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Words. I love words. Words are my most important tool. I use WORDS to communicate the WORD. You do too.
Words can be funny though. I was in the airport yesterday. The place of departure is...the terminal, as though something is about to end. The boarding procedure always begins with what is called "pre-boarding" for people with small children or who need extra time. How can you pre-board anything? You either board or you don't. At the end of the flight, the flight attendant will announce, "We are making our final approach to Savannah." Is the implication here that other approaches were tried which were not successful, and we are now in the final one? If that fails, what do we do next? Maybe we become terminal.
Medicine does it too. Have a prescription filled and you might be instructed to "take one pill four times a day." The only way you can actually do that is to chop up a pill into four equal parts. Should the prescription not read, "take four pills a day?" And of course, we still have that old conundrum as to why we park on a driveway and drive on a parkway?
English is a funny language. What about plurals? If the plural of mouse is mice, is the plural of spouse SPICE? One ox, two oxen; one fox, two FOXEN? The manager of a large city zoo was drafting a letter to order a pair of animals. He sat at his word processor and typed the following sentence: "I would like to place an order for two mongeese, to be delivered at your earliest convenience." Again he stared at the screen, this time focusing on the new word, which seemed odd. Finally, he deleted the whole sentence and started all over. "Everyone knows no full-stocked zoo should be without a mongoose," he typed. "Please send us two of them."(1)
This interest in words this morning is prompted by some controversy about the use of language. A couple of weeks ago, you may have seen Leonard Pitts’ column in the Island Packet. He wrote
Then there was the kerfluffel coming from the Olympics.
This issue has been around the church for some years now. When I was in seminary, there were a few women in my class (although not nearly the number that you find these days), and some of them were absolutely militant about the continued use of NONinclusive language. It was their constant topic. It seemed as if they had no other interest in life. Frankly, their harangues got OLD, and I tired of hearing them. But one day, after another of these particularly odious diatribes, I asked the opinion of one of my female classmates who rarely ever spoke about the issue. Libby responded, "Oh, I don't say much about it (there are lots of other things to worry about)." Then she paused and quietly added, "But, I have to admit, sometimes all the male language makes me feel uncomfortable." Hmmm. To be honest, I had heard so much on the subject from some of the others that I did not care what they felt. But Libby? If it mattered to her, it mattered to me, and from that moment on, I was more careful. I have used inclusive language in my preaching ever since (and you probably never even noticed, did you?). You see, the last thing I want to do is to make any of the Libby's of this world uncomfortable when I have it in my power to do better.
Another issue is the use of gender-specific pronouns in reference to God. Most all of us grew up in a Christian community which had no difficulty referring to God as a male. Indeed, some want to hold on to that imagery come hell or high water, and I am sorry about that.
As to how that masculine image of God came to be, remember that our Christian understanding of God grew from the fertile linguistic soil of Hebrew, a language in which EVERYTHING is understood as either male or female - not only people and birds and animals, but chairs and tables and papers and books - EVERYTHING. Beyond that, that growth took place in a society in which males were totally dominant - men had all the rights; women had none. For ancient Israel to have referred to their God as female (which would have been their only other choice, considering the language) would, in that day, have been unthinkable.
By the time of Jesus and the New Testament, the dominant language among the Jewish people was Aramaic, not a dialect of Hebrew, but a close cousin. Again, there was no way to describe ANYTHING as other than masculine or feminine - everything was described in either male or female terms, even things that are obviously neither. For Jesus to have called God ABBA - Daddy - was the only option available if he were making reference to a PERSONAL God.
As I say, we who grew up using male terminology for God came by it honestly. But there is always a danger when we import something from one language into another. The Italians have a two-word proverb: "Translator; traitor." There is always the possibility of misunderstanding.
Examples. According to one story, someone translated the English figure of speech "out of sight, out of mind" into Russian, and then had the translated version reconverted by computer into English. The machine came up with "invisible idiot." When Coca-Cola first entered the Chinese market, their bottles were embossed with the Chinese characters which represented the sounds of "Coca-Cola," but which in fact meant "Bite the wax tadpole." When Pepsi translated their slogan, "Come Alive, You're in the Pepsi Generation," into Chinese, it came out, "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead."
Sometime back I read a note online from a Japanese-Canadian pastor named Tad Mitsui who lives in Montreal. He was writing about this issue of language in communicating the faith. He noted, "[L]anguages represent cultures. But the Gospel transcends cultures. We have to be careful when we discuss matters of faith..." Then he cited an example:
The United Church of Canada General Council sometime ago spent over one hour arguing whether the Holy Bible is "the" foundational authority or "a" foundational authority. After some heated discussion the Council agreed to adopt the text without any article. So the authorized text says now, "the Bible is foundational authority." Of languages I speak, 2 in which I can preach do not have articles, Japanese and Sesotho (a Southern African [dialect]). Those people who live in those languages would not have understood what the fuss was all about. I can also preach in a language that has sex in the articles [French]. On the other hand, in Chinese, Japanese, and Sesotho, the word for God is neuter.
Do you see the problem? Be careful of being adamant about linguistic choices when those choices may simply reflect an issue in translation.
Another point needs to be made here. Language changes. Jesus Christ may be the same yesterday, today, and forever, but our language about him (and everything else) is not. How long has it been since you heard the word "gay" and presumed it meant "happy?" When is the last time you called someone a "colored person" or a "Negro?" Language changes, and what was appropriate in one context or generation can suddenly become INappropriate when one group or another is hurt by it. Just words? Hardly.
One more example, a grand old Isaac Watts hymn that, for some reason or other is rarely sung today. It is called "Blest Is the Man Whose Bowels Move" (and can be sung to the tune of "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun"). The lyrics are:
And melt with pity to the poor;
Whose soul by sympathizing love,
Feels what his fellow-saints endure.
His heart contrives for their relief
More good than his own hands can do.
He in the time of gen'ral grief
Shall find the Lord has bowels too.(5)
This is NOT in any of our hymnals. One wag has suggested that it might be included in a new collection entitled "Hymns for Irregular Christians."
D. T. Niles, the noted Asian preacher, began a sermon once in a surprising way. He asked his listeners to stand to their feet, turn and face the back of the sanctuary. The congregation did that in a rather puzzled fashion. Then he told them to turn back around and face the front, which they did, and then to sit down again. By then a murmur of confusion spread over the people. Had this world-renowned preacher "lost it?"
Then Niles said, "I have begun in this manner to demonstrate to you the power of [words]. As you have just witnessed, words make things happen. One person speaking to another involves far more than certain sounds being created and transmitted and heard. Words go out to do things and make a difference in the realities they touch. Words are the tools with which we build the faith. The church rises or falls on the strength of its words..."(6)
The words we use are important. They were important in the Garden of Eden because, of all God's creatures, it was Adam who was chosen to pass out the names - the honor was symbolic of superior position and authority.
Words have always been Christianity's most important tool. As much as we might want to believe that our witness is our walk, we need the words to let the world know WHY we walk the way we do. Philip encountered a seeker on the road to Gaza. The man was reading scripture but he did not understand. He needed Philip's WORDS about the WORD before he could come to faith. The words we use today can either open the doors or close the doors to those on the outside hoping for a chance to understand.
And if you think that folks will understand the way we have always talked, think again. The evidence says no. When I was serving in North Carolina, I was part of a Lutheran-Presbyterian dialogue in Winston-Salem. Mark Manees, the Bishop of the North Carolina Lutheran Synod, told of an incident during a visit to a hospital in Charlotte. One of his ministers was ill, so the bishop was taking communion to him. As he rode in the elevator, a hospital staffer got in, nodded to him, and then said, "I know you. Wait a minute. Don't tell me. I'll get it." The bishop was dressed in his normal clerical collar, communion kit in hand, and wondered whether or not this companion might have seen him at worship some time or another. Suddenly, the man blurted out, "Now I know...you're the new neurosurgeon." Hmmm. If folks do not even recognize a clerical collar, we have quite a row to hoe. And a good place to start is in making certain we use words that do not lead to misunderstanding.
I have no idea whether what I say this morning will change anyone's way of thinking. I am only reminded of the interview conducted by a newspaper with a wonderful pastor who had reached the time of retirement. The young reporter asked the minister if he thought it was his job to keep people from going to Hell? "Oh no," he replied, "It's my job to keep people from going to Hell IGNORANT." My job is not to insist that you adjust your thinking and speaking about God, but rather to let you know why the 21st century church thinks the way it does and is concerned about the words we use.
Words. They are important. Another old online note from my files. Hans Arneson, a pastor in Amherst, New Hampshire reported that Raymond, one of the youngsters in his parish, met another child of the same age but who had only three fingers on one hand. Hans says that the mother, who had seen countless taunts to her son by other children, witnessed the meeting and watched with some trepidation. The boys began to play when suddenly Raymond noticed the three fingers and said, "Look, God made you special!" The mother heard and broke down in tears of joy. Words. Wow!
1. Joe Claro, The Random House Book of Jokes and Anecdotes, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1990)
2. Pitts, “How I Got in Trouble with ladies and What Hillary Can Do about It,” Island Packet, 8/8/16, p. 8A
3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/women-olympians-don’t-need-men-to-be- badass_us_57a87489e4b03ba68012ccbb?section=&
5. Given at an ecumenical conference in New York City in 1960, at which D. T. Niles brought the principal address.