Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Word Stewardship

Yesterday was my study day, and because it was I went surfing a little bit and came across this:

There is, for most humans born on earth, just one mother tongue, and a given tongue at a given time consists of only so many words. These words can absorb only so many abuses before they cease to mean. America's spiritual vocabulary—with its huge defining terms such as "God," "soul," "sacrifice," "mysticism," "faith," "salvation," "grace," "redemption"—has been enduring a series of abuses so constricting that the damage may last for centuries. Too many of us have tried to sidestep this damage by simply rejecting the terminology. But the defamation of a religious vocabulary cannot be undone by turning away: the harm is undone when we work to reopen each word's true history, nuance and depth. Holy words need stewardship as surely as do gardens, orchards or ecosystems. When lovingly tended, such words surround us with spaciousness and mystery the way a sacred grove surrounds us with peace and oxygenated air. But when we abandon our holy words and fail to replace them, we end up living in a spiritual clearcut.

The recovery of words seems like an important aspects of the church's vocation in this age, for even the word church has been so abused and misrepresented as to have lost all meaning. I have a friend who, when in New York (he works in theater) doesn't tell people he's a Christian, but rather 'a follower of Jesus.' He does this because, for his friends there, the word Christian has come to mean 'those who hate gay people and who are opposed to art, and who trash the environment, and who don't care about the well being of our city because they're so convinced that the end is near that they've disengaged from real life'. How's that for a working definition of the word Christian?

It's for this reason that, in coming to end of the ethics series, I pray that we will look back on this time as something more than 'a little blip on our radar screen and now isn't it good that we can get back to the safety of less controversial issues.' Rather, I hope we look back and find that this series was the harbor from which our ships set sail, and that the journey ahead will include God guiding us into new waters of generosity, love for neighbor and enemy, commitments to the poor and justice, commitments to community and beauty, to compassion and celebration. For it is on just such a journey, where our lives are continually challenged and where our calling to embrace the cross is continually before us, that we will become 'word stewards', tending the meaning of words like 'discipleship' and 'Christian', 'justice' and 'mission'. As our community continues to be formed by Christ we will, all of us, be called to the cross, called to lifestyle changes, and called to engage in our culture in order to be a blessing. In the process, words that have been lost might just become found again.

I've already seen a little bit of this, as neighbors express surprise to find that our church is talking about poverty, and the environment, and violence. The surprise comes because the word Christian, especially when coupled with the word evangelical, means (in America) loyalty to a political party, and disengagement from such 'earthly' matters as environment and economics, as people are pulled into the heaven bound life boat in order to be saved from this sinking ship known as mother earth. Perhaps God will use us to infuse a different meaning into these words. I hope so, because God knows the words need to be recovered.


At 3/8/05 17:08, Anonymous dan said...


At 4/8/05 23:40, Blogger JessicaMichael said...

Today I actually talked to a co-worker and "grace" was really the key word of our interaction.
I hesitated for a moment, I did not know really how to emobdy the word, as it has been more evident in my life since I have been in Seattle than ever before.
I hesitated too, because I was talking with someone who doesn't really know Jesus and I did not want to misuse the word "grace."

I did not know why my co-worker even prompted the conversation or what he was expecting in return. I only know that I could only humbly speak of grace, being sufficient. God will work in the heart of men and I trust that.

At 8/8/05 16:47, Blogger bekah said...

I am so glad that you mentioned this in your blog Richard.

This conversation reminds me of a great book by Kathleen Norris, I am sure many have heard of it, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

Norris takes words that have deep significance in our faith and casts them in a light that acknowledges their granduer and significance but at the same time brings them to a human level of spirituality.

From Norris' viewpoint I feel like I am learning how to use wisely the language of faith.


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