The ride from New Castle, Pennsylvania to South Bend, Indiana is just shy of six hours – depending on the driver. In August of 1985 I made this trip with my parents so they could drop me off at school for my freshman year. About mid-trip, my mouth started to feel a little dry. My mother always had some mints or gum, so I leaned into the front seat to ask for some. Now I grew up in a Western Pennsylvania area with a very specific dialect popularly known as “Pittsburghese,” so while other people might have asked “May I have some of your gum?” I rapidly blurted: “Hey yinz gimme gum?”
As my mother rummaged through her purse for a stick of Juicy Fruit, she said: “Son, I love you, but if you don’t learn to speak English these people will think you’re an idiot.”
Mom was right. Over the next four years I stopped saying “yinz” and starting saying “you” – though I secretly yearn for a plural form other than “y’all.” I learned if yinz wanted a hoagie you had to ask for a grinder or a sub sandwich. I laughed along with young people from all over the country as we compared dialects and accents and learned our common language wasn’t so common after all. And now when I go to Massachusetts I know to ask for a bubbler instead of a drinking fountain.
When we invite people to join our church or Bible study group, are we sure we’re speaking the same language? “Bible” might be a comforting word to me, but it might be threatening to someone whose been abused by it. When we say all are welcome, is it possible some people are hearing “all, but…” because that’s what it really meant somewhere else? Inviting someone is not just a matter of making sure someone hears you, but also of taking time to understand that person.
The first time someone told me I could find more information in the narthex, I believe my response was: “In the whatnow?” Apparently “lobby” doesn’t sound holy enough. Churchy language is not necessarily welcoming language. Since the Holy Spirit of Pentecost doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of direct translation work these days, let us churchy people be sure to use language that actually says something. “Washed in the blood of the lamb” is a scary phrase out of context. I mean it sounds more crazy than yinzgimmegum. Even “You are forgiven and loved” may seem direct and universal, but what does someone really hear when we say that?
Let’s be clear. God loves you so much that God forgives you for the things you can’t forgive yourself. The communion table is where Christ invites us all to remember that. All means all. You don’t need to speak church-ese to participate. This cup and this bread are for yinz all.
May the peace of Lord Jesus Christ be with you.