Artful Language

I ran across an article in the Atlantic Monthly that said the average working vocabulary of a 14-year-old child sixty years ago was 25,000 words and that today it’s 10,000 words. Think of that – that’s less than half. Analysts of the situation say that our technological society no longer values the use of what they call “artful language.” They claim that we no longer value the precision that comes by expressing ourselves with rich vocabulary. Well, does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t matter much if you don’t intend to be a poet or a novelist. But then again maybe it does. Because some claim if we lack the ability to say what we mean, we eventually lose the ability to think about what we mean – especially about those things that may matter most.

So I’d like to explore with you today a word that we may not use in our vocabulary and we may have some trouble thinking about. And I feel almost apologetic to mention the word. I feel I should lower my voice as I tell you . . . I’m going to talk about sin. I’ve been told that preaching on sin is actually one of the most dangerous possible things to attempt because half the congregation will feel guilted by the preacher and the second half of the congregation will think the preacher hasn’t been hard enough on the first half.

When I was in a hospital chaplain internship 12 years ago as a part of the ordination process, I called on an older, forgetful woman. We’ll call her Susan.  She was thoroughly miserable and inconsolable. She was a frail little woman with birdlike features and these frightened eyes that darted around the room as she periodically made eye contact with me as we talked.  During the couple visits I had with her, she would wring her hands. I’d never seen anyone really do that before.  As she did so, she repeated over and over and over again, “Serious, serious, serious.”  She was experiencing a bit of dementia which made drawing her story from her a little difficult, but patiently and carefully I tried to explore just what was so serious. Finally she gained enough trust in me to risk giving me a partial answer to her riddle. She said, “You don’t know, do you? And you’d never understand. And I don’t even remember. But I know I did a terrible thing and it was serious, serious, serious.” And that’s as close as I ever came to her sad mystery.  The tragedy of this little woman inconsolable, convinced of her failure as a human being is something I’ve never forgotten.

As extreme as Susan’s case seems, maybe we can empathize with her even if we don’t feel we’ve ever committed an unforgiveable sin. Because many of us know what it’s like, don’t we, to escape detection for something we’ve done and shouldn’t have, whether we remember a childhood prank that somehow hurt another. Or whether we’ve simply gotten away with a sharp word that was uncalled for, or an unkindness that was undeserved, or even a much more serious betrayal of trust. Getting away with it is as painful – maybe more so – than facing the music because then we and we alone carry that lonely knowledge that we deserve less than what we enjoy in the moment. Perhaps less than the reputation we enjoy. Wounded consciences can be as Susan’s was – the very harshest taskmaster.

Mark Twain was a master at pointing a finger at hypocrisy.  He’s said to have once described a particularly upright acquaintance of his as “a good man in the worst sense of the word.” I think we know what that means. I don’t think any of us aspires to that sort of goodness that turns a blind eye away from its own limits, failings, shortcomings, flaws, and sins. That is as Mark Twain notes “the worst sort of goodness.”

So, avoidance of sinfulness is surely no more helpful than dwelling on it, which the church in some eras, and in some traditions, has encouraged us to do. And instead of denying our sinfulness which our current culture seems more than willing to help us do, let’s just try to face the music. What are you least proud of?  What are you aware in your heart of hearts of having done wrong?  I’d be surprised if each of us didn’t have a few things we feel the sting of regret over. Perhaps a person who deserved better from us.  Or perhaps we’ve sinned against groups whose needs greatly outweigh our own, but whom we’ve largely disregarded because their poverty or their hopelessness is less troubling if we don’t dwell on it. Or perhaps we’ve most tragically sinned against ourselves, discounting our unique gifts, talents, qualities that might have brought goodness or depth or help or joy to the world around us.

Biblically to have sinned is to miss the mark like an archer with a misaimed arrow.  It’s to have gone astray.  To have wandered off track.  So you might ask: is there a lot about sin in the Bible?  Actually not as much as you might think. Of the collection of 150 Psalms there are only 7 penitential Psalms, psalms that express regret and only three of those clearly confess sin and request forgiveness. Only 3. The most famous of the confessional psalms is Psalm 51, which includes this line: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  Some denominations sing that psalm every week allowing its beautiful confessional tone to shape them as a community of hope.

Barbara Brown Taylor recounts an amazing story of being brought back. She describes a huge old sea turtle that she watched crawl out of the ocean to lay and bury her eggs. And then by some navigational error that turtle wandered into the dunes instead of back to the sea. By the next day the turtle was all but baked, her head and flippers caked with dried sand. Taylor found a park ranger who came by Jeep. He flipped the turtle on her back and wrapped tire chains around her front legs. And then took off, yanking her body so that her mouth filled with sand and her neck bent far back ready to snap. At the ocean’s edge the ranger unhooked the chains and turned her right side up and finally the waves came taking her safely back to sea. Perhaps when we’ve wandered way off track, coming back may be as painful and as difficult for us as it was for that turtle. When we ask God for a clean heart and renewed spirit then our lives too can be turned upside down.

I looked through the Gospels this week to remind myself that Jesus actually mentions sin only a handful of times.  But he spends a lot of time and pays a lot of attention to the likes of the prodigal son and the lost sheep that return. So it seems to me he’s a lot more interested in return than retribution, more interested in forgiveness than fault finding, more interested in goodness than guilt, more interested in our safety than in our sin, and more interested in loving us than leaving us.  Holding on to sin and guilt is more punishing than anything God demands of us.  The road back from our mistakes may be tough, but the destination is glorious.

I said as I began that language is always evolving. But there is an exception. I think that the language of God’s love for us through Jesus Christ and all of its various forgiving mysterious and magnificent forms is a language that never changes.

The Reverend William MacLean is an associate pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church. He is hosting Faith Alive, a radio ministry of Mount Olivet, this July, where you can listen to an expanded version of this blog post.


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