastic wife – and I froze.
Unusually it was me writing my son’s card – I say unusually because normally, as is the proper way of things, my hugely more organised wife would write the card which I would dutifully sign when it was waved under my nose. I was just about to put pen to paper, or rather card, when I thought, “How on earth can I write something that will sum everything up? How can I tell this person how much they mean to me and still leave room for “Happy Birthday?” How could you possibly condense and contain all that love and hope and wonder and thankfulness in mere words?”
Now, I know words are powerful, but sometimes they just run out …
My eldest son is now fourteen, but it just seems like yesterday that he was born; he’s nearly six foot tall (about a quarter of an inch to go now!) but I can remember holding him in the crook of my arm, with his head in the palm of my hand and the rest of him stretched out along my forearm. His voice is deep enough now that people confuse us on the phone, and we both have to sing an octave down from most people, but it feels like I can still hear his infant snuffles and cries. He’s inches away from beating me in an arm wrestle, but I remember how easily I used to throw him up in the air and catch him as he squealed with delight … now, I think he’s not far from being able to throw me!
He’s the best of me. Him and his little (or rather younger, ‘cos he ain’t so little either!) brother.
There’s no way you can put that into a greetings card. Just no way.
The same when I tried to write something in my wife’s birthday card.
How can you tell someone that every day over the last twenty years has felt like a gift, a blessing, an adventure? How can you say you’re inspired, intrigued, captivated and amazed on a regular basis? How can you encapsulate a life lived together in less space than half a sheet of paper? How can you put words to the feelings that continue to grow each and every day, to the sense that without her you would be much less than half the person you think you are?
You can’t. Just no way.
That’s why I froze. A million words stalled in my head; they just wouldn’t trickle down my arm to my waiting hand hovering above the milky white blankness of the card. I’m never stuck for words; I could talk a glass eye to sleep when the mood takes me, and I’m always ready with an (ill-advised?) opinion or two, but I just couldn’t find the words to describe or even organise my thoughts and feelings.
In the end, in my son’s card I wrote something lame about how he’s growing up too quickly and my wife wrote how proud we are of him … which is true, but not everything that I wanted to convey. In my wife’s card I tried to say how much she means to me but I know it was a pale shadow of what I actually feel …
I’ve got no chance when my youngest boy’s birthday comes round!!
It drives me mad … in a funny way I felt as though I’d let my wife and my son down a little; I felt that she deserved to know how wonderful she is and he deserved to know how much he means to me and my wife (and yes, even to his younger brother too!) but my skills, my confidence, my vocabulary, my everything just hung there waiting for someone to press CTRL-ALT-DELETE to reboot my thinking.
Words failed me. Writer’s block. Brainlock. Whatever you call it, I just froze.
Somewhere, somehow there seems to be this belief that those of us following the way of Jesus should be able to talk about it flawlessly, that we should be able to talk about the ten commandments, the ‘seven spiritual laws,’ the ‘four steps to forgiveness,’ the gospels, epistles, the law and the prophets and just about every moral, religious and ethical conundrum with pithy, concise, crystal-clear reasoning and well organised arguments but I’m not so sure … I think we try so hard to explain things that we explain and rationalise away the wonder, the awe, the beauty that we can encounter.
We’re not perfect at it, so why should we always try to sound like we are? Why don’t we occasionally admit – honestly – that we’re not sure about what’s going on around us and in us? Why not give ourselves the chance to run out of words sometimes?
Put it another way, I can’t explain with just words how much I love my family … why should I allow myself to be constricted and defined by words when I try to explain how much I’m affected by this life of faith, this person Jesus and the roller coaster path He’s called me to?
In church we’re starting to look at the Book of Revelation, and I’m thinking that John may well have sympathised with my card writing dilemma … he writes about someone he knew really well, someone who he walked with and talked with, his best friend, teacher and inspirational leader … and yet there’s a sense, for me, that John can’t find the words he’s wanting.
When John writes about his vision of Jesus he uses language full of imagery and hyperbole “blazing fire” and “rushing waters” – when he tries to articulate a sense of what he understands about his vision of heaven John talks about “a rainbow, resembling an emerald” and “a sea of glass, pure as crystal” and things like living creatures with six wings covered in eyes … words fail him. How could you sum up the majesty and awe of heaven and the glory of Jesus revealed in His fullness? You couldn’t … could you?
So, like John, you might find yourself using poetic, visionary language to try to capture something that can’t really be held by the crude structure of words.
Trying to understand and articulate what it means to you when you find yourself responding to the message of grace and peace through Christ is like trying to smell the colour blue or taste the sound of trumpets … not possible … but you still want to try to make sense of it all, to express everything it means to you.
It’s either that or sit staring at the blank birthday card …