Sunday, March 30, 2008

Powerful Language

As usual, Jon Birch over at ASBO has managed to get some interesting discussion going--this time on Christians and "bad" language. This is something I've been meaning to post on for a long time. Barry, over at Honest Faith has also addressed the subject, but I think he misses a few things.

First off, a few contextual things. I went to K-12 in a pretty conservative, though not fundamentalist Christian school. Over a hundred different congregations were represented in the student body and faculty, which gave me an instinctual grasp of "Mere Christianity" very early--I'll always be grateful for that. But it was a place where, if you were caught saying "shit" in the hallway, you'd land in detention. "Catcher in the Rye" wasn't on the shelf in the library.

I remember in fifth grade, my teacher rounding up the entire fifth grade class and attempting to bludgeon the third commandment into our heads. He'd become very upset at the increasingly casual punctuations of "Gawd!" and "Ohmigod" that he was hearing and tried to explain that this was taking the Lord's name in vain. Most of the class didn't pay much attention.

Now, I'm a believer in the power of language, to a nearly mystic degree. I think that we really don't even begin to comprehend the importance of "The Word was God." I believe that the characters and places that we create with our words are true creations--more real than we usually believe. I believe this so much that, when I was in college, my then-fiance-now-husband was starting to worry that I was losing my grip on the distinction between reality and fiction. I won't say that I've mellowed on the subject--but I've taken a step back. Living in that place of confusion was, in some ways, one of the realest times of my life. And I still believe that in the new heavens and the new earth that God will take our creations--the poor, broken idea matter and rough drafts from this fallen world and help us perfect them and make them real in a way that we can hardly dream of now. God makes things by speaking them into being. He gives us the gift of naming and promises us new names written on white stones. I'm not entirely sure but that those fantasies that posit that if you could ever find the true name of something that you would have real power over it aren't more right about the way things really work than our poor, rational, modern world.

So is it any surprise that during this same stage in my life my language started getting saltier? More profane? Words are powerful things, and in a very real sense, by my senior year of college, I was drug-tripping on that power. I graduated with a double major in literature and writing. If there are words that are more powerful, more expressive, more evocative, then I wanted them. Needed them. Still do. But this is what I've found.

1. The name of the Lord is not ours to use. The Word that made the universe--the God whose name is I AM, whose speaking of himself brings into existence, is not ours to mess with. God is too big. Too Holy. Too incomprehensible. And if, as Erin so aptly pointed out recently, none of our words for God are sufficient, the small facets of his being that are revealed by our various names for him are still powerful. They are not simply the italics for our own conversation. In this, my fifth grade teacher had it right. Though "Ohmigawd" is considered acceptable fare for the Sunday funnies these days, though culturally it is not even considered swearing, I increasingly find it the most offensive form of profanity. Indeed, in English, it is one of the few things that is actually profane.

2. Much of what gets labelled profanity is simply scatalogical or sexual vulgarity. The church has lost the habit of distinguishing between profanity and vulgarity, and I think that it's an important one. The two things say different things about us. I find vulgarity distasteful, and I think that it tends to coarsen our thinking. But it's just not in the same class as profanity.
  • Sex is a lovely and good thing, and that every time someone is told to "f*** off," it's another step in cheapening it. I think that the beauty of sexuality is like crystal, or glass filigree--that its beauty is in its being, clean, clear, delicate. If we treat it as something that we can simply bang on (pun intended), it shatters what it was meant to be. Yet our society keeps trying to convince us that sex is as indestructible and worthless as plastic. I have a friend who once explained to me that she would use "fuck," when, in her judgement, it was the most accurate term to describe the physical interactions she heard tell of . . . when the euphemis "making love" simply couldn't apply.
  • Scatalogical is something else yet. There are times, I think, that "shitty" can really be the most appropriate and evocative adjective for something. (And after seven and a half years of always having at least one kid in diapers, believe me--it's evocative.) I remember a good friend. Homeschooled-Christian-conservative-girl, sitting and weeping over the shallowness of so much interaction. Of churches that would love you one month and forget you the next. Her saying that when someone says they'll be there for you and then just isn't, that's it's really shitty. She was right. The way we flush people out of our lives is inexcusable. And I've heard the argument that in Phillipians 3:8 what is commonly translated as "rubbish" would be best translated "shit." Yet, only a chapter later, we get this from Paul: "Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things." It seems that the habitual use of vulgarity, and the use of it not to actually mean anything, but rather as attempted exclamation marks, robs those words of power that might otherwise be very useful occasionally and instead leaves both the speaker and listener with a mind littered with things which are most definitely not pure, lovely, and excellent.

3. In between these two you have, to my ear anyway, the theologically grayer area of "damn it!" and "What the hell?" Ultimately, of course, it is not ours to choose to damn things to hell or not. Though if you truly desire that God should do so for you in certain circumstances, look to David and the Psalms for an extended treatment of how to ask for such poetically and at length.

Ultimately, language is one of the most profound gifts that God has given us, and he calls us to use it in such a way as recognizes and honors that. Creatively. Creating. Beautifully. To most of us, excessive vulgarity is just ugly, and we don't need any more ugliness in this broken world. And for those cases when it's just a way to vent anger and hurt--well, the language is just a symptom, and I think that God would prefer to address the anger and hurt. But that when he works, he will address our words as well--because they are never as casual as we think they are.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Thank you God for . . . um, crummy Easter candy?

One of my guilty pleasures in life is marshmallow peeps. They're flavorless, nutrionless sugar bombs and I love them. I love the squeak of the marshmallow between my teeth. I love them fresh, frozen, stale and vaccuum compressed. (From being shipped up to altitude where they expand and then collapse.) A couple of years ago, I thought I may have over-loaded when my mother-in-law sent us (me--she knows that my husband hates them and I steal them from the kids) a full Easter assortment. Pink, purple, yellow, blue, bunnies, chicks . . . and some clearance Valentines heart shaped peeps that she threw in for good measure. But here I am again, happily polishing off the last row of yellow bunny peeps (the only box to come to our house this year) and finding myself thinking "Thank you, God, for peeps."

Wait a second--can I pray that? True, every good and perfect gift comes from God, but I admit that peeps are far from perfect. (Okay--mind-boggling thought: will there be such a thing as a perfected peep in the new heavens and earth? If God perfects these blinding little things, what will be left?) And yet, I am thankful. I like them. In a completely non-theological-ressurection-what? sort of way they speak Easter to me. And in all circumstances it is appropriate to give thanks, right?

I could almost hear God laughing at me. "You're welcome. I'm glad you like them." I know that tone. I use it on my children when I buy them that utterly atrocious gift they've been begging for--a blindingly pink and sparkly t-shirt with the latest favorite cartoon character on it. Spaghettios. Electronic toys with obnoxious sound effects. Easter candy--those chocolate bunnies that don't measure up to my chocolate-snob-at-least-70%-cacao standards. There's a particular, wonderful squeal of delight that children give when they get the gift of those low-quality delights that we don't usually "waste our money on."

And I wouldn't get those things for them at all if I didn't love that squeal. Love to see their faces light up. Even if the object itself makes me shake my head.

Thank you, Lord, for marshmallow peeps. Amen.

Monday, March 17, 2008

"In the Presence of My Enemies"

by Gracia Burnham with Dean Merrill

Some of you might remember having run across Gracia's story some years back. From May 2001 to June 2002, she and her husband Martin were hostages of the Abu Sayyaf--the Filipino branch of Al Qaeda. The book is her account of that year, and a tribute to Martin, who was killed during the rescue. Gracia was here in Warsaw, speaking at my friend Lindsay's church--Lindsay invited me along to hear her speak and then, when I was standing at the book table browsing the book to decide whether I wanted it said, "I'll get you a copy of that!"

The prose is pretty much the horrible boiler plate that you'd expect from this sort of first person account. Very Reader's Digest. What can you expect when the account is put on dictaphone and then handed over to a professional page producer to cull down to manageable book size? But you don't read a book like this for the prose . . .

The Burnhams came out of standard Very-Conservative-Christian-America. She was a PK. He was a missionary kid. They met at Bible college. Back out to the mission field. The luncheon that I went to was very much standard BCW (Better Christian Woman) fare. Getting up to speak, Gracia was obviously at home in this setting and fluent in church speak . . . and yet. And yet, more than five years after her rescue she had obviously still not come fully to terms with her experience. It had marked her too deeply. And the book, written in the first few months after her rescue shows that even more. Even when she tries to shove all her feelings and reactions into standard conservative Christian boxes, things keep leaking out. There's too much, and it's too messy and too complicated. She's grown beyond her boxes. And here's the interesting thing. Maybe I'm just reading this in, but it sounds to me like she's really not sure she likes this growth or wants it. If her year as a hostage and the life of her husband--a truly horrible ordeal--was the price God extracted from her to grow her more into the woman in the image of Christ . . . well, couldn't God have put up with a little less Christ? Or, do I really want my God to be so big and so ruthless about turning me into exactly who he created me to be that he would use a method like that to get me there?

This has me thinking a lot more about the whole BCW thing. As I noted on my own blog, those posts of Erin's have been very influential on me this spring--they've given me language and a framework to explore and understand some things that I've been thinking about for a long time but only in a very muzzy manner. This book has collided with all that and produced some very interesting wreckage. But that's another post.

(Cross posted at The Unfinished Book Club)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Resonance meme

For me, there's one clear answer to this meme: Erin's Better Christian Woman series of posts, with discussion. Her posts, and the discussion that followed gave words and structure to a set of attitudes, to a certain aspect of church culture which I had been aware of and bothered by, but hadn't taken the time to look square in the face. The very "BCW" label has given me a handle to think about the questions. What are the boxes that we try to squeeze each other into? Why does there seem to be this universal human tendency to box not only God, but each other? How do I deal with the emotional baggage and resentment that I carry from those who have tried to put me in boxes.

(Why do I bother to resent it, when no one who has tried has ever had much in the way of success?)

Thanks, Erin, for a lot of thought provoking material, and for some ideas that are going to be echoing through my thoughts for a while.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

We are God's Children

Many days, I wonder if he means that we're his toddlers. Nearly daily, over the last six years, my toddlers have reminded me how little I know . . . by demonstrating how little they know.

My 2 year old insisted on helping me fold laundry today. There were things that she could have been doing that would have been more unhelpful at the time, but not many. Among the things I wish I could have made her understand this afternoon, and what God might be telling me, if I would listen--or even had the capability of understanding.
  1. Just because you don't recognize the difference between folded and unfolded doesn't mean there isn't one. Just because you don't see the reason, or how I'm arranging, ordering, and taking care of your life doesn't mean those things aren't there.
  2. Merely shaking the shirt doesn't actually get the wrinkles out. Just because you're trying to do what you think you see me doing doesn't mean that you're actually recognizing what it is that I'm on about or accomplishing anything.
  3. Wadding it up in a ball doesn't mean folded.
  4. I'd really rather you didn't try to put it away yourself. There are some things that I really don't want you to try to do yourself. I need to do them. Really.
  5. Don't put your sister's socks in your dresser. This isn't all about you. I'm taking care of other people too.
  6. Especially not in your shirt drawer
  7. And please let Mommy wash your dirty clothes before you try putting them back away at all. Things get dirty and broken. It doesn't help you or anyone to try to hide them, or deal with them yourself. I'd really like to fix it for you.
Nothing like raising a bright toddler to remind us how little we actually know. She so thinks that she has it all figured out . . . and so do we, a lot of the time. But the further I get along in this parenting gig, the more I'm convinced that an awful lot of the time we have as little clue as to what God's on about as my 2 and 4 year olds have as to what Mommy and Daddy are on about.

But here's the thing. I loved having my toddler help me with the laundry. It slowed me down, sure. But she loved being with me and I loved having her there. I loved the joy on her face from her conviction that she actually was helping. She delighted in understanding--even though she didn't . . . but she does understand more than she did last month. I love watching her grow and develop. I love watching how she learns. What are the pieces that she's picking up, and how is she putting them together? Is there anything much better than an (almost) two-year old's triumphant "Mommy! Did it!"

Lord, grant me the privilige of being in the middle of whatever you're doing whether I'm being helpful or not. I want to be whereever you are.