Tag Archives: words

Reading Between the Lines

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
― Lewis CarrollThrough the Looking Glass Continue reading

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Talking About God

How would you describe a sunset to someone who had never seen one?

What words would you use to help a person without the sense of smell to capture the aroma of bacon cooking steeped in its own juices?

If you wanted to describe to someone who couldn’t hear a dove calling to her mate through the early morning mist, what words would you use?

Language by its very nature is composed of words with somewhat specific meanings and each of those words touch a nerve of understanding that helps us make sense of what we read, what we hear, or what we observe. We have learned those words from a very early age through rote exercise and sometimes inappropriate applications (“Kids say the darndest things”). We’ve learned to hear words or read them in contexts that gives them meaning. Consequently I might use the word anger and what my head imagines wrapped in that word may never be what your head imagines.  When I talk about love I think of a variety of people. How they touched my life filters that word for me.  The word jealous  for some is a hot word – it stirs anger and disappointment. For others it spawns thoughts of self-pity and frustration. In a current TV commercial a lady  is talking about “retirement.” She says that in her Latino language, there is no word for “retirement”, the word they use is jubilation!  For those of us who have “retired” – jubilation is not always the foremost word on our mind – it may very well be worry and that’s hugely different.

It’s often what words do to us that colors their meaning.  If that’s true for us, imagine carrying that idea to a foreign language and attempting to translate their words into our words with the same force and meaning. It’s seldom done successfully.  How many times have your heard your Bible Study teacher say, “In Greek the word means…..” and you think, “Wow, that’s not at all what I think of when I hear the English counterpart.”  Hence, part of the dilemma.

When speaking of God – our God or any god – words become increasingly important because they are so increasingly inadequate to describe the infinite God of the Christian faith.  Not only are words inadequate, they can often border on idolatry. Although it can be said that words fail to appropriately describe God and his character, words are what we use with great regularity and, I might add again, inadequacy.

In technical jargon the words we use to describe God – words such as love, jealousy, anger, wrath, faithful, his out-stretched hand, his “coming down”, his “walking in the garden”, etc. – are called anthropopathism (emotional or psychological) and anthropomorphism (corporeal) . In relationship to biblical applications they mean describing God and his nature or action in human terms.  It is quite an apt description because after all, the only tool we have for describing God are human terms. Our words. English words. Greek words. Hebrew words. Any words of any language. We have no other tool.

So is it fair when we say “God is love” that he really isn’t love as we know it?  Or when God says he is a “jealous” God that he really isn’t jealous as we use that term – it’s just a word we use to try to describe a certain characteristic of God.  Or is it fair to say that God did not “come down” to witness the plight of the early Israelites or speak at Jesus’ baptism? Those are just expressions we use to come to terms with that which we don’t understand.      No, that’s not fair.  Words are all we have. Words were all the Israelites  had. Words were all the Greeks had.   When scripture tells us that God said such and such, he either said it or he didn’t. If he said it, he said it apparently in words – at the time – their words which are now translated into our words.

There were times in the history of the Jews when the use of anthropomorphic or psychical words were not allowed. It was deemed heresy to use them when talking about God. And as many of us know, the writers of the OT found it anathema to write God’s name. They used euphemisms or other divine names but never Yahweh’s name.  The point was then and is now a serious risk of assigning God inappropriate characteristics or actions. We can make him all too human in nature or we can assign to him characteristics that don’t belong. Then again, we have no other tool.  If the OT is “God breathed” then that “inspiration” fleshed itself out in words – words that described God and his interaction with humans. Adequate? No.   Necessary? Yes.

Indeed, I can “feel” God’s presence. I can “sense” his leading. I can yield to his spirit. But if I want to talk about God I’m going to have to use words. Are they adequate? Not at all. But that’s all I have.  I may know him intimately and be hopelessly obedient to his will, but if I’m going to tell you about that or describe it to someone, I’m going to use words!

Words….they’re all we have!

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Sticks and Stones

Most of my generation has heard the rhyme “Sticks and stones may (will) break my bones but names will never hurt me.”  It’s a childhood rhyme that apparently dates back to the 1800’s and was designed to help children shred name calling and remain calm and non-retaliatory.  I remember thinking of those words as I was often taunted because of my blonde and VERY curly hair in my younger years.

Words can indeed be damaging instruments.  Most recently I have undergone the project of refusing to use certain words that have become rather commonplace in my vocabulary. They are not expletives, although those could use a bit of shredding, but  they are words like “moron” or “idiot.”  Recently, I actually went two whole days without uttering the word “moron.” Now for those of you that don’t work in retail, that kind of track record can be a milestone!  Nevertheless, I’m working hard to eliminate those hurtful words – even though mostly mumbled to myself.

Jesus said that the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. In other words, what passes our lips on the way out is a direct reflection of the condition of our heart within. A shallow heart is reflected in shallow, casual, and often offensive words. Words that Jesus said we will be held responsible for; “…Every careless word that people speak they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgement. For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned (Matt. 12:36-37).”   Now in the context it may be that Jesus was not condemning guys like me who utter “moron” under the breath from time to time. But rather people who wrongly speak about God and without thinking ascribe the things of God to the things of the evil one. Yet, making application to our daily conversation is not inappropriate. After all, the Book of James talks extensively about the tongue and how, unbridled, it can lead to heavy destruction.

Words can indeed be hurtful things. They can cause more damage than sticks and stones. In today’s world of technology words about someone can literally travel the globe and ruin a person’s reputation or livelihood in an instant and that’s a bad thing. Those who speak/write/text such words are small people. When I use words like “moron” or “stupid” I merely reflect my own smallness as a person and expose my limited vocabulary when frustrated. Frankly I’m a better person than that. Consequently I hereby seek to erase those words from my verbal concordance and will diligently refrain from collecting either sticks or stones to replace them!  🙂

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What Does Jesus Mean to You?

My wife attends a career-change group at our local church. It’s basically folks who are unemployed, underemployed, or looking for a career change.  She learns a lot and enjoys the group.  Last week she came home and relayed a story about one of the speakers.  It was his mission every day to ask at least one person “What does Jesus mean to you?”  As you might imagine, he solicits a wide variety of responses – most of them are a deer-in-the-headlight-look as people try to process what it was this person just asked them.

When I asked my wife that question she responded with, “He’s my personal savior, Lord and friend.”   Of course, she returned the favor and asked me the same question. I replied, “He is the Son of God, the Messiah and the Savior of the world.”   What I wasn’t expecting was for her to wonder if that was all – as though my answer was not personal enough or intimate enough.  Naturally, that sparked a conversation.

Was my answer any less personal than hers?  Apparently so in her mind, but not in mine.  We may not have used the same words, but my answer – for me – was JUST as personal as hers. Of course, she is a loving, caring, giving, and supporting person. All of which speaks to the issue of intimacy and personal intent. A reflection of her answer.  For me, I’m loving, caring, giving and supporting, but do those things often in ways that are different. That doesn’t mean I’m discounted in those characteristics, it simply means I’m different.

One of the reasons we have trouble communicating the message of Christ is that we often expect everyone to use the same language. That our terms be similar and mean the same thing. But that’s just not the case. Much of the message of Christ has become complicated by the use of words that don’t always, if ever, mean the same thing to both the speaker and the hearer.  This was evident in something our Bible Study leader said in last Sunday’s class.  We were talking about the phrase “falling away” as used in the Book of Hebrews and whether it indicated an issue of apostasy or something else.  His point was that it was merely a “stumble” and not a falling away. He attempted to bolster that opinion by quoting other verses were different Greek words were used for the same idea but did not carry the weight of “falling away.”   Uhm…

My question to him was simple: “Are you telling us that because different writers of different books used different terms for falling away that somehow falling away meant something other than “falling away?”  

Words are specific by their very nature. However it’s important for us to understand that a variety of words can be used to communicate the same idea: talk, speak, preach are good examples.  “The pastor delivered a great talk this morning.”  “I really enjoyed hearing the pastor speak.”  “The pastor really preached a good one this morning.”  Different words all communicating the same thing from the person who heard the talk.    But not always heard in the same way by others.

What does Jesus mean to you?  What would you say if some one asked you that?  Would you have to think about it or would your answer be spontaneous?  Does your answer have to be the same as mine for it to have merit; or mine the same as yours?  If your answer is not couched in the same words as mine, does that make it less or more personal?

What Jesus means to me, is exactly that – what Jesus means to me.

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Appropriate Training

It’s been my experience that different businesses approach training in widely varying ways. For example, some companies will hire and turn a new person loose. Then training (correct) only when they do something wrong. Others will provide a thorough and somewhat sophisticated approach where a person is provided not only the basics of good job performance, but also covering a variety of scenarios the person might encounter and the anticipated response.

Teaching someone a task compared to teaching someone a process or way of thinking require quite different methods. When teaching a task it is important not to assume the learner knows anything. When teaching a thought process it is important to approach the process based on different learning styles. Either way requires precise and consistent communication.

When the disciples came to Jesus on the mountainside, the scripture tells us that “He opened his mouth and began to teach them (Matt 5:2).” I suspect its not uncommon to just skip over those words without realizing their importance for what is about to happen. Jesus is about to begin teaching a new way of thinking, a new way of being, and a new way of understanding the Kingdom of God. He sets about this with words. Specific, concrete, and powerful words. Words that not only provide a means of conduct but set the stage for life altering thinking and becoming.

Throughout the “sermon” Jesus uses a specific vocabulary the stirs the imagination and sets the heart aflame. Words that challenge the status-quo, stretch the mind and push the edge of the envelope for previous understandings and actions. Then, once the “sermon” ends, he begins to show them how to put into practice what they have heard. Each parable, each miracle, each journey from town to town was an opportunity for fleshing out his words and offering them opportunity to demonstrate understanding.  It’s true, the disciples did not always get it right, but they did get it.

Its hard for me to consider how all this must have transpired and what was going through the mind of the hearers. Those on the edges what were they thinking? How were they hearing these words and what, if any impact would it have on their lives. Yes, they had concluded that he taught them “with authority.” But did they hear any of those words as directed toward them?  Could anyone sit within earshot of those life changing words and not be changed in some form or fashion.

The more I read that powerful “sermon”, the more I wonder if I am hearing it correctly. Hearing it in such a way that it transforms my thinking and my being.

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