I’ve spent my life working with words. I love words. Reluctantly I’m recognizing that words can also form prisons for our minds.
I’m not convinced that we need words to think. Dogs don’t need words to figure out how to get around an obstacle.
Certainly we use words to reason things out. But I don’t think many of us realize how much the words we use may also restrict our ability to reason.
You can’t use “nigger,” for example, without imagining that person as a lesser human. I have never heard “nigger” used as praise.
You can’t address someone as “Captain” or “Doctor” without a sense of deferring to authority.
Effects on religion
In the same way, “King” and “Lord” have acquired a patina of sacredness in the religious world. But the words are largely meaningless in today’s world. They come from a time when hierarchies were the only social structure anyone knew. Power resided at the top. So Christians used those titles as terms of respect -- even though Jesus himself rejected being made king of anything.
Today, “Lord” has become an honorary title conferred by a Queen who doesn’t act like a traditional King.
The Church has historically described God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Which is fine for those to whom “Father” conveys a kind, benevolent, loving adult. Others will visualize a distant and austere figure. For still others, a harsh disciplinarian, a ruthless judge, even a brutal abuser.
You can tell yourself mentally that God is a loving father, but if you haven’t experienced that kind of father, your experience will handicap you and will inevitably colour what “Father” means in prayers and creeds.
To get away from possible negative connotations, many churches now substitute more abstract terms for the Trinity: “Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer.”
But “Creator” contains its own traps. A creator can’t be what the creator creates. Which makes it impossible to see God in another person, let alone in a hummingbird or a rose. They can be God’s creations, but not God’s presence.
Even pronouns pose problems. When I was young, hymns and prayers usually referred to God in the third person, with a capital “H”. Today, we’re more likely to address God as “you.” Or, in more conservative churches, as “Thee” or “Thou.”
But that second-person pronoun immediately defines God as someone else. Someone separate. Different, distinct. Other than us. Which conflicts with a growing theology that tries to see divinity in everyone and everything.
Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr wrote in his daily blog, “The only thing that separates us from God is our conviction that we are separate from God.”
The words I don’t have
Personally, I use “God” as a name for the invisible aura of relationships that connects me with all other living things. Some relationships are more personal than others. Still, I can have a relationship with anything, anywhere.
But I have no words that adequately describe those relationships.
A network, perhaps. But not a net, which implies fixed links. Relationships are more fluid.
A web, perhaps. But webs connote getting entangled.
An energy field?
I fumble with metaphors and analogies. Just as others find their views imprisoned by words that petrified long ago, I’m a prisoner of words that I don’t have yet.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Yes, we had a very successful community picnic last Sunday; thanks for asking. But even more, last week’s column evoked a lot of memories, for many of you.
Pat Graham remembered with vivid details a picnic some 70 years ago: “What a refreshing walk down Memory Lane. I don't recall so much the games or activities, but rather the people socializing, seeing them in a different light, or perhaps learning something from an overheard conversation. My seven-year-old sister's beautiful teacher, about 19, with her cute boyfriend. I was introduced to the children of my parents’ friends whose children attended the French School. An older couple were there with their son and his wife. They had three little red-headed boys, and I learned the grandparents had purchased a house for each grandchild when he was born, with a down payment of perhaps $500, so that when he was grown up, there would be a mortgage-free home to secure his education, or a good start when he married. It was great to be able to talk and visit and meet people, as everyone seemed to circulate, enjoying the picnic food. Maybe there were games, maybe not, but it was a great social outing. I have obviously never forgotten.”
Cliff Boldt suggested that remembering was the whole point of growing older: “The older I get, the more memory floods my mind about what I enjoyed in the past. Kind of like journal writing -- I tap out some of these memories and send them to selected cousins and friends. Same when I scan old photo albums onto my backup drives. It is a benefit of getting older, this remembrance thing.”
Edmund House found himself thinking that the loss of community picnics was connected to the loss of community. His letter talked about the years he and his wife Shari have spent promoting community events -- with special emphasis on the construction of our theatre, 20 years ago this last June.
Currently, Ed and Shari are trying to present a “showcase celebrating the community theatre, with precious little community support.....newspapers no longer local, current theatre director pretty uninterested in 'local', municipal council supportive, but uninvolved, etc. It makes one wonder where is our community?”
Ruth Buzzard “loved your column on picnics. An old friend and I were discussing life in the 21stcentury, and she remarked that nobody invited friends to their home anymore. I think it’s an age thing; when you are in your 20s, 30s and 40s you socialize with your peers in your home. When you get older parties are too much trouble and dinner at a restaurant is so much easier.”
Ruth says she still finds that kind of community, but not home in B.C. “In the winter I hitch up my little travel trailer and head for a delightful campground in Arizona which caters exclusively to long stay snowbirds during the winter. There is a very active social committee, all volunteer, which organizes dances, theme dinners, bingo, yoga classes, Saturday breakfasts, trips, and about 50 different clubs. I wash dishes as my volunteer contribution as it is totally mindless and nobody else wants to do it. I find that it is a community, like I had in university and as a young parent. Everybody cares about their neighbours. Everybody says hello when you’re out for a walk. I think it is like your community picnics of old.
“As I get older it is much easier to hibernate and not make an effort to socialize with friends and neighbours. I think everyone of a certain age feels this way to a certain extent, and it leads to loneliness and depression. In the olden days when families lived in large houses with maiden aunts and grandparents and built-in babysitters, life was far more social. I am so lucky to have found my friendly Arizona campground and my snowbird friends.”
Bob Rollwagen also sensed that isolation: “I too have run corporate summer picnics and December Christmas parties, church picnics and baseball games and volunteered for many other community activities. It seems like the volunteer well is drying up. I have always believed that the role of a volunteer leader is to build the team so it thrives after their term, and that turnover of leadership is a healthy part of a strong organization. [But now] Lions or Rotary are closing their doors in many cities because of the lack of volunteer leaders. A new club in town is thriving. It appears to be a social club to assist [members] to fill their free time with dining, hiking, card playing, drinking, travelling and other personally focused endeavours -- the millennial ‘Me first’ for seniors 50 and up. I am not aware of any focus on benefits for the community such as those once provided through picnics or community social events and fund raisers. Another form of isolationism.”
The Lectionary calls only for the second half of Psalm 81. I think that misses the point. The psalm is about the people of Israel congratulating themselves, and the voice of God breaking in to challenge their self-complacency. Both sides are necessary -- as I tried to show by paraphrasing in the context of a child’s graduation from university.
Part I: A mother exults in her child's graduation:
1 My heart is so full, I cannot make a sound.
2 Surely the air to shimmers with excitement;
the lights glow brighter;
the cobwebs vanish from the corners of this vast and musty auditorium.
3, 4 This is our special day, the day we have awaited so long.
7 For all these years we have struggled.
We have made payments.
We skimped and scrounged, we pushed and prodded.
5, 6 And now it is done!
We have succeeded!
We have reached our goal;
life will never be the same.
Part II: God asks:
8 In your celebration, where is there room for me?
In your joy, what credit do you give to me?
9 You have made your goal an idol;
you have let it take over your lives.
10 I am the one who has watched over you.
I sustained you through the tough times.
I fed you and nurtured you and kept you going.
11 But you were obsessed by your own ambitions.
12 So I left you alone, to do it your way.
I did not interfere.
13 If only you had paid as much attention to me as to your goals,
14 I would have given you many more times to rejoice along the way.
15 It would have been much less of a struggle.
16 This moment would be just as sweet, with no trace of bitterness.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The original website has been closed down, but you can still order the DVD set through Wood Lake Publications, info@woodlake,com
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTcaHe’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge.