Sound It Out

I don’t remember learning to read, any more than I remember learning to walk. But as I listen to my children learn, I’ve come to appreciate how amazing that process is—and how applicable to our adult spiritual lives.

Reading begins with a few basic building blocks: verbal language, written letters, sounds symbolized by the letters, and so forth. Before long, however, our brains take a shortcut past the individual letters and instead recognize the words as a whole. That’s why we can read a sentence with numerous typing errors, but still find its meaning based on the grouping of the letters.

But what happens when we come across an unfamiliar word? Most of us just move on to what’s next.

My son Jonathan, however, never skips a word. When he reads the Magic Treehouse books aloud and comes to a word he doesn’t recognize by sight, he stops to sound it out.

“O-cean-o-graph-er.”

“Co-ral-reef.”

“Mys-ter-i-ous.”

To someone who is trapped in just-skip-it adult mode, listening to Jonathan can be a tedious process. It may take him twenty seconds to try out various sound possibilities for a single word, and sometimes he still can’t make it out. But more and more often, he’s able to sound out the word. Once he does that, he can use the context clues of the words around it to discover its meaning.

All of us start out learning that way—by staring intently at a word or math problem or science experiment and trying to understand what is happening, what these things tell us about the world. But we also quickly learn that adults value efficiency and results in the form of correct answers, which accumulate into good grades.

We carry what we learn about getting results into our adult spirituality. We ask, “What does God want from me? How do I make the right decision about my job or my spouse? What can I do to help me find out what’s next in my life?”

All too often, we try shortcuts to get our answers. We mimic someone else, or we adopt a platitude from a trendy bible study, or we simply give up and move on. Sadly, we learn how to do all these things from the church, where success and spiritual consumerism have eaten away our sense of identity and shattered our credibility.

But there are still plenty of us—individuals and even communities of faith—that don’t give up so easily.

Some of us still remember what it’s like to come upon a mystery and stare hard into it. We know how to search for understanding and not just for solutions. We know how to sound out confusing parts of life and faith until we can say, “A-ha! So that’s it!”

All of us have that capability, even if most of us have forgotten it. Perhaps we need to re-awaken the skills we once learned, the ones that allow us to focus on a problem without anxiety. Perhaps, rather that scrambling for solutions without regard to who we might hurt, we need to trust our God-given talent for finding insight in the midst of uncertainty.

Keep seeking, and you will fiind.

Maybe that’s what faith is all about.

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