One of the many ways that I am deeply indebted to my mother, is the way that she wove the love of language into my upbringing.
I don’t know that she was particularly intentional about this –she accomplished it quite naturally – as a kind of outward expression of her character.
It began, of course, when I was very young, and my mother read bedtime stories to me. As I got older, though, she continued to read to me, long after I could read for myself. She continued to “come down” to my level, and, in this way, initiate me into a world of imagination and beauty.
And I ate it up!
It was clear to her how much I loved to listen, so she kept it up.
She loved to read
And I loved to listen.
An interesting quirk about all this, that I came to appreciate much later in life, was that when my mother chose the books that she read to me, she seemed altogether unconcerned about whether or not I would actually understand what she was reading to me.
What I mean is, the books that she read to me often included vocabulary that was far beyond my comprehension. She might stop, now and then, to ask me if I understood a word – but mostly she just kept reading, assuming that if I didn’t understand a detail, I would nevertheless probably pick up on the feeling of the story.
How right she was!
This had two effects. Intellectually, it encouraged me to stretch myself to learn more vocabulary. More importantly, though, it created in me an early and ardent love for the emotional wealth of language – the music of it, and how it creates feeling. Language, for me, has always been much more than a way to communicate ideas. It is a doorway into something mysterious, beautiful and… sacred.
Let me give you an example.
In one of the poetry anthologies that my mother sometimes read from, there was a short poem, entitled, “This is my Rock.” I have printed the poem on the back of today’s bulletin, so that, if you so desire, you can follow along as I read.
This Is My Rock
by David McCord
This is my rock
And here I run
To steal the secret of the sun;
This is my rock
And here come I
Before the night has swept the sky;
This is my rock,
This is the place
I meet the evening face to face.
Allow me to briefly put my English teacher hat on, so that I can share with you the magic of this deceptively simple little poem.
The first thing you notice when you read this poem is that each stanza begins with the same phrase.
“This is my rock.”
This repetition creates a kind of litany. We use plenty of litany in church don’t we?
Next, you see that the first and second lines of each stanza are short while the third and final line of each stanza is long.
If you count the syllables, you will see that the short lines are all exactly four syllables in length and the final lines of each stanza are exactly eight syllables long.
Four, four, eight.
Finally, there is rhyme – the melody of the poem.
Do you see where the rhyme lands? On the third and the fourth lines.
The short lines don’t rhyme – as you think they might. No, the rhyme jumps from short to long!
But here’s the thing – you don’t need to do all this analysis to appreciate the rhythm of this poem.
When I was a kid, I never thought about any of this.
I just felt it.
My mother and I both committed this short poem to memory – the poem with its tight rhythm and leading rhyme, is designed for that purpose – to be memorized.
Thank you Mom!
Your simple act – standing beside me as, together, we memorized this poem was a small, but incredibly important part of my development.
Because once this poem’s rhythm and music did its magic, it could do its final trick – and give me the gift of its meaning.
The meaning of this little poem became a little pearl of shared knowledge that bound my mother and I.
We shared the reassuring notion that it is possible for a place to be magical.
The poem whispered to me that a place can be recognized. My child’s mind grasped, and was comforted by this possibility – that I might find a place that I really connected with – a place that I could become a part of, and would, in turn, become a part of me.
“this is my rock!”
This idea – this sacredness of place – was a kind of belief that we shared – my mother and I – and it came to us through the rhythm and the melody of this simple poem.
I was put in mind of the sacredness of place when I read the story from the Book of Genesis that Carol just read for us.
Walking from Beer-sheba to Haran, Jacob comes to a place. We are told nothing about the terrain of the place – is it beautiful or barren?
We don’t know.
Here, at the outset of the story the text barely registers it as a place at all, it just says that Jacob came to a (quote) “certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set.” (unquote)
But, as he would soon learn, this nondescript stop on the road – this “certain place” would prove to be significant…
Not yet though … right now, Jacob is preoccupied with other things.
I like the fact that the story tells us that Jacob looked around for a rock to use as a pillow!
That is such a nice detail!
I am always surprised by the details that are left out of the Bible, and the details that are included. Jacob needed to rest his head on something, so he looked around for a rock!
The text doesn’t tell us, but I’m pretty sure that when he found a nice rock to use as a pillow, he probably picked it up and said to himself:
“This is my rock…”
I’m just sayin’
That’s probably what he said…
The photograph that is on the front of the bulletin this morning was taken around 1950-51. The photograph is not of a “certain place” by the side of the road from one place to another.
This is a remarkable spot.
The two figures are sitting on a rock suspended high above the surrounding landscape. Their vantage is so expansive that they can watch the shadows of the clouds passing across the landscape below. The distant horizon is drawn by the swooping lines of the mountains of South India.
The woman on the left is my mother.
In the early 1950’s, when she was fresh out of college, Mom signed up to become a missionary in the state of Kerala – a mountainous region in the southern part of the Indian Subcontinent.
A young woman, who grew up in South Dakota and Iowa, the daughter of a Dutch Reformed Church Minister, she got on a steamer and traveled to the otherside of the world where she served as a music teacher in a mission school in a hilltown called Kodaikanal.
My mother was nearly forty years old when I was born. I never knew her as a young woman. But she told me stories of hiking in the hills of Kerala.
I imagine she and her friend had to earn that view! I wonder how she felt about that rock.
I wonder if, years later, reading a poem to her son, she thought of that spot – that place, far from home, where she could watch the shadows of the clouds racing across the great, wide, land.
Now, long after she is gone, I recognize that place. I see that it was a part of her – a part of her transformation – a treasure she kept in her heart.
Was this her rock?
During the night, strange things happen to Jacob.
He has a wonderful dream in which he sees angels climbing up and descending a ladder that connects earth to heaven.
There is something very subtle to the way this part of the story is told that I just want you to notice –
The ladder is described as being “set up on the earth” and “reaching to heaven.” The symbol that connects us to God does not come down from heaven – it goes up from the earth.
And here’s another interesting thing: When Jacob describes the angels that he sees on the ladder he says that they are “ascending and descending.” His first impression is that the angels are going up. This little detail suggests that the angels had been down here already, employed (one can only assume) on God’s benevolent errands.
Everything about the way the ladder is described, places an emphasis on how God and the angels are interested in our place.
God comes down to us.
If the ladder symbolism was too subtle, this interpretation is given a final and muscular push when God actually speaks to Jacob. God does not speak from above, as one might expect – rather God is described as “standing beside” Jacob.
The ladder is not so much about Jacob going up, as God coming down.
God comes down and stands beside us.
Everything about the ladder suggests that God – mystery, power, knowledge, promise – is interested enough in us, to make the effort to come down to our place.
And then, in the morning, after all the remarkable events of his night out in the open air, Jacob looks around at the place. The night before it had just been the place he happened to be when night fell. Now it was a place of wonder and astonishment – a place where God spoke to him!
With a sort of hushed reverence, he declares:
‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
In this place, a ladder was “set upon the earth” – a thoroughfare that connected to heaven.
In this place, God came down and stood beside Jacob.
In this place, God spoke to Jacob.
God’s simple act – standing beside Jacob as, together, they memorized the poem of his destiny – was an profound moment in Jacob’s development.
This moment became a little pearl of shared knowledge that bound God and Jacob in a shared purpose.