240 East Washington Street

Martinsville, Indiana 46151


First Presbyterian Church

Along the Way  

A Monthly Message from the Pastor


Can I Buy a Vowel?

Modern English is widely regarded as one of the most difficult languages to master and translate because of its strange idioms, its peculiarities of grammar, and inconsistent rules.

But the difficulties of English do not compare to the complexities of Biblical Hebrew.  The task of reading and translating ancient Hebrew has been compared to solving an intricate and convoluted puzzle.  What makes Hebrew unique is that it has no vowels; there are no spaces between words, and no punctuation marks.  What’s more, it is written from right to left.  The following is a familiar passage from Genesis (NRSV) printed in English, as the ancients would have written it in Hebrew.  Can you figure it out?



One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, in his book, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days, wrote that trying to figure out the direction of our lives is an on-going spiritual activity that could be compared to translating a passage of Biblical Hebrew:

Life itself can be thought of as an alphabet by which God graciously makes known the divine presence and purpose and power among us.  Like the Hebrew alphabet, the alphabet of grace has no vowels, and in that sense God’s words to us are always veiled, subtle, cryptic, so that it is left to us to delve their meaning, to fill in the vowels for ourselves by means of all the faith and imagination we can muster.

What Buechner is saying, I think, is this:  If you believe that your life has meaning and there is some kind of purpose to it, the language that God most often communicates that purpose to you is through the events, momentary occurrences, and people that, added together, make up the narrative of your life.  These circumstances of life are, in effect, our language without vowels.  Our task is to take whatever is given to us in life, be it good or bad, cruel or kind, and fill in the words with the vowels of our own insights and spiritual struggles.  I like to believe that God is somehow involved in this process too, but the real task of “meaning-making” is mainly ours to do.  It’s kind of like playing Wheel of Fortune; only we can’t just buy a vowel whenever we need one because Vanna has no vowels on the board to sell us!  Of course, making meaning in our lives is more than a game; it takes “faith and imagination.”  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t sometimes be fun.

Be well & do good,
John VanderZee