Tag Archives: words

Thinking about words in this season …

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.

 

So many words. Who is really listening?

Listening - FDR Memorial

There has been so much going on in the world over the last few weeks. Gaza. Israel. Ukraine. MH 17. Iraq. Syria. Nigeria. Nauru. I’ve found myself in the paradoxical position of feeling lost for words … and yet wanting to say so much.

But when I scroll through my facebook or twitter feeds I see link after link to articles and opinion pieces and blog posts. So much virtual ink being spilled. So many words. So many people speaking.

It makes me wonder.

Who is listening?

Certainly not the people commenting on many of the opinion pieces or blog posts I have read. Mostly they seem to be talking past each other, in a hurry to accuse each other of being on the wrong side, or of saying or thinking the wrong thing.

So many strong opinions. So many assumptions that one comment made implies a whole host of other opinions and positions. So many implications that there are only two sides to an issue and one is completely right and the other completely wrong. So many black and white pronouncements. So many accusations.

Yes, I have informed opinions about what is going on in Gaza. Yes, I have strong feelings about what is happening to the Christians in Iraq and how it is (or isn’t) being portrayed in the mainstream media. Yes, I have thoughts about the shooting down of MH 17 and how our country has responded to it. Yes, I have passions about how the Australian government is talking about and treating refugees arriving by boat. Yes, I am still concerned about the missing kidnapped girls in Nigeria and violence against women everywhere. Yes, I could go on.

I could write post after post about each of those situations. I have tried to educate myself about each of them. I have some experience with the issues involved in some of them. I hope I bring a thoughtful, theological perspective to bear on them.

But before I say another word about them, I have two questions. One is for you and the other is for me.

First, to you. Would you listen? Would you really listen to me? Or would you use what I said to judge me and pigeonhole me and decide whether I am on “your side” of an issue or not? Would I simply confirm what you already think, or lead you to dismiss my thought processes because you have already decided you disagree with my conclusion? Is there any chance that something I say could change how you think about these situations? Because if there isn’t, you cannot hear me.

Second, to me. Have I really listened? Before I speak, have I taken every opportunity to really hear those who are directly affected by the situations the rest of us are opining about? Because I fear that what I see too often is people like me, people in comfortable, wealthy, educated, privileged positions, pontificating about situations in which real people are suffering. How many of them have I listened to? I mean really listened to. How many of them have I greeted by name, sat down with, and genuinely sought to hear?

I was wondering the other day how different the internet would be if there was a rule that you could only write a blog post or an opinion piece about a situation in the world if you were actually on a first name basis with a real person living in that situation and had listened to what they have to say. No doubt that’s an idealistic, unworkable idea, but it’s one that challenges me and keeps me asking questions rather than making statements.

The apostle James spoke these words of wisdom nearly two thousand years ago.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”

What would it look like for us to listen, really listen, to these words in the way we respond to the crises around our world? Do you think perhaps it could somehow make a difference?