Words and Meanings

A visit to two grandchildren, ages fourteen months and four years, opens fascinating insights into language. The four-year old has acquired the language habit and talks incessantly. He’s polishing his tools and needs no encouragement. The fourteen month old, on the other hand, is at a stage I had forgotten about, when comprehension far exceeds execution. His own vocabulary seems to consist of one word that sounds like “at.” He points and repeats, “At.” His parents tell me they have heard occasional other syllables from him but so far I haven’t. “At.” That’s it.

On the other hand, you can say very complex things to him and be perfectly understood. “Why don’t you go over there and pick up that book?” someone says. And off he goes to do as suggested. He takes the pen out of my pocket and says, “At?” I say, “It’s a pen. Why not put the pen back in my pocket.” And he does.

It occurs to me that perhaps we never outgrow that stage. There are many things in this world that I comprehend in part but can’t adequately express: love, God, faith, relationships. In sermons, I am pointing toward that which can never be adequately expressed; for which there are no adequate words. “God is love,” is at the “at” stage of theological language and understanding.

Does understanding, perhaps, always exceed language? As I thought about it further, I found myself considering the President and administration who seem able to explain everything and understand nothing.

Eli can’t say “pen” but he knows what one is. He will learn to say it. The President seems not to know what he’s seeing. He points to chaos and calls it progress, to war and calls it peace, to compulsion and calls it democracy, to the limitation of rights and calls it freedom. And he seems not to learn at all.

1 Comment

LibbyJuly 29th, 2006 at 5:50 pm

this is helpful, Dad!

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