Mind your language!

I can distinctly remember my mother threatening to wash my mouth out with soap and water after I had uttered some form of mild swear word; words which today are more likely to be regarded as slang! Oh, how our children have an easier time of it! 

At college (by the way only three months to go to ordination) we have recently been given cause to reflect on the words we use and, the way we use them.

Earlier this week many commentators praised Pope Francis for the simplicity, in both language and style, shown when he greeted the people of Rome, as their Bishop. Of course the name Francis implies simplicity. Francis understood that onlookers would correlate the words he used with the style of papacy he will adopt.

A guest lecturer, a remarkable lady who deliberately lives alongside the poor, made two very interesting observations. First, she challenged us to make our sermons simple and profound, always guarding against the temptation to talk down to people (simple and superficial) or to use our newly acquired theological training to show off (complex and superficial). Secondly, she described how she refuses to use a selection of words originating from the social sciences. For example, she doesn’t use the word empowerment, for some people will never have power and, the word empowerment implies, from her perspective, unhealthy individualism  She believes a better word, a more Christian word, is significance. Each individual whether they are independent, interdependent  or indeed highly dependent, should be treated as significant for no other reason than God regards them as significant.

In a lecture on Monday students were asked how they would know whether their initiatives in ministry were a success or, a failure. The problem, from my perspective, is that success and failure are absolutes, measured one against the other. Focusing on success and failure, and measuring them through metrics borrowed from the secular world, may be the enemy of Christian concepts such as pilgrimage. An overt focus on success or failure may lead to either pride or guilt, dependent on the outcome. Pilgrimage, by contrast is kinder, more pastoral, as it focuses on the journey itself.

I believe that if we wish to pastor or minister we have a duty to think about the words we use and, to critically evaluate the use of words, phrases, concepts offered to the Church by two of the great evangelistic movements of the twentieth century: the management sciences and ‘pop’ psychology. We need to use words that reflect our faith, we need to offer hope and love even when the metrics offered by the secular world would indicate failure or lack of empowerment. The words we use both from the pulpit and, in the street are missionary words – they say something about us, our beliefs and the God we follow. Words have power, let’s use them wisely.

I think St. Benedict was correct when he wrote, quoting Proverbs 18, 21 ‘the tongue holds the key to life and death,’ and, in the ninth step of humility, that ‘in a flood of words you will not avoid sinning,’ (Proverbs 10, 19) followed by ‘a talkative man goes about aimlessly on earth,’ (Psalm 139, {140}, 12).  

So words are important, they are tools of mission and, according to Proverbs, directly related to salvation. Food for thought!

Do you need to wash your mouth out with soap and water?


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