1000 Word Moments

A picture is worth a thousand words. Or so the saying goes. Speculation about the origin of the sentence (or the idea behind it) range from early 20th century advertisers all the way back to Confucius. Wherever its birthplace, most of us understand its point: a single image can convey the meaning or intent of a complex idea. It is about simplification of communication; lightbulb moments, if you will. Understanding permeates deeper and we come to know in a different way. Even the brightest among us benefit from the clarity that emerges on those occasions.

One reportedly occurred recently. It happened when I preached on the Sunday designated as Pentecost Sunday. In keeping with the occasion, I based the message on Acts 2. It is a story that recounts the coming of the Spirit and the creation of the Church. A crowd had gathered in Jerusalem during the Feast of Weeks in celebration of the wheat harvest. The story references a group of Galileans speaking plainly in multiple languages that they presumably would not have known. If you have ever tried to learn a second language, particularly as an adult, you know the challenge of opening your mouth and saying something intelligible. Some would consider that feat to be a miraculous one by itself!

As a response to and continuing consequence of Covid, the congregation where I was speaking now utilizes a Zoom option for worship participation. As part of that, when the Scripture is being read, the words are projected onto the screen for the benefit of both the in-person and remote attendees. On this day, as the reader began speaking in English, the technology made its own contribution. The text first appeared on screen in Arabic. Then Hebrew. Maybe even a few others. Finally, it settled on English. All of this was lost on me due to the angle at which I was sitting; however, Judi was in the pews and observed the changing languages. Had it been planned, but no one cued me in? Was it a technology faux pas? Or was it an intentional and brilliant decision on the part of the tech guy, wanting to make his own contribution to the moment? Maybe the Divine decided to give my effort a boost? I haven’t a clue – but what a perfect better-than-a-1000-words picture for an effort to convey the experience of hearing a message in multiple languages until finally, one that you recognize comes into focus.  In a moment, it illustrated the challenge of being left out of the loop until things are presented in a familiar language. Point made in under 1000 words! I couldn’t have planned it any better.

It left me wondering about other 1000-word moments I could remember. Just recently, we spent an afternoon turning a supposed 45-minute assembly project into a 4-hour adventure. Beware when an L-shaped desk, six feet in both directions and 30” tall comes in two small boxes along with screws, dowel rods, and glue. A successful ending resulted in a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but trust me – there was some frustration and a blood blister or two along the way. All the words in the world weren’t nearly as helpful as the picture images that guided the construction. I just wish the writers of that document had been better artists. It took a while to figure out that the funny drawing present in several pictures was the tube of glue. Fortunately, we were only about 4 steps in when we realized the oversight.

Perhaps the greatest reminder of the picture-over-words truism is nearly every vacation photo I have ever taken (short of the early ones that were mostly of my index finger!). One thousand words describing almost anything we saw pales in comparison with a good photo – though honestly, the picture rarely lives up to the experience itself. For example, last year at this time we were roaming around remote places in Mongolia. The photo above was taken on our wedding anniversary at a location called “Flaming Cliffs.” The name results from the effect of the sunlight and resulting shadows created on the cliffs. Seeing the cliffs is amazing. To try and share the experience is to immediately lose the sense of awe and wonder. Descriptors like “orange” or “tall” or “ragged” do not begin to paint an adequate understanding. Describing the sun’s movement or the effects of the shadows is, frankly, dull in comparison to watching the changes as they occur. After a thousand words of my best effort, most would have lost interest and still not have a sense of how special that moment was. Even the picture doesn’t do it justice. It provides image and color, but lacks magnitude and majesty. If I want the reader or hearer to have any hope of catching a glimpse of the experience, the picture may be my best option to help get the point across.

The Flaming Cliffs are but one example. I recall standing in the plains of Megiddo. After having read about it for years, I suddenly understood why that was the ideal spot for a biblical battle of epic proportions. It is a strategic location, with open space and plenty of room for opposing armies to line up for battle. Seeing it made it real in a different way.

Or consider the pyramids. Sure, they are one of the seven wonders of the world; but not until I stood there staring upward toward the top, or climbed a few steps up the side, could I feel the wonder of it all.

Last week a friend described his amazement at standing in front of the library of ancient Ephesus. I could relate because I once stood there myself.  Words are priceless, but they often can’t convey it all.

It is not just the astounding moments that benefit from a picture. When Judi and I ride down the road side by side on our bikes wearing helmets I would have described as goofy-looking when I was a kid, I sometimes have a flashback moment. It reminds me of a scene from the old TV show CHIPS. Erik Estrada (Ponch) and Larry Wilcox (Baker) barrel down the highway on motorcycles. In a parody of the show, Judi will say, “Hello, Ponch.” I’m likely to reply “Hello, Baker. Let’s ride.” Only I was forever calling the wrong name. One day she said, “Given how much I like to bake, I don’t know why you can’t remember that.” Boom!  In a moment a new picture entered the fray. She is quite the baker. I won’t likely forget that name again.

Life is definitely better with pictures. I wonder if perhaps God sends those “better-than-a-1000-word moments,” knowing it is our best chance of grasping the truth needing to be learned at that moment?  For instance, if particular leaders in the Acts story had tried to outline, explain, or even debate the idea that the Gospel message was for everyone regardless of origin, how easy would it have been to convince a group of that point? Various ones could have trotted out their authoritative sources or traditions to defend one point of view or the other. But instead, in one fell swoop, those in attendance witnessed a spectacle that made the point too clear to ignore.

I don’t want to imply that life would be better as a Pictionary game (especially given how I draw). Neither would I minimize the value of words (though sometimes less is more). But I will suggest that “experience” is typically more convincing than a “report” and as well as encourage us to be open and attentive to the difference that a good picture makes. Who knows? If I’d recognized what had happened with the languages appearing on the screen that day, there may have been no need for my 1000 or so words!

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