Showing posts with label language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label language. Show all posts

Sunday, August 24, 2014

There’s Power in the Word

This sermon was presented at Marcellus and Wakelee United Methodist Churches (Kalamazoo District, West Michigan Conference) on Sunday, August 24, 2014. The revised common lectionary texts for Year A, Proper 16, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost were Psalm 138Romans 12:1-8Matthew 16:13-20. 

I think sometimes we underestimate the power of words. We teach our children to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” To tell someone to “put your money where your mouth is” is to say that financial support is more useful than spoken support.  To say that someone is “all bark and no bite” is to say that that person only talks, but never acts. To say that someone talks the talk but doubt that person can walk the walk is to doubt that person’s ability to act.  
It’s funny, though. The very existence of phrases like these, the way that we repeat them over and over until they accrue meaning greater than the sum of their parts is evidence of the power of words.  Repetition of the sticks and stones expression can bolster the confidence of a child being teased. All bark and no bite diffuses the power of someone else’s aggressive speech. Put your money where your mouth is and walk the walk challenge someone else to act directly. And really, if you’ve ever been bullied with words, you know that words have the power to inflict pain. They can leave lasting scars on our souls that inform the way we see ourselves, the way we interact with the people closest to us, and the way we live in the world.
            When I was looking over the lectionary scriptures for today, I was struck by two things. The first was the sheer quantity of references to speech acts via forms of the verbs say, sing, call and answer. The second thing that struck me was what speech acts accomplish. They create relationships, and they guide the way we inhabit those relationships
            In verse three of Psalm 138, the psalmist says, “On the day I called, you answered me” and this answer had the power to bolster the psalmist’s “strength of soul.” Throughout this psalm, speech creates a relationship between God and the people as speech and song connect the earthly and the divine. And in this psalm, the speech is reciprocal. God answers, the kings of the earth hear the words of God’s mouth, God’s name and word are exalted. In the same way that relationships among people depend on communication, our relationship with God depends on speaking and listening in prayer and meditation.
            In the passage from Romans, verses six through eight list eight gifts: prophesy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, diligence, and cheerfulness.  While each of these eight can make use of speech, three of them (prophesy, teaching, and exhortation) depend on speech to be accomplished. More than just valuing the power of speech in the work of the church, though, Paul puts words to work for him. With a particular sort of speech act, an extended metaphor, he shapes the way that members of the church interact with one another. We are, he says, members of one body, and each member has its function. This passage is reminiscent of first Corinthians chapter twelve in which Paul gives this body metaphor greater depth. “If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?” Human beings are often challenged by difference. We don’t know what to do with it; it makes us uncomfortable. This metaphor teaches us to value the contribution of each member of the community as we value the contribution of each part of the body.
In the gospel passage this morning, Jesus challenges the disciples to think about the power of words, names in particular. He asks, ‘Whom do you say that I am?’ And they answer, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Now, Jesus, of course, knows exactly who he is, but in this conversation with the disciples, he is checking on whether what they say aligns with what he knows. Because Jesus knows that what people are saying about him shapes their relationship with him. To identify Jesus with John the Baptist or one of the prophets is to connect him to the past. To name Jesus as one of the prophets is to affirm the status quo, to continue an ongoing cycle of prophesy about a future not-yet-arrived. Peter’s answer that Jesus is the messiah, however, identifies him not as a reincarnation of one who has come before, but as the incarnation of Old Testament prophesy.  A prophet is not the messiah. To name Jesus as the messiah is a radical act that announces that the future is now. 
            All this thinking about the power of words has been timely for me. A friend and I have been engaged in a good-natured ongoing debate about the relationship of language and thought. Namely, whether our words and grammar inform the way we think or whether the way that we think informs the words that we have and the grammar that organizes those words. It’s been a lively debate for us and a sometimes contentious one among professional linguists. I come down somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that language is a rigid structure that prevents us from contemplating ideas for which we have no words, but I do think that our habits of speech become habits of thought, and habits, I’m sure we can all agree, once established, are difficult to change.
            Change is possible, though. As with Peter’s radical act of naming Jesus as the messiah in the gospel today, our speech acts can shape the way we experience relationships in our world. The passage from Romans uses beautiful words to create a vision of a harmonious body of different people, and this is a vision we are familiar with within the church. When we are doing well as a church, the body welcomes a variety of members and values their individual contributions.
            Words, however, also have the power to devalue the people with whom we come in contact. One only has to listen to the news to hear this in action. Conflict and violence can on occur when the aggressor views the victim as less than human. This is true in cases of personal violence like assault, murder, and rape; in cases of ritualized violence like political campaigns; and in cases of armed conflict like those in Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and Iraq right now.
            I’m not going to make any judgments about who is right and who is wrong in any of these conflicts. I am going to challenge you to pay closer attention to the way you hear them described, though. Language that compares people to animals, language that labels people evil or bad, language that treats people as objects dehumanizes those people.

            When we use dehumanizing language we participate in the violence, we perpetuate the conflicts and we are complicit in the tragic piles of bodies that result. What would happen, though, if we took a radical step like Peter and changed the way we talk? When we change our language, we expand Paul’s metaphor from the church family to the human family. When we change our language, we recognize that all the people we share the earth with are members of the body and each of them has a contribution. When we change our language, we take the fist step toward beating our swords into ploughshares.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


I've been thinking a lot about perspective lately, about how the position (physical or mental) from which we view something influences not only the way we see it, but the way we understand it and the way we talk about it.

For example, I've wanted to knit an Umaro blanket since Jared Flood first published the pattern years ago.
Photo Credi: Original pattern image ©Jared Flood

I've been waiting for the right time to cast on a project of this size (blankets are big, yo) but also waiting for the right yarn to cross my path. Some of this yarn was an impulse purchase when one of the yarn shops in Lafayette was closing. It's the right weight for the blanket, but I bought small amounts of three colors rather than enough of one color for the whole blanket.

For more than a year, I pondered how to introduce color work into this pattern. Horizontal or vertical stripes would be at odds with the lines created by the motifs. I like the idea of diagonal stripes of color, and over the holidays I pulled out the pattern chart to decide where it would be feasible to change colors.

None of the possibilities I came up with excited me because I was seeing this as a variant of tumbling blocks. One day while staring at the pattern, my focus shifted and I saw it in a new way: as cables on a seed stitch ground rather than a field of cubes.  I have a much better plan now, and all I had to do was look long enough and let my eyes relax.

Shifting perspective can be hard, though.

My grief counselor and I have a recurring conversation that goes something like this:

Kitty: So, how was your week?
me: I did a hard thing this week. I submitted the final stuff for estate task of the week.
Kitty: That must feel good. What did you do to celebrate?
me: Well, I checked it off on my list. ...hmmm... Then I did some knitting with Netflix. But now I'm thinking about next estate task. I'm really not looking forward to that one because reasons.
Kitty: Kate, you've accomplished so much, you need to pause and celebrate. You deserve the rest.
me: Yeah, I guess, but there's so much more to do. The list is still so long!

Kitty wants me to see the accomplishments behind me, but all I can see are the things ahead, the obstacles between me and beginning.

On the one hand, the fact that I see all the tasks ahead keeps me moving forward.

On the other hand, sometimes their sheer quantity and complexity is paralyzing. At those times, I remember Anne Lamott's advice to take it bird by bird.

On the one hand, pausing my relentless march forward to look back and celebrate accomplishments reinforces confidence in my ability to do things myself and to gather the right help.

On the other hand, inertia. (A well-intentioned pause is still a pause.)

So, although I am usually the sort of person who sits on the fence seeing both sides of any given question  (blessed are the peacemakers!), in the case of my own life this last year, I have kept my face  firmly pointed forward, focusing on the story of the tasks ahead.  Although this discipline has been useful, I am beginning to remember the danger of a single story, and I am beginning to really hear Kitty's call to pause and celebrate.

When I've settled in to this new perspective, I'll let you know what I see.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


When I settled in to fairy tales as the main focus of my dissertation, Jeff said, "Well, if you're going to do fairy tales, you have to read German." I rolled my eyes and grudgingly signed up for his Reading German for Graduate Research course.

It turned out to be a great class!

Jeff is an engaging instructor, and German has so many cool words. The title of this post is one of the best. The root 'zwei' is the two word, and a literal translation might be  entwoed. It means something like having doubt, being between two things. Since meeting this word, I've felt that it is an amazing label for my life, because I so often have the sense of standing at a place where two roads diverge.

The standard advice for the bereaved is to refrain from making any big decisions for at least a year, but this was slated to be a year of big decisions anyway. So, as I work on my dissertation and prepare for the academic job market, I've been thinking about the sort of place I would perhaps like to live. I have been happy in large cities, in small towns, and in the countryside, but I have also found each of these wanting.

My travel and return this past week have brought these thoughts to the fore again. Last Wednesday, I walked eight-tenths of a mile to the metro, took the train from Arlington to the heart of the District and then walked eight blocks to a café to meet a friend. It was wonderful to be a pedestrian again. Using your own two feet as a means of transportation is empowering, and this is much more viable in Washington than in Jones. Over our not-coffee, Mark and I had a conversation that touched on my work and his, our mutual friends, the state of the universe, and the finer points of public transportation. The hour in the air-conditioned café was just enough to cool me off from the walk to get there, and I left the café ready for my next adventure.

That day, my feet, in coordination with the DC transit system, took me to meet three different friends, to shops and restaurants, and to one of my favorite places on earth.
It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

By Friday, I was back at Rambling Farmhouse, where distances are too great for walking, and public transportation is non-existent. Having dropped Sofia off at school, I stopped at the abbey for terce and then drove to Bluebird Farm, where I spent the morning slinging shit with Rachel. Ass deep in the barnyard manure pile, I looked at my dirty hands, encrusted jeans, and borrowed rubber boots and saw the chasm between them and Wednesday's linen slacks and leather loafers.

Yet, at the same time, Friday morning had a lot in common with Wednesday morning: the company was excellent, the conversation was delightful, and I was having fun. Just as being a pedestrian is empowering (even when it is exhausting)  through the freedom of movement it offers, I find farm and garden work to be empowering (even when it is disgusting) because it offers an intimate connection to the food that sustains me.

And Friday's scenic drive from Bluebird Farm to White Yarrow took me past another of my happy sights: a soybean field in fall color.
I love the combination of green, brown, and gold against the blue and white of the sky.
This year has not been stellar for fall soybean color, but you get the idea here. :-)
After all this, I'm really no less zweifelt about the sort of place I'd like to find work. I do, however, know that what I crave are good friends, meaningful physical activity, and inspiring spaces.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

how are you

One of my favorite lessons to teach English language learners is one that I never plan. Inevitably, my advanced students, who have sufficient mastery of the what and how of using English to start wondering about the when and why, one day come into class and ask me, "Why do Americans always want to know how I am?" or "Americans always ask me how I am. Why don't they listen when I tell them?" The students are always shocked when I say that even though Americans ask the question "How are you?" all the time, most of the time they really don't care how you are. They don't want to hear about your headache or your challenging day at work or the problems in your love life.

A lot of what happens in an advanced language class is learning to move beyond the simplified interactions that are taught at the beginning levels, so my students have been surprised when I say that in this case, you really just need to stick with the conversation pattern:
-Hi, how are you?
-Fine. And you?
-I'm good.
The space for creativity and individual expression here is in the choice of adjective. Any synonyms for the word 'good' are acceptable: fine, great, good. Positive words like wonderful, excellent, and splendid are probably safe, but okay and so-so are as negative as you can go without making the other person uncomfortable by pushing him to ask you what is wrong. This interaction is really more ritual than conversation. Really, this ritual is so ingrained, that sometimes a distracted person will answer "Fine. And you?" even if you didn't ask the question. Or people passing in the hallway will say this exchange as they are moving away from each other.

There are times, however, when Americans do want a genuine, non-ritual answer to the question, "How are you?" Like when old friends meet after a long time or when the person asking knows that you are probably not okay/great/fine/wonderful. Although the words are the same, the body language  and intonation are quite different. When "how are you" is part of a genuine conversation, the questioner makes eye contact with the interlocutor, possibly while stepping closer or leaning in; he pronounces the individual words distinctly and puts extra emphasis on the verb 'are.' How are you?

I've had more genuine 'how are you' conversations than usual in these last few weeks. In fact, after the first week, when I started to re-enter the normal world of grocery shopping and running errands, I had gotten so used to the genuine question that the ritual took me by surprise. It was a bit of an effort to say, "Fine. And you?" those first days back in the world. Lately watching for the genuine question has become a bit of a macabre amusement. I can almost see it coming. Something in the person's face changes, but I can't find the words to describe it to you here.

So, how am I?

I'm complicated and capricious.

Sometimes I really want to be alone, and sometimes I really crave company. And the sometime may only last ten minutes before I want the other.

At times I feel like I'm walking through uncharted territory in the dark, and I'm frightened. Then, I remember that though I have never been here before, other people have. I know quite a few people who have lost spouses too young, but it's easy to forget because they have passed through this darkness into beautiful lives, and that gives me hope.

I feel like I've joined the worst club ever, but the other people here are pretty cool.

The loss of my spouse is a grief more intense than any other in my experience, but a couple of significant losses in recent years have prepared me for this in the sense that I have thought about the cyclical dynamics of grief and am aware of how I grieve.

I am looking ahead. Though I will not be returning to campus as a full-time student and teaching assistant in the coming academic year, I will be finishing my dissertation in absentia at Rambling Farmhouse. And then, I will be looking for a job in academia. Not having to strike a balance between my career and Adam's career makes this job search less complicated than it would have been, though the children and our extended family make it less than simple.

I am coming out of the fog, and this is a mixed blessing. I like having a brain again, but the fog was sort of a protective blanket. Having a brain means noticing the little things that I now have to do for myself because Adam is not here to do them. Over the course of our fifteen years of partnership, we had developed automatic patterns of working together. Each time I notice that I'm doing his part of the pattern, I'm reminded that this loss reaches into every aspect of my life.

So, that's how I am. Thanks for asking.

P. S. We're okay financially, too. The generous gifts we've received from friends and family, the wise choices about investments and life insurance Adam and I had made, Social Security, and the auto insurance settlements (still to come) will take care of the girls and me until I find a job worth having and then be a safety net for the next phase of our lives. Don't worry about this.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

gun language

We've become more involved in 1812 and French & Indian reenactments in the last couple of years, and Adam needs an appropriate gun. Since he decided to build a flintlock himself, the house abounds with books, diagrams, and gun bits, and I am learning a lot. Characteristically, mostly what I'm learning is etymology.

Did you know that the three principal parts of a flintlock are the lock, stock, and barrel? I always pictured that idiom as referring to a locked wooden barrel full of some sort of commercial stock, molasses perhaps. Come to think of it, though, I'm not sure where on a barrel one would put a lock.

On a flintlock, the barrel is, of course, the metal part through which the ball travels, while the stock is the wooden part that the shooter actually holds and braces against his body when firing.

Linguistically, the most interesting part is the lock.

Men who carried flintlocks also carried their ammunition balls rolled into small paper packets with black powder. To load, you rip the packet open and some of the powder goes into the pan while the rest goes into the barrel of the gun with the paper and the ball.

Dealing with the powder in the pan is where the language gets interesting. A flintlock fires when the flint comes forward and strikes the frizzen, dropping sparks into the pan which then ignites the powder in the barrel and sends the ball flying. If you're thinking this is a complicated mechanism, you're right, and there are a couple of ways that things can go wrong. (Really, there are probably more than a couple, but right now I'm only interested in the ones that have produced idioms.)

The first is failure to fire. I'm not sure how the spark gets from the pan into the barrel, but when whatever is supposed to happen here fails to happen, we have a flash in the pan, a dramatic but ultimately unsatisfying spark that dies quickly.

The second way things can go wrong is firing at the wrong moment. When ready to fire, the soldier or hunter uses his thumb to pull the hammer all the way back or cock it. However, in order to push the frizzen forward to put powder in the pan, he has to pull the hammer back halfway. If the flintlock goes off while in this half-cocked position, chances are the person holding it is not ready, and the ball will fly in an unexpected direction.

Until I asked Adam to explain how this new thing inhabiting our house works, I had not realized how many of these everyday expressions come from the language used to talk about guns. Expressions like these continue to be spoken today because we hear how they are used, and we learn when their use is appropriate. We don't necessarily need to know the origin of the idiom in order to use it correctly. 

However, in order for phrases like this to become idioms in the first place, a critical mass of speakers in the speech community have to share the point of reference. These phrases are evidence of a time when every house had at least one flintlock, when hunting game or slaughtering one's own animals were the way to acquire food, when life on the frontier meant that every house had to be able to defend itself. This was a time when the majority of Americans lived intimately with their guns.

The newest idioms I can think of come from our technology. We might say that someone is out of juice or fully charged, not to mention the spread of abbreviated communication like FWIW, LOL, brb. I've been trying to think of mainstream idioms that come from newer styles of firearms, and I'm drawing a blank. Our guns are not the integral part of our lives that they once were.

Picture from: Marshall, Brian. "How Flintlock Guns Work" How Stuff Works, 2002.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Desire to Communicate

This was presented as a Sermon at the Marcellus and Wakelee United Methodist Churches on July 4, 2010. The text from the Revised Common Lectionary was 2 Kings 5:1-14 (Year C, Proper 9).

In these last few weeks as the lectionary has guided us through the history of Elijah and Elisha in the book of Kings, I’ve been struck by the important role of communication. We listened with Elijah for the still small voice, and we observed as Elijah and Elisha discussed what would happen when the Lord called the teacher to him. This week’s text is no exception.  Every step taken depends upon communication.  Servants, generals, kings and prophets use spoken and written words to act in the world.
I suppose that I’ve been paying so much attention to communication because it is my stock in trade. I write operations manuals that tell people how to use the machines they purchase. I interpret when English and Russian speakers want to communicate with each other. I teach English to speakers of other languages so that they can better communicate here in America. At home, my husband and I work hard to communicate with one another so that our disagreements don’t become fights. (And I’m proud to say that in 10 years of marriage, no one has had to sleep on the couch.)
Sometimes, like Naaman, though, I still have trouble communicating with God.  I don’t  understand his communication or I reject it because it is not the communication I was expecting. Part of the problem is that God does not communicate the same way that we do. We humans may be created in God’s image, but we are not the same kind of being. We are not divine. The thing is, I know how to talk to God, I know how to praise and thank and how to make requests. My problem is listening and understanding, and not rejecting the message like Naaman did. You see, when I talk to God, I talk the same way I talk to you, the way I’m talking right now. I speak English, I use my voice. But what voice does God have? I don’t know what to listen for.
In thinking about all of this, it occurred to me that in some ways, talking to God is like talking to a foreigner. It’s not that God doesn’t speak English, God uses a totally different mode of communication.
            When the students in my class are at their most frustrated with the patterns of English grammar and pronunciation, I tell them that the most important thing is the desire to communicate. Grammar and pronunciation rules are just the tools we agree to use to make communication easier, but they are not the most important thing. The desire is. If I want to express something to you, and you want to understand, we’ll find a way. If I speak only Russian, and you speak only Swahili, we’ll find a way. If I am blind and you are deaf, we’ll find a way. If you are divine and I am only human, we’ll find a way, as long as we both have the desire to communicate.
            There are four key things can help us find the way: attentiveness, patience, humility, and practice. I’ve noticed as a professor and as a traveler that if I’m not attentive when I try to communicate, it won’t work. Speaking English to another English speaker is easy. They have the same grammar and pronunciation tools. I know what to expect form them. But when communicating with a foreigner in English or in their language, I don’t know what to expect, and the mismatch of expectation and reality can sometimes lead to misunderstanding if I’m not paying close attention. I have to put down the other things that I am doing, face toward the speaker, and just listen to the words and discern the intended message. Attentiveness was part of Naaman’s problem in today’s text, too. God couldn’t get a message directly to Naaman because he didn’t know God. Naaman was an Aramite. So God uses the captive girl, who does know Him.
            This kind of attentiveness requires patience. We 21st century Americans are so used to doing many things at once, we rarely stop to just listen to one another. And we’re so used to quick, easy communication with one another, we don’t tolerate communication that requires us to listen patiently for each piece of the sentence or communication that makes us think about what the other person wants from us. When Elisha gives Naaman instructions about how to cure his leprosy, they are not what he expects. He hears, but he doesn’t understand, and he almost misses the communication.
            Communicating in a challenging situation also demands the humility to say, “Wait. Stop. I don’t understand. Can you explain it to me a different way?”  We have to be able to admit the failure to understand so that we can repair the communication and move forward, but failure is always a difficult thing to own.
            Practice helps. The more we practice attentiveness, patience, and humility in communication, the more easy they become. My students often tell me, “Teacher, it is so easy to talk to you, but it is so hard to talk to regular people.” Well, that’s because I have a lot of practice talking to non-native speakers of English. I have a lot of practice talking to God, as well, but I need to practice listening more.
So I think these are things we can practice to help our communication with God especially on the receiving end. We need to be attentive to God’s message and aware that it might come to us in a variety of ways: a still small voice, a gut feeling, the words of a friend. In addition, God’s message might not be at all what we expect it to be, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. We need to be prepared for God to present us with the unexpected.   We must also practice patience since God’s participation in our communication might not come when we want it to, and we might have to do some mental work to decipher the message. Humility is also a key to communicating with God, we need to be able to go back to God and ask again. The more we do this, the easier it will become.