There are so many words that could be said, and are being said, about living in these difficult coronavirus times. We’re learning new words and phrases like ‘covidiot’ and ‘zoomed out’, we’ve understood the meanings of ‘pandemic’ and ‘flattening the curve’, we’ve endured the unprecedented use of the word ‘unprecedented’. A number of conversations and experiences over the past month have got me thinking (out loud) today about the power and importance of language in all this.
Some of the words we use no longer seem relevant, perhaps revealing the cavalier and even meaningless ways in which we too often use them. Conversation starters like ‘how are you doing?’ and ‘what are you doing?’ sound jarring as we realise the answers are, respectively, everything and nothing. We need to find new words to connect with one another … and hopefully move beyond starting every online meeting with a literal ‘can you hear me?’ to words of genuine affirmation:
‘Yes, I hear you.’
Some of the words we share need to be more carefully parsed or compassionately toned. With different people and different places at different stages of response in my community, how do we avoid judgement and finger-wagging while sharing community wisdom and best practice? A friend shared her challenge in knowing how to tactfully respond to someone asking her family over for dinner. Is it simply, ‘No, we can’t do that anymore,’ or is there an opportunity to dig deeper and ask, ‘what is the heart of what we’re missing’ and ‘how can we do life together in new ways?’ Online, the disparity between where people in different countries are at amplifies the need to use our words with grace and care.
Some of the aspirational words we have been using about our communities are now being tested in the fire of new situations. Or as my pastoral colleague says, now is our opportunity to live out who we say we are. Our church has been deliberately using the word ‘gathering’ rather than ‘service’ for a few years, how does this helpfully shape our choices in how we move online? What does it really mean to call our church ‘family’ in a time when we are advised to only have contact with those who live in our household? And on a global scale, how do we even begin to talk about the coming impact of this disease on poorer communities and recognise the privilege inherent in language like ‘social distancing’ or ‘lockdowns’?
In my own small ways, I’m finding that giving people space to use words in creative ways has seemed to resonate for many. Our gathering last Sunday included the creation of a word-cloud where we each contributed words that captured something of where we have seen God at work in the midst of this difficult season (picture at top). The resulting image has been widely shared and provides a picture not just of our shared language, but our shared experience of grace and hope in the midst of the darkness. A performance poet friend inspired me with the idea of #bookspinepoems, creating a poem out of the titles of books on your shelf. I enjoyed and found it strangely moving to create my own and have taken much delight in seeing those of my friends; gaining glimpses into how they are travelling at this time (or at least what their preferred reading genres are). As a verbal processor, and for all of us in wrapping our heads around things, I hope there are many more of these ideas to come.
And then there are the words we pray in this season.
We continue to proclaim the truths we believe even when they are difficult to see. Last Sunday, I had one of the most awkward and yet beautifully profound worship experiences of my life, with our worship leader on my computer screen, an older member of our congregation on the other end of my phone, and me in my living room, all singing out of sync, and yet affirming the same words of hope and truth about the Cornerstone in whom we find hope through the storm. I’m intrigued that Nigerian singer Sinach’s Waymaker went ‘viral’ among churches in the months leading up to this season, with its declaration of a promise-keeping God who never stops working, even when we don’t see or feel it.
The words of the Psalms continue to provide comfort and point the way. I taught a class last week on lament and I know this is a language we will embrace more and more in the coming weeks and months. The lament psalms give us permission to name our sadness, anger, doubt, confusion or fear; to wrestle honestly with God in an act of bold faith that declares nothing is out of bounds when speaking with him. Making these words our own declares our conviction that we have a God who hears our deepest and darkest groans, who is present with us in the darkness, and who enters into the darkness with us. As we prepare for Good Friday this week, the truth of a God who participates fully in our suffering may be more important for us than ever.
And of course, there are many times when words simply fail us. In numerous settings over the last few weeks I have found myself starting a prayer with and for others with a simple, honest, ‘I don’t know what to say God…’ as we sit in these unfamiliar and uncomfortable spaces and listen for his still small whisper. Praying for a friend in Africa waiting for the ‘tsunami’ that is coming left me grasping for words and babbling like a toddler. I wonder if naming that I have no words is sometimes the most significant language I have to offer.
And for no one but myself, a simple practice these weeks has become to light a candle each night before I go to sleep, and simply sit in the presence of Jesus with the gift that is wordless prayer. There I am finding a peace that passes understanding, which I’m quite sure no words of mine will ever be able to adequately explain.