Choose your words wisely

Saturday, June 27, 2009

At our church's vacation Bible school this week, we had a character in the daily opening session named Professor Wordsmart. Just the name made me think of a quote attributed to Mark Twain: "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."

Watching sports on television is an exercise in hyperbole. The use of over-the-top expressions by sportscasters is so ever present that we don't even notice them anymore. Not every play is a "great" play, though you won't it know it by watching the Cardinals on TV. Not every play is "outstanding." I long for the day, which will never come, when a play-by-play announcer says, "The second baseman made a competent play there."

The other day, I heard someone say that one of her children claimed to be starving. "Starving? You've never had to worry about a meal in your life. You're not starving; you're just hungry!"

In Lois Lowry's excellent futuristic novel, "The Giver," children are trained to say the right word at all times. While the policy in this utopian-seeking society served to restrict free expression, it also had the benefit of making children choose their words carefully. As a result, profanity was almost nonexistent.

Profanity, it seems to me, drips more and more into the public lexicon. There is a certain four-letter word beginning with "p" that somehow has become widely acceptable, but it is, for me, a terribly unfortunate crudity.

We live in a time when words seem to get lost in the relentless push of technology and/or dazzling visual imagery. I found the Academy Award-winning film "Sideways," about two middle-aged men in California wine country, unwatchable. I stopped the DVD and took it back to the video store -- the profanity was so gratuitous and repetitive. Perhaps it is that the movie industry folk believe people swear a lot in daily conversation. That's not my experience. It would be difficult to hold most jobs if you used obscenities as routinely as do Hollywood films.

It is time for my cultural rant to take a religious turn.

Jesus paid close attention to word choice. When someone addressed him as "Good Teacher," the Lord's reply was: "Why do you call me 'good'? No one is good but God alone." (Luke 18:18-19, TNIV) In the last week of his life, when Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he were a king, the master replied, "You say rightly that I am a king." (John 18:37, NKJV) Clearly, however, Jesus was able to speak his mind, particularly to the Pharisees: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Matthew 23:27, NASB)

Speaking your mind does not need to descend the abyss into profanity. There is no occasion in the Gospels where Jesus is heard to remark, "I'm sorry I spoke that way to you. You have my apologies." Never happens. I'm guessing Mary never had to wash out the master's mouth with soap.

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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