Is God speaking your language?


Today’s readings:
Morning Psalms 43; 149, Jeremiah 31:27-34, Romans 11:25-36, John 12:37-50

A United Church of Christ promotional campaign declares: “God is still speaking.” This message can be controversial, because many Christians who identify themselves as “Bible-believing” are not comfortable with the idea that the Bible is not the complete and solitary source of God’s truth. But what if God is not saying new things, but old things in new ways?

For many people, the King James Bible – deliberately written in language archaic even for its time – has relegated Biblical language to a time when “smite” and “begat” were common terms. Biblical imagery is full of references to ancient animal husbandry practices, arcane measurements, and cultures which no longer exist. But Biblical texts were written to be understood. The Hebrew texts were transmitted orally, which meant the language needed to be memorable and accessible. What good could a prophet do if his listeners couldn’t comprehend his words? Biblical authors used language and imagery appropriate to the time and setting to clarify, not obscure, and so should we.

When Jeremiah tells the Israelites they will once again plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria, he is telling people God restores them to wholeness. A more contemporary example of such restoration might be the end of apartheid and subsequent reconciliation in South Africa. When Paul wrote “out of Zion will come a Deliverer” he expected his audience would know what he meant without a study guide. When Jesus told his listeners “People don’t pick figs from thorn bushes” (Luke 6:44) he was speaking to people who actually picked figs. If he had been speaking in the modern Midwest United States, maybe he would have talked about blueberries and poison ivy.

The point is, God wants to be heard, in whatever ways we might be open to hearing. If we are really to see Christ in others, our vision can’t be limited to one translation. We can’t effectively speak Christ to others with words we wouldn’t use ourselves. We don’t want to study or create poor translations that betray the spirit of the Gospel just to be modern or politically correct, but we don’t want to reflexively reject the modern either. The living God speaks to us through living languages – and living people.

Comfort: God speaks to anyone willing to listen.

Challenge: Read a scripture translation you haven’t read before.

Prayer: God of freedom, thanks for the many ways you can be heard. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite Bible translation and why?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Numbers 32:1-6, 16-27, Romans 8:26-30, Matthew 23:1-12

We are a species driven by language. Some philosophers claim language is a necessary precedent to thought as we understand it. In Genesis, God speaks creation into existence. Is language also necessary for prayer? Paul would not seem to think so. He might even go so far as to suggest it could be an impediment to true prayer. He writes: “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

As much as we rely on words to express our feelings, many of the emotions we experience are beyond them. How do we express these things? Sometimes through poetry, which subverts the definition of words to uncover what they cannot say directly. Or maybe through music which has the power to communicate directly with the body and bypass words altogether. And of course there is art of all kinds which recombines the intent of the artist and the perception of the viewer into an ever more powerful third experience which is shared yet unique.

Then there is prayer. In some circumstances it’s a set of shared words; in others, a shared silence. Sometimes it’s not shared at all. Prayer is a tool which – usually gently, but forcefully when necessary – pries apart the seams of hardened ego to expose our inner, vulnerable selves to the God who gives us life, meaning, and comfort. It re-establishes that connection through a language with a single, inexpressible word for everything that is: horror and beauty; grief and joy; rage and peace; pain and bliss. When we need to share these things with our God and don’t know how, the sigh of the Spirit is that word.

Never beat yourself up over not knowing the “right” way to pray. Paul admitted he didn’t. The Spirit is also known as the Advocate, or one who pleads on behalf of another. Whether you are expressing gratitude or anger, using words or not, the Spirit sighs on your behalf. Prayer is a decision to be in the presence of God. It’s simplest form: Inhale. Exhale. Be. Repeat.

Comfort: God knows what is in your heart, always.

Challenge: Even when you are angry with God, take time to pray.

Prayer: God of all that is, I come to you naked and helpless as a babe, trusting in your goodness and love. Amen.

Discussion: When do you find it difficult to pray?

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Invitation: Cross Words


For me, one of the greatest delights in life is wordplay. I’ve heard puns described as the lowest form of humor, but a good pun – whether it’s good because it’s clever or because it’s painfully corny – always brings a smile to my face. My older nephew and I will spend and entire weekend of camping trying to out-pun one another. On my Facebook timeline I created a recurring hashtag for #typosthatshouldbewords. (Regreat? Something you’re sorry you did, but you did really well!) Every day I attempt the New York Times crossword puzzle then read the blog about its construction.

My love of crossword puzzles is handed down. On Sundays I would sit at my grandparents’ big kitchen table and do crossword puzzles with my Grandfather. Joint puzzle solving is a character-building experience. When I was young he was patient with me, letting me figure out (or leading me to) some of the answers he of course already knew. I learned relationships are built on give-and-take, and that you may have to wait a little for someone to understand what seems obvious to you.

Last Sunday was Pentecost, and the weekly scriptures included the story of the Holy Spirit, in the form of tongues of flame, descending on the disciples. Afterward, though they spoke many languages, they heard one another in their native tongues. That got me thinking about how we can use so many different words to mean the same thing.

And in turn, that got me thinking about how the same word can mean many different things.

“Love” is a good example. But I’m not talking about that that romantic versus Christian or agape sense of different kinds of love we hear about in sermons.

Several years ago some relationships at church led us to briefly becoming guardians to a teenager who was working some things out with his family. He and I grew close over several mission trips and years of tutoring, movies, cheap pizza, and long talks. We remained in weekly contact for many years. He’s now a father himself and though I see him less frequently, my affection has not waned.

One of things I learned was that “love” meant something different to him than to me. In my family the words “I love you” come easily (but not cheaply or thoughtlessly). Therefore, it felt natural for me to say “love you, buddy” when we parted or ended a phone conversation. He didn’t reciprocate, and I didn’t force the issue. Some people feel left hanging when they say “I love you” and the person doesn’t return it, but over time I’ve come to believe you shouldn’t say “I love you” if what you really mean is “I want to hear that you love me.”

Now he would say it when he was asking me for something inconvenient: “Can you take me to Game Stop [some 15 miles away]? I love you!” It was half jest, half unsuccessful emotional bribe. He’d also say it to girls he dated – in my opinion far too soon and far too often. I think those were more like hopeful little prayers though: “I want to hear that you love me.”

One day as I was dropping him off at his mother’s place, I gave him a hug and said “Love you, buddy.” I was surprised to hear “Love you, too” but I decided not to make it weird. In the moment, at least. The next time we saw each other I mentioned I had appreciated it. He told me he didn’t say it much because his father would make him say it back when he didn’t feel like it or mean it.

We had learned to solve life’s puzzles very differently. What an invaluable lesson in the power of how the intention and reception of our words can be so distant from one another.

Love-the-word had very different meanings for us, but we both understood love-the-feeling. When he trusted me to pull splinters out of his hand, or rode to summer school in my passenger seat in silent protest but never once defied me about actually going, or burped across the table at me in anticipation of how I would rate in on a ten-point scale, we both understood.

When we tell people Christ loves them, our intention may be distant from how they are able to receive it. Sometimes that distance may feel irreconcilable. Maybe they’ve been mistreated by the church and we represent pain. Maybe they’ve had struggles we can’t imagine and a loving God seems like an impossibility. The list of maybes is endless. Regardless of the reason, if they don’t respond in a manner we find acceptable, our reaction to that response tells us whether we are truly seeking to share the gospel … or seeking validation.

The Gospel is not delivered via scare tactic or data dump: it is delivered via relationship, sometimes in many installments over a long period of time. People need to – and should – get to know us before they trust or believe us. We shouldn’t be offended by that. Sure, you and I know we are coming from a place of love and honesty and feel defensive when someone questions that … but do you believe everything told to you by a stranger or acquaintance? “Actions speak louder than words” has become a tried old cliché for a reason.

Crossword clues can be intentionally misleading. That can be fun for the experienced puzzler, but frustrating for those who aren’t used to the conventions. If we want someone to understand love from the clues we’re dropping, it is more important that they be clear than clever.

If you invite someone’s into Christ’s love and they decline … invite them again a different way. Don’t guilt them. Don’t strong-arm them. Don’t dismiss them. Love them.

Take out their splinters.
Endure their moods.
Laugh with them about the things they think are funny.
Play with the words until they make sense.

As my grandfather grew even older and his thoughts slower, the puzzles became much easier for me than for him. It was my turn to sit at the table and  demonstrate patience, and it was easy because I’d had such a good example, who had shown me solving a puzzle together – whether it be about life, love, or the Hawaiian state bird – is about far more than the solution.

Wait for them, and let them wait for you.
Sit patiently at the table.

In the end, it’s not our words that persuade people of Christ’s love. It’s the limitless grace of God, the enduring nature of Christ’s table.

Not our words, but The Word.

You and I simply choose whether or not to love them enough to speak it in a language they can understand. “I want you to hear that Christ loves you. Let’s gather at this table and start that conversation.”

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Babel to Pentecost


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 150, Deuteronomy 16:9-12, Acts 4:18-21, 23-33, John 4:19-26

Pentecost readings:
Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, , Acts2:1-21

Genesis tells us the first people of the earth built a city named Babel, and in that city built a tower which aspired to reach the heavens. God was displeased with this development, for he said mortals would soon be unstoppable, so he struck down the tower and confused the tongues of the people so they spoke different languages. Humanity was scattered across the earth. This story of Babel is often told as an introduction to the story of Pentecost.

On the day of Pentecost, which scripture tells us was ten days after the resurrected Christ ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of flame descended upon the gathered disciples. The surrounding crowd came from many lands, and each person heard the disciples speaking in his or her native language. Some people assumed the excited crowd must have been drunk, even though it was only nine in the morning. Peter assured them no one was drunk, and this event was a sign of fulfillment of prophecy. The Holy Spirit (also called the Advocate or Paraclete) promised by Christ had begun to work among the people.

How telling that the Holy Spirit’s first gift to us was the ability to understand each other. In our largely monolingual culture we take that for granted, but in much of the world traveling from your home for a distance less than the breadth of Ohio can result in a language barrier. Yet even within our common language, we lack common understanding. Never take for granted that your frame of reference or your assumptions and inferences are the same as anyone else’s. The unspoken meaning of words like “love” and “family” and “God” can vary widely from person to person. We may share a common vocabulary, but communication – like jazz and poetry – is all about context.

We should continue to rely on the Spirit to help us understand each other, to teach us to listen before we speak. God’s kingdom does not require forced uniformity of speech and thought; it is a place where those once scattered by pride reunite in understanding.

Comfort: The Holy Spirit works among us to further the kingdom.

Challenge: Pray and work to free yourself from the biases and assumptions of your own language, experience, and culture. Understand how this is not a rejection of your heritage.

Prayer: Creator God, thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit guide and teach me to live and teach with the compassionate heart of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think when you hear someone speaking a language you can’t understand?

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Sticks and Stones


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Genesis 24:50-67, 2 Timothy 2:14-21, Mark 10:13-22

We all grew up hearing some variation on “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.”

Turns out life is more complicated than childhood nursery rhymes.

Words are paradoxical things. While they are little more than scribbles or puffs of air we agree have certain meaning, they can actually contain immense power and create considerable harm. Laws and their consequences hinge on the order of words and the punctuation between them. Contracts can bind or fail based on a comma or its absence. Some words expressed too freely threaten the powers that be and become cause for censorship and prosecution.

Classes of people can be created simply because we impose upon them a word that describes a single one of their characteristics. Take for example the idea of people being “black” or “white.” We all started out the same color and became more varied through circumstances of time, climate, and genetics. Before we started to travel and become reacquainted with each other, we didn’t think of ourselves as white or black – we were just people. It’s such an inexact distinction that over time we had to invent yet more words (and legal categories) to describe people who didn’t fall neatly into one of those two categories. Yet those words – arbitrary and inaccurate as they are – have had a real and tremendous harm on the history and freedom of millions.

It seems the more we insist on parsing words, the less we agree on them. Take for example the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a simple statement in response to a documented and ongoing history of disproportionate violence against black people by authorities, yet many insist on reading something anti-white into it. We see an “only” at the beginning where there is none. We insist a “too” at the end would clear things up. We want to overwrite it with the essentially meaningless “All Lives Matter” because then we don’t have to face actual and specific problems.

In 2 Timothy, Paul advises the church to “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” In other … words … getting caught up in semantics does no service to the church. Rather, it creates false divisions and distracts us from the central message of the Gospel. Schisms have occurred over such unnecessary distinctions. Scholars and theologians in their ivory towers may wage battles (both well intentioned and prideful) over such matters, but the rest of us could pretty comfortably stick with The Word of God – the Logos, the Christ – and loving God and loving our neighbors. Insisting on the “right” words – such as the Sinner’s Prayer to accept Jesus, or a specific Bible translation – alienates us both from each other and from unbelievers who look upon the petty squabbling (and therefore the faith) with justifiable skepticism.

Sticks and stones can break bones, but they can also build shelters. Are we using words to harm or heal? Are we twisting other people’s words to fit our own agendas and assumptions? When we speak, do people hear Jesus … or hear us trying to prove we hear Jesus (and forcing them to also)?

Let us pray for discernment about which words to embrace and which to let go, which to support and which to oppose. Let us be humble in wielding their power, as Christ calls the last to be first. Let our yes be yes, our no be no, and all our other words authentic and carefully considered.

Comfort: When words hurt, Christ is there to heal.

Challenge: Precise use of language is important for communication, but avoid nitpicking and dismissing people over semantics when you know their intent.

Prayer: God, may I be quick to listen and slow to speak. Amen.

Discussion: “Black Lives Matter” is often portrayed as an anti-authority movement because of a few sensationalized stories of people behaving radically under its banner. Early Christianity had the same reputation, and in later years after becoming the authority had a history of violence and oppression. How is any movement different from its best and worst examples?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 37:3-21, 1 Corinthians 14:13-25, Matthew 10:24-33

Slang. Jargon. Idiom. Argot. Dialect. Lingo. These words all have slightly different definitions and connotations, but have something in common: they often determine whether you are in a group or out of it. Slang is largely generational; when you’re no longer up on the latest – or worse, desperately fumbling with it – you’re old. Jargon and argot have a more professional context; try to fake your way around a profession you don’t know, and your vocabulary will betray you soon enough. Idiom and dialect are perhaps the most tribal of the group, as they are defined primarily by geographic location; nobody in Georgia is fooled when someone from Connecticut drops a “y’all.”

There’s something comforting about sharing a special, almost secret language. It immediately establishes common ground, even with strangers, in a positive way. Yet even as language draws a circle of inclusion, it excludes everyone who stands outside the circle. This exclusion isn’t necessarily intentional, but it’s an unavoidable byproduct.

Which brings us to “Christianese.”

Paul was concerned about the Corinthian church’s tendency toward an inward focus. They seemed to have a real fondness what may be the ultimate insider language, speaking in tongues (which, let’s be honest, is pretty easy to fake if you can’t hone in on your spiritual gifts). Paul tried to make them aware of how an unbeliever might feel walking in on a service where everyone seemed to speak independent gibberish:

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? […] in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

We may not be speaking in tongues, but when churchgoers casually throw around words like “narthex” (what’s wrong with “lobby”?), acronyms like “VBS,” or phrases like “slain in the spirit” without explanation we erect a language barrier between us and newcomers or strangers. It’s not bad to let people know our culture is different – if it wasn’t, why bother? – but the differences we want to emphasize are compassion, inclusion, and forgiveness. Even “grace” can be a mystery word to the uninitiated, but “love” is universal. Let’s show it by saying it clearly.

Comfort: There can be great comfort in being part of a community with common culture.

Challenge: Don’t make assumptions that people know what you know, or understand everything you say.

Prayer:  Teach me, O Lord, to speak with love and thoughtfulness. Amen.

Discussion: When you don’t understand what people are talking about, are you comfortable asking for clarification?

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The Sarcasm Chasm


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Deuteronomy 30:11-20, 2 Corinthians 11:1-21a, Luke 19:1-10

Do you have any friends who describe themselves as “fluent in sarcasm?” It’s a popular phrase. Some people describing themselves this way  do indeed understand the definition and subtleties of sarcasm, but others use it to excuse a general attitude of – for lack of a better term – meanness. Sarcasm, irony, and snark seem to have become the default mode of communication for many people, often as a substitute for wit – which itself has become more of an end than a means. All these tools can be used to make effective points and observations, but only when they are used strategically. We may enjoy rough and tumble banter with our friends, but constant, almost competitive sarcasm erodes actual communication and civility. Sincerity has almost become countercultural.

Paul was not afraid of employing sarcasm, but he did it sparingly and effectively. When members of the church in Corinth started falling for flashy and gimmicky preachers claiming to represent Christ but really representing their own self interests, he sarcastically referred to himself as a fool.

For you gladly put up with fools, being wise yourselves! For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!

Imagine how the people of Corinth must have sensed his frustration in these biting words! Paul can get away with it because most of the time he is sincere – almost painfully so.

Proverbs 15:4 tells us “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.” Ecclesiastes 10:12 says “Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.” Perhaps the key to effective sarcasm is recognizing the difference between using it to make an actual point, and using it to make ourselves seem clever at another’s expense.

The capacity for language is a gift from God. So is humor. Let’s use them both in ways that build each other up.

Comfort: You don’t have to be clever to be loving.

Challenge: Go on sarcasm fast for a day. Or, if you are not prone to sarcasm, think about constructive ways to respond to it.

Prayer: God in my mind, God in my heart, God on my lips. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have any thoughts on the use of sarcasm in our current culture?

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Wall of Sound


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Ezekiel 3:4-17, Hebrews 5:7-14, Luke 9:37-50

Have you ever left a discussion or disagreement and felt it was more like two parallel monologues? One where you talked over instead of with each other? Today’s social and political climate seems to have moved us past conversation, past persuasion, past argument, and right into word avalanches meant to bury anyone who disagrees with us. Sometimes it really does seem like we might not be speaking the same language From dog-whistles (coded language meant to signal and incite people within our social tribe against another one) on the right to virtue signaling (speaking more to reinforce moral superiority among our peers than to facilitate conversation) on the left, we speak primarily to hear ourselves talk and have our views reflected and amplified back to us. Language becomes a barrier instead of a bridge.

Before sending the prophet Ezekiel to warn the people of Israel, God basically told him, “I’m sending you to people who should understand exactly what you are saying. Not people speaking a different language, but people from your own tribe. Guess what? They’re going to ignore you because they have hard and stubborn hearts.”

Hard and stubborn hearts cut both ways. They render us effectively deaf to those we don’t want to hear – even when they speak important truths. And when we are speaking, our own hard and stubborn hearts use words to pummel, punish, and shame … and when has anyone responded favorably to that?

When we speak from a grace-filled place, our words will be easy for people to hear. Of course whether they choose to listen is beyond our control, but we have a choice to make: create an impenetrable wall of sound or create an opportunity to harmonize? If we are hurt, angry, or scared the wall option is attractive, and feels good … for a while. But sealed away we will simply fester in the pain and fear. Harmony – reconciliation – requires us to speak plainly and honestly, and to listen the same way.

Communication is more than words: it requires intent, effort, vulnerability, and trust. Let’s try asking ourselves: “What would Jesus say?”

Comfort: New information changes our understanding; truth remains the same.

Challenge: Question your assumptions about other people’s words.

Prayer: Lord, may I seek more to understand than to be understood. Amen.

Discussion: What triggers you to stop listening to someone?

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Invitation: yinzgimmegum


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?” Continue reading