Pay attention to the words

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A parishioner purchased the Oxford English Dictionary for me. This is the "big boy" of dictionaries. It's got every word you can possibly imagine -- unabridged, unaltered, uncompromising and unsparing. If a word has appeared in the English language, it's in the OED.

One word that has captured my interest is "defenestrate." At first blush, it sounds like something you might do to wallpaper when you've decided to replace it. But it's not. "Defenestrate," according to the OED, actually means to throw something or someone out a window. The word was coined for a rumored 1618 incident at Prague Castle. Historical incidents generate words, as does slang. Physicians and nurses commonly use special jargon (or slang) to describe a certain medical procedure. The word "cabbage," for example, is used by cardiovascular surgeons to sound out the acronym CABG -- coronary artery bypass graft. It's not uncommon for operating room nurses to say to one another, "Hey, what's time is your cabbage?" By that, they are not referring to a vegetable.

I'm a word guy. In a time dominated by computer-generated images, special effects, Blue Ray discs and Xbox games, I'm still enthralled and entranced by the utterances of one person to another.

In 1996, Neale Donald Walsch wrote a rambling work of nonfiction titled "Conversations with God." Many things trouble me about Walsch's ideas, but he hit on something early in the book that caught my attention. Walsch suggests God's least favorite means of communication with us is via words. His point is that we communicate more honestly and directly by means of tone of voice (inflection) and by body language. Someone who crosses his arms over his chest in a classic protective gesture while saying the words, "Nobody is bothering me at all," demonstrates the truth of Walsch's argument. Our bodies do communicate; so does the way in which we say certain words.

I'm not ready to give up on words, however. They have, in and of themselves, great power. You may have noticed that in the Bible, we just have the unvarnished words of Jesus presented. Rarely, if ever, do we get adjectives or adverbs to set the mood of the master as he teaches, preaches and heals. Rarely, if ever, do we get a sense of his body language. He cursed the fig tree on one occasion; he also chased the money-changers from the Temple. Sometimes he sat down to teach. Those examples aside, in the main we generally have only his words.

This is where dipping into the richness of the original language of the New Testament is helpful. Reading Matthew 5:38-39a yields this passage: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' but I tell you not to resist an evil person." The understanding of these simply stated words all comes down to how you define the conjunction "but" in that saying. In Greek, the word Jesus used to say "but" is the strongest possible word he could have chosen for that occasion. We just have the words, yes, but looking deeper, we see that Jesus was not making a suggestion here. He was ordering a change of mindset. You heard this before but here's the way to look at it now: Put aside what you've been told. Listen to what I'm telling you.

Pay attention to the words. Remember how it is that faith comes. The Bible is clear: "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17) Draw a straight line between the important words in that verse: Faith hearing word. I'm a word guy. That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married to his college sweetheart, he is the father of two teenage daughters.

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