Thursday, September 16, 2021

Plainly

 

Hey, Cobblestone,

 

    I once had an hour-long conversation with a man who could neither hear nor speak. Deprived as we were, both of us, of the ordinary mechanisms of conversation, we sought out the most effective means at our disposal. Napkins and placemats disappeared at an alarming rate under the onslaught of pen and pencil – written word was the way to go. One thing we learned rather quickly: buzzwords and slang and doubletalk were of no use to us. This conversation would either be in plain words, or it would be a waste of an hour.

     It’s the nature of language to change. New things come along, and we need nouns for them: email, text, instant message. Nouns grow verb-appendages: emailing, texting, messaging. Language changes when words from another language are more descriptive, or just prettier: “reconnaissance” instead of “lookin’ around.” Language changes as each generation hopes to have certain words it can claim: “groovy” is taken already (for better or worse). Dialects develop within a language: y’all, you’uns, and yous all mean the same thing; it only matters where in this country you’re standing at the moment whether you’re understood. Language changes, for sure (fer sher?), but have you noticed that the pace of change has quickened tremendously in recent years? Have you wondered why?

     If you could charge a hundred bucks for each new word that gets circulated and adopted into our language, or has had its meaning shifted or reversed, you’d be swimming in cash. I don’t know who, exactly, you’d charge, but if the billing could be worked out, it might be the most lucrative business plan on the planet. On a recent trip to Half Price Books – in my world, there’s always a good reason to go to Half Price Books – but on this trip I was on a laser-guided mission to purchase the oldest print dictionary on the shelf, so that, ten years from now I can point to a word and say, “See? It used to mean this!” The proper use of language has become like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet.

     Best I can tell, there are basically two reasons for communicating. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll keep them in you-and-me terms. One reason for communicating is to make myself understood. The other reason for communicating is for you to gain understanding. Did they sound almost the same to you? Probably. Here’s the subtle but essential difference: the first is for my benefit; the second is for yours.

     The first reason is mostly one-way: I put the information out there, and assume the putting of it got the job done, or more precisely, I put the responsibility of understanding on you. If you don’t get it – hey, not my fault. As long as I use the right words, or say them often or loudly enough, how could I possibly be misunderstood? This method is bound to work sooner or later, so I keep using it.

     The second reason for communicating is mostly two-way: I put the information out there, but won’t know if you’ve understood until you say or do something that indicates one way or the other. The responsibility for your understanding is on me. I won’t know if you got it until you say so, and if you don’t, I’ll commit to a method that keeps looking for ways for you to gain understanding.

     Which method, do you think, is more loving?

     We have so many things to figure out, Church – all of us together, and in ones and twos and threes – and plain, loving speech is the only way to gain understanding, each of us committed to the longer-and-better method of being responsible for closing the loop.

     Here’s the problem as I see it: We are mostly committed to the first method, stubbornly expecting more-and-louder to get the point across, throwing more coal into the communication furnace without trotting upstairs to feel if the house is getting warmer. With so little to compare it to, and bombarded by it ourselves, more-and-louder seems to be the only game in town. Throw in a rapidly changing vernacular, and the very thought of taking the time to close the loop of communication is terrifying.

     In our Bible reading lately, there’s been a recurring statement: “Then you will know that I am the LORD.” I would quickly run out of letter-room if I gave all the Scripture addresses, but one of the most recent is Ezekiel 20:38. God uses plain words, he uses events, he uses metaphor, he uses parable, he uses object lesson – all for the purpose of creating understanding in his people. Would God be diminished in any way if his people did not understand? (This is where you say, “No….”) For whose benefit, then, is the communication?

     Before long, our reading plan will have us in Psalm 119; verse 130 of that Psalm says…

    The unfolding of your words give light; it imparts understanding to the simple.

    This one little sentence is packed with: an object lesson (imagine opening up your Bible, literally unfolding it); a metaphor (that Bible of yours doesn’t actually shine, but the words give light); and a statement of plain fact (understanding is about to happen for the one who simply engages). What a blessing! What an honor, that God himself would communicate with his people, so plainly and lovingly, waiting for us to get it!

      Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children… (Ephesians 5:1). I’ve been operating, far too long, under the mistaken notion that I am diminished somehow if you don’t understand me. I’ve been operating, far too long, under the mistaken notion that you bear the responsibility for understanding me. I’ve been using, far-the-heck too long, the wrong method. (Hey, ding, maybe that’s why I so consistently get bad marks on communication.) I suppose this is a good time to try to clarify. If our communication can only be done by the more-and-louder method, I’m out – it can only lead to further frustration for both of us. Oh, but if……..

 ……..if, I say……

 

…if we can commit to being imitators of God as dearly loved children, patiently and for one another’s benefit waiting to see the loop closed (or not?), trusting our Father to impart light and understanding to our speech and relationships…….

 …then I am soooooooooooooooooooooo IN!

     Because of unfamiliarity, it won’t be easy. But my soul giggles at this prospect: It’ll be worth it. Maybe we need a stack of placemats and some good pens to get us started. Whatever it takes, I believe we could be, in very little time, well on our way to redeeming language amongst us, rescuing it from the angst-filled, bullet-on-bullet thing it so often seems to be. We could relax a little. Doesn’t that sound heavenly?

     Speaking of heavenly, there’s a quirky non-ending to my conversation with the man who neither spoke nor heard. One of the placemat messages he wrote was, “I need a job.” We swapped phone numbers on one another’s placemats. I found a red-hot job prospect, thanks to one of our Cobblestone folks. I started to call the number – oops, what sense would that make? – I sent a text with the pertinent info. No response, ever. I checked with the staff at Waffle House (for there it was that the conversation had taken place… or placemat) – they had only seen him the one morning, and never since. I wonder sometimes if this was one of those “entertaining angels” scenarios spoken of in Hebrews 13:2. Maybe the Lord was checking to see if I would even try to imitate him. Or maybe this was simply a deaf-mute man passing through to somewhere else. In any case, I’m paying more attention to what plain and loving communication really is, and who deserves my very best efforts at it.

     Let me know how it works out, will ya?

  

Grace and Peace (and understanding, which is, as you know, on me),

 

John       

 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Speechless

Hey, Cobblestone,

 

    Have you written out your lament yet? Yeah, me neither. When it comes to the language of lament, I’m finding myself mostly speechless. I even gathered with a group of brothers last Saturday morning and tried to speak and teach it at the same time, but an honest observer would say we left the gathering more confused than enlightened.

     In last week’s letter, I suggested that the language of lament is in sore need of redemption. Reading through Jeremiah and Lamentations in our Bibles, we’re beginning to see how a thorough lament – looking at What Was, What Happened, and waiting on the Lord for the What Now – helped our forbears through the Babylonian captivity twenty-six centuries ago. Why, then, is the language so foreign to us now? Taking my own advice (for better or worse), I chose to not take on my biggest personal loss as a first attempt. Instead, I’ve been working on what would be called, in Bible terms, a “community lament.” I can’t say it’s been a success yet, but after another week of puzzlement, a theme is beginning to materialize. I’ll leave it to you, Church, through the witness of the Holy Spirit (or lack thereof) to decide whether I’m barking up the right tree.

     There’s a significant anniversary coming up tomorrow. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the way Americans live. In the space of a few hours, if anyone had had a concept labeled “Fortress America,” it was, for the most part, dismantled. Twenty years later, the changes are still taking place. I’ve been picking up news accounts and documentaries and asking others about their recollection of the day, hoping to put together a proper lament. One columnist, though he doesn’t know it, helped quite a bit. He proposes that we in America set apart September Eleventh of each year as a national Day of Unity, on the premise that 9/11/01 was the last time we were unified as a country. It’s not a bad idea altogether, but the premise is flawed: we weren’t. Unified, that is.

     I was there. Not at Ground Zero, of course, but the day – here in Butler County, even the weather on that Tuesday morning was very similar to the weather in New York City and Washington, DC and Somerset County, Pennsylvania: clear and mild, friendly weather, the kind of day you’d expect anything to happen other than what actually did. Once the reports became more cohesive – no, it wasn’t some unfortunate so-and-so who accidently slammed a Cessna into a World Trade Center tower – we were unified in shock… “we” meaning the crew I worked with in those days. With the second strike, and then the Pentagon, and then Shanksville, we were brought together as a community of disbelief – and we reached the boundaries of community rather quickly. Though we were of similar backgrounds and had somewhat similar goals in life, we were nowhere close on What Was or what had caused What Happened to happen. At the blood bank that afternoon, it was much the same: the staff and donors were unified by get-it-done – get this whole blood to the dispensaries, this will help somehow – but any attempt to connect on another level seemed to take us off course.

     The limits of unity were most notable at the last gathering of the day, in the late evening of the Eleventh. I was in a group of… guessing here… probably three hundred people. We were gathered in the same place at the same time, presumably for the same purpose. We were anything but unified. The shock had worn off earlier in the day, leaving no chance of unifying around disbelief; and we couldn’t get anything useful done, standing around the square looking at each other as we were. And as for a response to the attacks, I’d venture to say there were about three hundred different ideas about what should begin happening on the morning of the Twelfth. I’ve wondered for years why we weren’t able to come anywhere near unity in what seemed to be a unifying event. I’ve wondered lately why division is the outcome in other matters that show such potential for unity. Call it wisdom from above (at best), or simply an accumulation of things that make you go “Huh?” (at least), here’s what I would consider a reasonable hypothesis:

     Not everyone in the group was waiting on the Lord for the What Now.

     Outside its proper context lament means nothing – not even a community lament. The larger the group got, the less likely unity would be attained. With unity implied in community, we were not on track. As a group of three hundred, we couldn’t pull it off; what chance do we stand as a group of three hundred and thirty million? The columnist whose Op-Ed I read earlier this week might have to go looking for a different date for the national Day of Unity. And good luck with that, by the way.

 Lately, and much too late, I’m promoting a different concept of “nation” – a concept pulled from Scripture, specifically Psalm 33:

 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage! (verse 12)

 With a better concept of nation, the community lament – and its proper context – becomes a little clearer. And in the Gospels, Jesus gives a better concept of family and community:

     And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:32-35).

     I’m sorry I didn’t have better words and deeds for the crew I was with on 9/11/01. I’m sorry I had nothing more than blood to give that afternoon. I’m sorry my community of faith didn’t have a cohesive and helpful message for our three hundred neighbors in the town square that night. I’m sorry my nation didn’t have someone close enough to be instrumental in the redemption of those nineteen sons of Ishmael who carried out the wicked deeds of the original 9/11. I’m trusting God to have used these intervening twenty years to form a more redemptive response in me, my community, and my nation.

     Whether this is proper lament or not is beyond my ability to tell – someone else would have to say. If not, I hope it doesn’t take another twenty years to come up with one. At this point, I’ll only ask you to join me, Church, in praying…

     “Jesus, help us with the language of lament! As you wept over Jerusalem, so let us weep over every person and every matter you’ve assigned to us, your brothers and sisters. And then, as you moved across the valley and into the work of redemption, so let us move, in your name and in the power of your Holy Spirit, amen.”

 

Grace and Peace (yes, the very peace Jesus gives),

 

John


Friday, September 3, 2021

Lament

 Hey, Cobblestone,


It is good for a man that he bear
    the yoke in his youth
(Lamentations 3:27).


…the yoke of reproach, regret…


Let him sit alone in silence
    when it is laid on him;
let him put his mouth in the dust—
    there may yet be hope;
let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
    and let him be filled with insults
(verses 28-30).


…even the yoke of affliction from God…


He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
    so has my hope from the Lord”
(verses 16-18).


    If that sounds like unhappy news to you who are in your youth, take it from one who is old: better to bear the yoke sooner than later. 


    Christians do many things well – mourning is not one of them. In centuries and millennia past perhaps our forbears did it better, but in this age, I rarely encounter anyone who even understands the concept. There’s a propensity to skip to the hope too soon, not because the hope is so dear, but because the affliction and loss are so unpleasant. And of course, I stand accused and convicted – of the afflictions and losses of six decades, I can’t think of even one that I’ve mourned thoroughly.


    In case you were wondering, yes, we’re still in the Receive/Reject/Redeem “Three R’s” series, and the miniseries within: Redeeming Language. There’s a certain type of language begging for redemption, and seeing virtually none, because virtually no one sees the need of redeeming it. The language of lament is a foreign tongue; it breaks out for a moment or two in times of deep distress, surprising even the speaker, but heard through the filter of the mind the tongue is loathe to utter its intonations. As people of God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit and having the mind of Christ, ours is the task of making the human mind and tongue obedient to the truth, redeeming the language of lament.


    “Buck-up and move on” is the message we perceive. It’s not universally bad advice – if you’re moving on from a skinned knee or a stubbed toe, it’ll do just fine. Moving up the scale of affliction, though, it’ll run out of steam before long, mostly because bucking-up isn’t the first part of moving on – mourning is. Unmourned losses accumulate; unrecognized afflictions pile up in dimly lit areas of the consciousness. Bucking-up builds rickety fences around them. You know they want out, want to be expressed, but they’re dreadful somehow. Reluctant as we are to enter into mourning, moving on doesn’t happen without it.


    Keying on the homework assignment Andrew gave us in the sermon this past Sunday, I’ll issue an invitation to you, Church: Write out your lament. Over the past fifty years, my ears have developed a talent for not hearing homework assignments, but this one got me, and I believe it would be healthy and helpful for all of us. Identify a significant loss in your history; describe what you had before; describe what happened to cause the loss; describe the reality brought about by the loss. Rather than leaving it solely in the realm of reflective thought, I hope you’ll do something tangible, involving your body. Two bits of friendly advice: first, don’t take on your biggest loss first, and second, don’t skip to the hope too soon.


    The Bible book of Lamentations is organized mourning. Andrew called attention to the fact that its poems are arranged in acrostic form – several acrostic forms, actually. There was so much to be lamented in the loss of the Lord’s favor that it easily populated all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet many times over. It provided structure for the mourning – countless generations have understood the glory of what was through the laments handed down to them. If we ourselves consider putting together a lament, we might be intimidated by the biblical example; on the other hand, we might be surprised at how naturally it flows.


    And how to start? Very likely, this would be your first recognizable lament. Well, there is this: for three weeks we’ve been considering the importance of regaining the language of Love as our first language, displacing the languages of Information and Persuasion as our go-to’s. Sure, in some venues the language of Love is met with curious stares, but my firmly held belief is that it has more place than we’re giving it. So let me ask: Whenever the language of lament has burst forth from you, bidden or unbidden, which of the three languages – Love, Information, or Persuasion – were you speaking? To whom were you speaking it? What sort of answers did you expect to get? My guess, informed by some of those same outbursts (unbidden, every one), is that you were speaking the language of Love. Something, or someone, or some reality was loved… and lost. Hence the need for lament. The language of lament, you see, is a dialect within the language of Love.      


    Not to be confused with the language of complaint, the language of lament takes a clear-eyed look at What Was, What Happened, and waits on the Lord for the What Now. As a young man, I was convinced I didn’t have time to wait for the Lord. I moved on, whether I had bucked-up or not, justifying my actions on the lie that I wouldn’t be able to mourn correctly until I was much older. Well, “much older” has well and thoroughly arrived and stands staring at a backlog of unmourned losses, wagging a bony finger, saying it would’ve been good to bear the yoke in my youth, however well or poorly I spoke the language of lament at the time. 


    If you’re expecting this letter to bounce back, I can tell you now it won’t be. Scroll all you want; it won’t happen today. The leading I have from the Lord is to drop you right here, Church. My prayer is, in this moment, you are compelled to become fluent in the language of lament, whatever age you happen to be.



Mercy in the Mourning,


John

Friday, August 27, 2021

Chicken Little Redux

 Hey, Cobblestone,


    When the weather app lacks detail, I will sometimes get a forecast from one of the local TV stations. I say “one” on purpose: I stick with one channel so I don’t have to adjust for multiple meteorologists, don’t have to recalibrate for various levels of hype. I tried a different channel a few days ago because it was giving the forecast earlier in the day, but instantly realized the task of recalibration was beyond me – nope, gotta wait for my guy. I like “my guy,” as much as I can from opposite sides of a flat-screen, get a kick out of his speech patterns. He uses funny little redundancies like “simultaneously at the same time,” and “in our southeasternmost communities here to the southeast,” and “in the meanwhile.” My favorite part is he doesn’t use them to be funny; they just happen. And then, not long ago, in what was essentially a commercial for his station’s weather program, I heard him say a thing that was plainly scripted and deadly serious: “As a professional meteorologist, my job is to keep you safe.” 


    No. No, it isn’t actually.


    You and I have been working on redeeming language, Church. So far, we’ve realized – along the measuring lines of the Three R’s: Receive, Reject, and Redeem – that it can’t be Received as all good, and it certainly can’t be Rejected as all bad. We’ve committed to the task of redeeming language (I hope you’re in!), even though it’ll take rebuilding much of how we speak. We’ve identified three categories of speech: the language of Love, the language of Information, and the language of Persuasion – and described the differences between them. We’ve seen that the language of Love was the first one we learned but lost it for the most part, so it’s not our prima lingua. We’ve hypothesized: the way back to our first language is to become free-and-easy in speaking it with our Father in heaven, and I’m picking up evidence that we’re making great strides in that direction. The next step is to become adept in speaking the language of Love to one another. I wish it were a natural and free-flowing step, but there’s a moment of caution to be observed first, which is the topic of this week’s letter.


    The language of Love must be spoken within its proper context. The simplest description I can offer is: among those who know one another. The language of Love carries out its wonderful purposes only among those who know one another’s names and stories and have at least one object of love in common. Affection rides along the highway of familiarity, connecting Points A and B, and the highway is paved with terms of endearment, encouragement, and genuine concern. Nothing lands closer to the soul than the language of Love spoken well and properly.


To put it in Bible terms, look at a Psalm that was in our reading plan a couple days ago:

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

    The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

They feast on the abundance of your house,

    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life;

    in your light do we see light.

Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you,

    and your righteousness to the upright of heart! (Psalm 36:7-10)


    “To those who know you”… the Lord shows his steadfast love to those who know him; we who know him understand that the river of delights and the fountain of life are the natural outcome of our Father’s steadfast love. We shelter in the shadow of his wings, and at the same time, see light by being familiar with his light. To anyone who doesn’t know the Lord, all the benefits of creation – what theologians call “common grace” – are so common as to be attributed to a cosmic accident. Without familiarity, there’s no reason to even think about steadfast love, or anyone conveying it.


    Much as I like him, the TV meteorologist was using the language of Love outside its proper context. “My job is to keep you safe” is a statement to be made by a parent to a child, or grown child to an aging parent, as a shepherd in a local church – any number of relationships we might think of, as long as they involve a legitimate concern… and familiarity. The man doesn’t love me – not because he’s incapable of loving – but simply because he doesn’t know me. I’m not throwing rocks at the guy – I’d be glad for the chance to sit down over sandwiches and a couple of Cokes – I think we’d get along famously. I’ve been reluctant to use this illustration, honestly, but have, on the logic that getting weather forecasts is something we all do and can relate to. It would do us well, I believe, to be on the lookout for the language of Persuasion posing as the language of Love.


    Hijacking the language of Love and putting it to the purposes of Persuasion has become so common it’s almost unnoticeable – in the speaker and the hearer. It’s not only done in commercial enterprises and politics, but in families and homes and churches. With the languages of Information and Persuasion being our go-to’s, the language of Love gets drafted and put to the task of amplifying the other two, which is contrary to its nature. The first step in redeeming the language of Love is to refuse to misuse it.


    I do it. At times I’ve heard you do it. If you catch me doing it again, will you please, in love, call my attention to it? Can I have the same arrangement with you? And while we’re in this vein of thought, is there any further Bible instruction on how to help one another? Gee, how could there not be? Check this out – keying on the theme of “light” in Psalm 36, here’s what Peter’s first letter has to say:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1Peter 2:9).


    We who have been called out of darkness and into the Lord’s marvelous light will find it possible to see where we’re going and what we’re doing. Of all the peoples of the earth, his presence makes us distinct (see Exodus 33:15-17) – a holy nation. If anyone is going to redeem the language of Love, it’ll have to be us. I’d say a good strategy is to go in an escalating order from marriages to homes to families to church, working up to whatever “nation” means. 


    Because of the quirky way my brain works, I got curious about why the study of weather is called meteorology. My research isn’t terribly extensive, but here’s what I got so far. Back in the days of the philosopher Aristotle, people worried about the sky falling. They could see meteors at times and wondered if hailstones the size of lima beans might be the warm-up for hailstones the size of cows. Aristotle gathered the best info available on the subject of weather and published it in a book titled Meteorologica. Over time, it was learned that meteors/meteorites and hailstones were unrelated, and some folks relaxed a little. Others haven’t still. But at no point did Aristotle directly keep anyone safe – he simply provided a handy reference. The job of the professional meteorologist ever since, best I can tell, is to let us know whether the sky – or any portion thereof – is falling. We’ll need to figure out what to do from there. 


    In the meanwhile, if it’s my job to keep you safe from any harm, I’ll do my best to express it in terms of Love.



Grace and Peace (in the cloud and the clearing),


John

Friday, August 20, 2021

Cease Fire

 Hey, Cobblestone,


    Right in the middle of teaching the class, I giggled. Not the students, but me, the teacher. Some may have characterized it as a chuckle. I tried to arrest it, but couldn’t, and the class gave me curious looks. We were going through a curriculum on biblical conflict resolution based on a book titled The Peacemaker, by Ken Sande. In those days, Mr. Sande did the teaching videos himself, and in the middle of a session on Communication, he said, “Communicate in such a way that you cannot possibly be misunderstood.” That was so stinking funny!!! Except, um, nobody else in the room got it.


    I’m a geek – a bookish kid from Darrtown, which is like being a hockey player from Honduras – but a book nerd nonetheless. I had read all the background info on the author. Heck, I even read the copyright pages of the book and related materials. (Can I get a digital hi-five from my brothers and sisters out there?) Privy to this info, I knew Ken Sande was in his third career: trained as an engineer, he worked that profession for a while before hopping into law school and applying his considerable intellect to the bar. As a “Christian Conciliator,” he was doing probably his best work yet. But in the middle of the video, I caught him red-handed, and I found it hilarious.


    Every engineer I ever worked with – which is to say quite a few – has been misunderstood. I know this because, fairly often, I was the one doing the misunderstanding. But I wasn’t the only one. All disciplines of engineering have not only language but also symbols and protocols to get highly technical information across. But go out the back door of any machine shop you’ve walked into and you’ll find solid proof – it’s called the scrap bin – that tech-speak doesn’t always work. As for the author’s second career – oh, shoot, if I began to write on the relative merits of “legalese,” I’d have to apologize to anyone who’s ever seriously tried to write or speak it! Suffice to say: I read a document earlier today that had obviously been written by an attorney, and bookish as I am, I’m pretty sure I still don’t understand the thing. I have a boatload of respect for Ken Sande, but he was recommending that we speak the languages of Information and Persuasion where the language of Love is the only recipe for success.


    Last week we began redeeming language. If the relative health of language is inversely proportional to the level of misunderstanding in the world, then language is in a sorry state, and we have much work to do. Not only nations but communities, families – even husbands and wives, who are one flesh, for heaven’s sake (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5, 6; Mark 10:8; Ephesians 5:31) – are misunderstanding one another by light-years. In our own strength and by our own wits, redeeming language is impossible. And besides all that, we have an active adversary who’s devilishly good at using our own strength and wits against us. But his is not the only game in town. We who have the mind of Christ (1Corinthians 2:16) also have an Almighty Ally.


    I get it: everybody wants to be understood. On our best days, we want to understand others, too. The problem arises in using the languages of Information and Persuasion to get there. Those will win debates, even arguments – but as we know, where there’s a winner there’s also a loser. Understanding is an essential step toward peace. Speaking the language of Love is an essential step toward understanding. Anything less is a tentative cease-fire.


    Last week we began practicing speaking the language of love to our Father. The simple prayer starter I recommended was the opening verse of Psalm 18 – I love you, O Lord, my strength. I’ve benefitted from speaking it this week, sometimes followed by “I’ve missed you” or maybe “I need you.” I hope you’ve grown closer to the Father as well. Here’s my next recommendation, deeper and more involved:


The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.

    He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness

    for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

    I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

    your rod and your staff,

    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

    in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

    my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

    all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

    forever (Psalm 23).


    The Twenty-third Psalm was in our Bible reading plan lately. Commentators and pastors and lovers of Scripture for centuries have been eager to point out one of its defining traits: the one praying and singing goes from talking about God to talking to him, from “he” to “you.” The transition is seamless and natural – a soul-level slide up the scale to first-person communion with the Everlasting One. Give it a try. Go on. Begin with those first few verses, encouraging your soul with the truth about the Lord – then turn it loose to play in the throne room of God. 

Unless I’ve missed my guess, we don’t stand much of a chance of speaking the language of Love to one another until we become free and easy in speaking it with the Lover of our souls. He spoke it to us first – and as I’ve said to you before, all prayer is answering speech.


Years back, I was in conflict with a brother-in-Christ. Yep, it happens – who knew?! He and I went through biblical mediation together, with some of Ken Sande’s staff, actually. By speaking the language of Information, we gained a little understanding of one another: we understood why we were in conflict, asked/received forgiveness, and resolved to not aggravate one another anymore. Information – even Bible information – got us to about ten percent. But when we learned to speak the language of Love, reconciliation truly happened – the difference between the tentative ceasefire and lasting peace. 


What? You didn’t know redeeming language would be a multi-step process? Friends, it took more than a little while to get here – let’s stick with it for all our days, and let Jesus find us putting much love and vitality into it when he returns. Go with the “homework” I assigned – it’s not a lot, really – and maybe next week we’ll talk about redeeming even the language of Love from some of the wonkiness it has suffered. Deal?



Grace and Peace (and good times in the throne room!),


John

Friday, August 13, 2021

Languages

 Hey, Cobblestone,


    Work with me a minute here. Does anything define a culture so thoroughly as its language? Look at it from the negative for a moment: Does anything separate cultures so thoroughly as a language barrier? If you’re an English-only speaker, a trip into a non-English-speaking airport will answer that question for you in short order. You’re either working hard to understand, or getting on the wrong airplane – while speakers of the native language are having no trouble at all. What do you suppose would happen, then, if, within a culture, language barriers existed? Would it be difficult to express oneself? Would the culture have trouble defining itself? Would there be separation?


    And what about a culture of faith? What if the people within a culture of faith weren’t speaking the same language, or all speaking the wrong language most of the time? Would it be hard to understand one another? Would we be able to hear God?


    Today, Church, we begin to Redeem language – the Lord helping us, of course. I’ve been wanting to click Start on this one for some time, but apparently it hasn’t been the Lord’s timing; I hope I’ve got it right this week… the timing, that is. This will be a miniseries within the “Three R’s” series, and subject to the same measurements: Can we Receive language as all good? Do we have to Reject it as all bad? Or should we see language as something good that’s been set to some bad purposes, and get going on Redeeming it? Here come the measurements…


    Anybody who’s ever ridden a school bus knows language can’t be Received as all good. Some of the harshest and most humiliating words I’ve ever heard were spoken/spit/shouted within the often unfriendly confines of the “cheese box.” If school buses could be considered large rolling Petri dishes, we’d have to admit they’re truly effective experiments. And from there, and plenty of other sources, the concept of words-as-weapon grows with very little help. 


    What happens, then, if we Reject language? As one who has experienced quite a bit of hearing loss already, I can tell you that rejecting language doesn’t point to a bright future full of understanding. Kay and I tried to communicate without words once, fifty feet underwater. It turned out to be one of the more intense – and quirky – arguments we’ve had in 41 years of marriage. Funny story… now. Ask her to tell it to you – ask her to please use words. Words, and the language they build up to, are nothing if not useful. Whether the uses are good or bad depends mostly on what the speaker wants to accomplish.


    The notion I keep getting from the Lord, and from his Word, is that language is in dire need of Redemption. Happily, the companion notion is that it’s well worth any amount of work. To a large degree, we – even God’s people – are groaning under the confounding of language we read about way back in Genesis (chapter 11). But at the other end of Scripture, the Not Yet part, there’s complete understanding, and all the effects of language used wrongly are eradicated. Any faithful Christian would see that the redemption of language is the way to go, since we know how the story ends. Looking around our culture of faith, we see some earnest efforts in the right direction. But there’s another agenda at work – an agenda working solidly against the redemption of language – and that’s what the Lord is prodding me to tell you about… and invite you into the battle against it.


    To give credit where credit is due, I’ll be borrowing a theme from Eugene Peterson, who was known as “the pastor’s pastor.” I’m usually reluctant to bring anything to you, Church, that isn’t straight out of Scripture – and usually don’t – but this theme has been familiar to me for a long time, has been tested against Scripture in the life of our church, and found to be whole and healthy. Peterson said all of language can be put into one of three categories. Though I’ll be using different terms, they are basically these: the language of Love, the language of Information, and the language of Persuasion. 


    The language of Love is the first one we all learn. Trust was built as, when we were infants, we made our needs known and conveyed affection to those who cared for us. Our first recognizable words were terms of endearment. And then we lose it. We regain it when we fall in love – then lose it. We regain it again as fresh new parents – then lose it again. Whether it comes around after that is anybody’s guess.


    The language of Information we pick up in school. So many things to name, so little time! Rules and history – even mathematics depend on language and the information it conveys. 


    The language of Persuasion is what we use to make things happen. Without lifting a finger, lips and tongue and vocal cords use air to bring about events. Very clever, huh?


    When the serpent came into the Garden to deceive (Genesis 3), he used language… but not all of it. Unable to speak the language of Love (he doesn’t even love himself, being a hot mess of unmitigated anger and avarice), he used the language of Information (“Did God really say…?) to set up the oh-so-Persuasive lie (“You will not surely die…). Sometimes I think the serpent was more surprised than anybody that it actually worked. But since it did, he has stuck with the same strategy ever since. 


    In Genesis 11, God confounded human language because mankind had gotten way-the-heck too big for his britches. As a kid, I often wondered why God didn’t just knock down the Tower of Babel; as an adult, and having been on more than a few job sites, I understand that confounding the builders’ language was a stroke of pure genius. Since then, God has provided a multitude of chances for us to do works of redemption in language, and encounter him on his terms – which are the only workable terms. Meanwhile, the serpent (that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world… Revelation 12:9), having seen that humans are prone to deception through Information and Persuasion, set in motion a plan I’m going to call “Secondary Confounding” to keep humans from encountering God at all… or each other, on any kind of loving terms.


    Stepping back a few paces and looking at the languages of Love, Information, and Persuasion, can you see how one of them plays less well with the other two? One will be humble, not seeking its own gain. The other two are all about the ambition, and coupled together, doubly so. Can you see how a culture of faith would be harmed if the language of love isn’t the primary language? Yes, we need all three, but Love has to be spoken on purpose because it won’t assert itself, and the other two would steamroll it. The problem is, even among God’s people – we are so saturated in the languages of Information and Persuasion, not seeing the outside from the inside, we plug them consistently into our worship services, our Bible studies, and our conversations with each other… as if we knew no other way. In so doing, we drop into the same deception the serpent worked on our originals. And we haven’t even begun to talk about what happens when we try to engage a yet-unbelieving world on the serpent’s terms.


    This will take a while, beloved. It’s not exactly like pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, because God is with us and for us, but it won’t be easy – or cheap. We will have to choose a language that seems less effective, and make it our first language again.


    I figure the first and maybe the most helpful step would be to speak the language of Love to our Father, in the simplest terms possible. Straight from Scripture, and from our Bible reading plan last week, here is the purest little prayer starter I know of:


I love you, O Lord, my strength (Psalm 18:1).


    Seven one-syllable words – even though it sounds almost infantile, I’ll make no apologies, because it goes straight from the heart, to the heart. Let’s roll with it, holding off any embellishments, and see where we are this time next week. 



Grace and Peace (and pure speech),


John

Friday, August 6, 2021

Bacon Worship is a Bad Idea

 Hey, Cobblestone,


    At my house, we like bacon. It’s not the main course, except for rare special occasions, but it does show up alongside more nutritionally favorable foods fairly often. “All things in moderation,” St. Augustine said – I’m sure he was a bacon-eater. Kay has a way of cooking bacon in the oven that makes it perfect: done all over, without the raw here/incinerated there condition so often brought about by pan-frying. The only objection comes from the smoke alarm.


    It’s pretty much a done deal: bacon goes in the oven; the smoke alarm goes off in about five minutes. I drag a chair under the alarm, pull out the battery, then sit down and eat bacon. On a good day, I’ll remember to put the battery back in. We don’t have a lot of good days by that measurement. At this moment, trying to get a mental picture of my dining room ceiling from here at the church office, I’m not sure what state of readiness the alarm is in.


Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (1Corinthians 10:11-12).


    This week’s Hey Cobblestone letter is an extension of last week’s, which was titled “Alarm Fatigue.” The idea was to Redeem useful and meaningful alarms out of the multitude of the not-so-much, the constant flashing of lights and waving of arms. The method of redemption was to look for word-of-the-Lord in a given warning – chuck it if there’s none; heed it if there’s any, measuring against the full body of Scripture and the witness of fellow believers. In a short format such as these weekly letters, there’s room for only one idea at a time, and the previous letter left a question mark where this letter puts the period – how to spot word-of-the-Lord in a warning.


    In the verses above from First Corinthians, what are “these things”? What happened? The apostle is writing about events of fifteen hundred years before when the Israelites were in the wilderness. The immediate context provides a laundry list of offenses: idolatry, sexual immorality, putting the Lord to the test, grumbling – not such a happy stroll down Memory Lane. And leading the list, you’ll see, is idolatry. Is there anything significant about its place at the front of the line? See if the pattern holds elsewhere in Scripture.


    Reading through the Bible book of Jeremiah, you’re probably seeing a pattern there as well. The word of the Lord came to the prophet again, this time in Chapter Sixteen – Jeremiah was told that the people would ask, “Why has the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us?” (verse 10). The reply: “Because your fathers have forsaken me, declares the Lord, and have gone after other gods… and because you have done worse than your fathers…” (verses 11, 12). Jeremiah is another round of “these things.” God had put up with all manner of foolishness from his people, but he was dropping the hammer on idolatry. And consider where else idolatry tops the “Don’t let this be your sin-of-choice” list. Moses came down the mountain with two stone tablets, on which were written – by the finger of God, no less – the Ten Commandments. Number One: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). It’s time for us to agree – the order matters.


    What makes the matter complicated is finding a good, working definition of idolatry in our time. Whatever period you check, the definition gets watered down to the level of a bad habit. Lately, it’s video games; a decade ago it was bass boats; a generation ago it was “coffin nails” (cigarettes); a century ago it was Demon Rum. But the offenders could always claim there’s nothing inherently evil about any of those things. Well, taken like bacon – in moderation, that is – no. And whoever wasn’t “worshipping” the idol de jour could stand plumb clear of the charge. But idolatry has little to do with affinity or even addiction – idolatry pivots on affection.


    Probably the best thing we can do for one another, Church, is hold each other to a real-world, boots-on-the-ground definition of idolatry. Prophets and preachers, from Moses up to this past Sunday, have been hammering the topic for thirty-five centuries; if we don’t nail this down, we’ll just keep wiggling out from under it.


    There was a lawyer once who asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). And Jesus said to him…


“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (verses 37-40).  


    Idols are affection-stealers. Wait. No. Scratch that. The Bible is very clear: idols are useless. To give them credit for stealing affection is too much. At best (worst?) they’re affection buckets – unauthorized depositories of affection that belong elsewhere. The idolater throws affection in there by choice. Jesus said to love God and love neighbors as ourselves – out of his great and simple command a formula arises for defining idolatry:  


  1. Does this ____________ receive affection from me that belongs to God?

  2. Does this ____________ receive affection from me that belongs to a real live person – my neighbor?


    As you look for word-of-the-Lord in any warning, check first to see if there’s anything that warns of idolatry, now that we have a clear definition. Jesus kept it simple; let’s not muddle it up. Where’s your affection going? Who’s being loved – or not? How much is left of your whole heart, soul, and mind to love God? Most warnings deal with surface stuff; we have to dig deeper. These questions might give us the tools to get there.


    In the traditional liturgies of the Christian faith, there’s a practice that gladdens my soul every time – every time, I tell you – I get to participate in it. Someone will read a passage of Scripture and finish by saying, “The word of the Lord!” And the people say, “Thanks be to God!” Thanks, indeed – to God, indeed. If we were left to sift through every warning that comes our way – oh, my gosh, the thought of it wearies me so I’m not even going to finish this sentence. Thanks be to God. We have his word. We know what he will not tolerate. We can steer clear, in the power of the Holy Spirit, For the law of the Spirit of life has set (us) free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2). 


    I’ve been warned that bacon can be bad for a body. I’m listening and searching. Bacon as an idol is a terrible idea. Anything else as an idol is a terrible idea as well, and warnings thereto are to be heeded. In any case, when I get home tonight I’m going to check that dining room smoke alarm – the next batch of smoke we get might not be so innocent. For now, anyway, the rule at my house is: Where there’s smoke, there’s bacon.


Grace and Piece (oops… Peace),


John