What words describe you?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I love to look up the meaning of words. When an unfamiliar word finds its way into my consciousness, the dictionary comes off the shelf fast.

"Bloviate" is a word the cable news networks seem to be using a lot lately in reference to certain presidential hopefuls. Rifling through my American Heritage Dictionary, the revealed definition is: "To discourse at length in a pompous or boastful manner."

It occurs to me that people in my line of work, then, need to guard against bloviation. It isn't hard for us to get a little puffed up on Sunday morning and bloviate. See! I've used a new word three times. Now it's part of my vocabulary.

Finding the right word is essential. I'm not talking about being politically correct. Not at all. Let me give you an example.

When President Gerald Ford died, the media -- almost universally -- referred to the worship services of a Christian burial (held in California, Washington, D.C. and Michigan) as "ceremonies."

Churches don't have ceremonies -- we have services.

When a person gets married, for example, it is a "service of Christian marriage," not a wedding ceremony. If you get married in Capaha Park, it's a ceremony. When a person dies, the same thinking applies.

You might argue that it's a matter of semantics; one word is as good as another. Not true.

A funeral "ceremony" means the deceased is the focus. A funeral "service" means God is the focus; you give thanks to God for the life of the deceased.

America is a melting pot -- a goulash of cultures and languages. It's one of the strengths of this country that somehow through all the differences, we see each other as Americans first. The alternative is to be Balkanized.

In Iraq, people seem to identify each other as Shiite, Sunni, or Kurd first -- not Iraqi. When those differences claim your first identity, civil war can result. It's why Gen. Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the American army in the 1860s; he saw himself first as a Virginian.

What is your identity? What are the right words to describe who you are?

If you go to our local hospitals, someone may ask you to fill out a form asking for your "religion." If you are a Christian, the proper word to use is "Christianity." However, what the hospital staff wishes to know is not your religion but your denomination (e.g., United Methodist, Southern/General/American/Missionary Baptist, Missouri Synod/Evangelical Lutheran). The wrong word is often used in the request; we've got to answer with the correct words. Our identity demands it.

If Christians determine to see themselves, for example, as Methodists first (rather than Christians first), we risk the path of Balkanization. It's a road filled with potholes and uneven pavement. We risk quarreling over infant vs. professing baptism; we fight about open vs. restricted Lord's Table, et al. It's a bad road.

Jesus said, "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd." (John 10:16)

Jesus, I'm persuaded, must be extremely fatigued when his disciples allow themselves to be Balkanized. I'm a Christian who just happens to be United Methodist. I'm determined to use the right word even if I'm asked the wrong question. How about you?

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies, and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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