Language is a constantly fascinating thing. How much of our time do we spend speaking, reading, listening, writing or typing? Most of our waking hours I would estimate. During my holidays I spent a week at our beach-house all by myself. The thing you are firstly most aware of when you are totally by yourself is the absence of language. No talking. All your thoughts are yours alone and there is nobody to share them with.
And language is more than just words. Last week I attended an art exhibition themed completely on the skull. There were art pieces examining all the concepts the skull symbolises: death, pirates, mortality, medicine, poison, danger, eternal life, life after death and even as a warning of the need to live this life well. Language is also symbols. Think about emoticons – those smiley faces, sad faces, laughing faces packed into social media messages. Red lights mean stop, green lights mean go. An arrow bent to one side means go round the corner. For the last couple of years, Melbournians have been amused by the symbol of a rhinoceros on a skateboard that tells us not to walk in front of trams.
Language is the primary factor that binds us together or drives us apart. In my preaching classes when I trained for ministry, I once delivered a sermon to my fellow students, which was part of our assessment. The sermon had one swear-word in it. It was not even a very bad one - by today's standards, quite mild! But in their feedback to me, my fellow students only talked about that one word. It was as if they had heard none of the 1500 odd others. It amazed me that a single word had so much power. I had been a social worker with homeless people, alcoholics and addicts in the inner city before this, so swearing had become simply part of language for me, the colouring in of the edges of the picture. It had long lost its heat and shock. To those others, it was the foul detritus of an unwholesome world they had never participated in.
When we talk, we know what we are meaning to say. What we do not know is what the other person listening is hearing. We use words and expressions that might have a completely different meaning for them. I believe this is the cause of most conflict between people. Not necessarily what was said, but what the offended party thought had been said.
I have just read an essay by an Israeli Jewish-Christian scholar on Jesus’s statement about hating one’s father and mother in order to be his true disciple (Luke 14:26). This has been a very disturbing teaching always for me, and I am sure also for many others. The scholar's greater understanding of the original Hebrew helped him to see the nuances in the original Hebrew word translated 'hate'. His conclusion was that a closer translation would be 'love something to a lesser degree than'. The meaning is completely changed. Jesus is not saying “hate your mother and father”. He is saying you need to love me even more than that which you love most – your mother and father.
Which leads me to the sad admission that I think one of the least effective ways to present Christian belief to the world is preaching. Most people come to Christian belief by observing the goodness and good life of good Christians. That is the language we should be speaking the most! Preaching has a place, of course, in encouraging, enriching and uplifting the Christian community in their faith and Christian living. But the people who come to enquire about our faith will come mostly because they have observed your goodness. Go out and show it to them!
In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)