I did not actually speak the word. Rather, the word became water – tears welling up in my eyes and rolling down my cheeks.
I was beholding a new photograph of a baby named Pearl. Pearl was born in late July and wasn’t supposed to live to August. She wasn’t even supposed to live to term; the obstetrician counseled her parents to end the pregnancy quietly.
There is a long list of words I want to set aside right now. I do not wish to speak of abortion. I do not want to get into the semantics of what it means to be pro-life or pro-choice. I do not want to have an argument that is no doubt important but tends to be hashed out too loudly and angrily to be allowed in the nursery.
I simply want to wonder what it means to weep the word beautiful over a child who is, culturally speaking, not. Her eyes are large for her face, her nose and mouth not fully formed. And yet, this child is beloved. Pearl, this baby who struggles to breathe, surely takes her mother’s breath away.
I want to wonder what it means to know that Pearl is profoundly disabled, yet equally a good and perfect gift of God.
She is Pearl because her parents whispered this name in the dark, and wrote it on a piece of paper to be signed and sealed by the state.
So does Pearl become beautiful when we say she is, when the word settles in the cleft of her lip?
In the book of Genesis, God establishes the world with the sound of his voice, calling cosmos out of chaos. God said “let there be light,” and there was light.
I wonder if we take words seriously enough. If we understand their value – and their cost. Do we recognize the significance of a kind word spoken – even when merely out of habit? Do we grasp the power of a hard word spoken courageously? Do we know how harsh words devastate, how lies damage?
Words create reality, and not just in our sacred stories. When the word “divorce” is uttered across the dinner table – as in, “I want a divorce,” the sentence is punctuated by a new reality. Nothing will ever be the same.
When the stranger is greeted warmly, the word “welcome” evokes a new reality. The stranger becomes a guest.
Words create reality. And words that tell lies destroy reality. When a child is told she is a worthless, stupid, waste of space, she does not become a worthless, stupid, waste of space. But she becomes a wounded child. She may even become someone who believes a terrible lie about herself.
And it happens all the time. You overhear a cruelty in the grocery store. You dodge the gossip on the train. Or your own tongue betrays you – and not just you, but the loved one who is standing before you with pain in his eyes.
As James so painfully pointed out, the same betraying tongue is the same one that forms the words of the doxology. We are bilingual, fluent in the dialects of blessing and cursing.
What language do we speak, then? What words shall we use?
Let us say words like “love” and “thank you” and “forgive me.”
Let us learn words like “forgiveness” and “mercy” and “justice.”
Let us refrain from using the tone of voice that only ever hurts.
Let us learn to bite our tongues when the not-nice thing wants to pop out of our mouths. Even when we know full well that the not-nice thing would be rewarded with a nice big laugh.
And let us pray. Let’s be sure that at least some of the words we use are not spent talking to other people. Or worse, ourselves.
Let us speak to God: reverently but honestly; courageously yet humbly. Let’s practice saying thank you and forgive me with the one who said us into being. Let’s pray every day, every hour, every minute if necessary, for God to help us not be bullheaded hypocrites who make flimsy excuses for wounding with our words.
Let’s pray for Pearl, and for the ones who hold her in their arms.
And let us listen. Listen for the truth, listen for the lies. Listen for the silence. Listen to the child – even when she is asking you the same question for the thousandth time.
Listen to everything that makes you weep the word beautiful.