Life is filled with false starts, abrupt stops, detours and wrong turns. We didn’t know it would take this long to come to ourselves, that there were so many copies to choose from, that being original is harder than it looks, that it is easier to repeat, to nod in agreement with the majority, that in going along to get along, we never find ourselves. We wake up one day and question aloud, “How did I get here?”
“Stop this ride; I want to get off.” I told Jesus to take the wheel so why do I feel like I want throw up? Hands in the air, we sing, “I surrender all.” But today, I worry about what I will have left.
When will things go right? When will all things come together to work for my good? When will this all make sense and come into focus? Because I can’t see what’s up ahead; I’m just tired of these raindrops falling on my head.
Tearstained faces, life is not a commissioned pretty picture and we don’t hold the paintbrush. We receive the brush strokes like everyone else—sickness and death, depression and debt, heartbreak and pain. In the course of our days, life can get ugly. And what we say in those moments can make or break us.
Henry David Thoreau said, “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate in us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”
We are a collection of words. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Language is a form of life.” Whether we know it or not, we are a spoken word, words that both define us and diminish us, question and answer us, love and hate us, attack and defend us. We are who we say we are. This is why we must choose our words carefully.
Because words can make you or break you. Because one wrong word can cause you to lose your place. Because one word can set us back and set us up for failure. Because the world capitalizes on us forgetting ourselves, on losing ourselves around here somewhere. They squeeze out our voice so that we can’t get a word in edgewise. Oscar Wilde said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Because “life and death are in the power of our tongue.” Because I learned a long time ago, good words are hard to come by. So, I carry my own. I call them journey words.
Some people collect rare stamps and coins, dolls and cars. I carry a deck of 3×5 cards that remind me of who I am, what I believe, what my work is and where I am going. When I cannot find the words or my way, they take me to where I belong. They are words of commission and calling. They are words of clarity and certainty. They are words of direction, pointing me back to the track I sometimes I get off of. Tripping on the tongue of others, they have picked me up on more than one occasion.
They are my conversation partners, my guides. They are words from the living and the dead. They are words past, present and future, words outside of me, that call me inwardly, words behind me that propel me forward, words that I desperately wanted to hear as a child, words that I listen out for as an adult.
They are words that sound like me, the woman I have heard of but have yet to meet. They are words like:
“Voyager, there are no bridges; one builds as one walks” (Gloria Anzaldua).
“I must see my understandings produce results in human experience. Productivity is my first value. I must make and mold and build life. As an artist, I must shape human relationships. To me, life itself is the greatest material. I would far rather build a man than form a book. My whole being is devoted to making my small area of existence a work of art. I am building a world” (Jean Toomer).
“The time is always right to do what is right” (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.).
“Give me a place to stand and I will move the world” (Archimedes).
“Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul” (Mark Twain).
“Treat people as if they are what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.27-28, NRSV).
“Do the work your soul must have” (Katie Geneva Cannon).
Zora Neale Hurston coaches me, struts alongside me saying, “I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.” Frederick Douglas is with her and chimes in, saying, “I prefer to be my true self, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false and incur my own abhorrence.” Thomas Merton nods in agreement, adding, “To be a saint means to be myself.” Less I be tempted to lose myself in the crowd, James Baldwin tugs on me, saying, “The effort not to know what one knows is the most corrupting effort one can make.”
Because it is easier to walk away, to take what is offered and leave ourselves on the table, on the cutting board, to erase the image emerging on the drawing board. Because we have reached our word limit and “if they say one more word…” This is why we need words like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s who declared, “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. … To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Because what you say will determine what you see. Because in the words of Mary Anne Evans, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Jesus’s words are a journey in themselves. We cannot read them and not be moved. And if we carry them, they will carry us home to our true selves, our new selves in him.
 Proverb 18.21