what if we all spoke the same language?: Acts 23

Acts 23.  Modern thinkers like to complain about the inadequacy of words.  “If thoughts and words exist on different planes, then expression must always be an act of compromise,” Joshua Foer wrote in the Christmas edition of the New Yorker.  “Utopian for Beginners,” New Yorker, Dec. 24 and 31, 2012, p. 86.   The idea is that our thoughts are real and true but they perish for lack of proper expression.  The purity of our ideas die on the vine.  They say no language – whether real or invented – can truly express what we think and feel.   Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Gottfriend Leibwitz joined the ranks of those who felt that no invented language could capture the true essence of things.

The construct has inspired many to invent languages.  Languages, it is felt, are like swords.  If one can only forge the right one – preferably with ancient lore and deep magic – one can accomplish heroic tasks.  One man invented a language in which he organized words by meaning rather than alphabetically.  His language didn’t catch on – but he inspired the thesaurus.  Foer writes of the Wakashem Indians in the Pacific Northwest that their language reveals the “evidentiality” of words: the verb inflection indicates whether the speaker is sharing information from indirect experience, direct experience, inference, conjecture or hearsay.

In “Metaphors We Live By”, Lakoff and Johnson posit that not only our language but more specifically our metaphors define us.  They point out we describe conversation in terms of war.  We want to “win” arguments, and so on.  They say that if we were to define a conversation with a “dance” metaphor we could shift the whole world.  They say the metaphors we use box us in.   If only we could explode our metaphors, we could break the chains of these artificial constraints and get down to brass tacks (not to mix my metaphors or anything).

But hold it right there.  Is language really the problem?  Are metaphors our issue?  Even Foer alludes to the Tower of Babel in this article.  Isn’t the problem not words but the humans who wield them?  Going deeper, isn’t the issue not that we employ metaphors of war but that the human heart so often sees discussions as arguments to win rather than meaningful exchanges of ideas?

I mean, look.  I used to be a litigator.  You can have all the evidentiary rules you want about words in a court of law, but it doesn’t mean people will tell the truth.  You can box people in; hem them in; define them, confine them, verb and noun them; force them to invent fresh original metaphors that spring from an idealized vision of how humans should behave, but you won’t get any closer to the truth.

Because we humans all by ourselves aren’t so good at truth.  We have a few problems and they transcend the shortcomings of every language ever spoken.  We could all speak the same language – Utopian or dystopian – and it wouldn’t change a thing.

First, there are the thoughts themselves.  With all due respect to my superiors – Bacon, Descartes and Leibwitz, all of whom I’m sure had far loftier brains than I do – I’m not so sure that human thoughts are all that pure.  In fact, the Bible tells us they’re kind of the opposite.  Our thoughts veer from the lovely to the not so lovely in a nanosecond.  And I know that’s not the kind of “purity” those men were talking about.  I know they meant that the thought itself, no matter what it is, is pure, but really?  I doubt that, too.  I think our thoughts are cloudy.  I think they’re confused.  I think they bounce around from topic to topic and that those synapses in our brains are firing like pinball machines – little electrical impulses whipping around going ding, ding, ding, and we’re the hapless recipients of all that input.

And even if you could distill our thoughts down to their purest form, there’s the issue of rationalization.  We humans don’t like to think of ourselves as being less than perfect, so we tend to rationalize away our bad thoughts.  So there’s a level of self-decpetion in every human being going on that’s pretty astounding.  HE’S a dirty rotten liar, but me?  I was just fibbing a little so I wouldn’t hurt his feelings.

And even if we feel secure enough to get real about our thoughts, wants, motives, and intentions, there’s the issue of our imperfect communication skills.  We could be versed in Esperanto –  a vibrant language with a rich literature of its own that Foer says was George Soros’ first language – but it doesn’t mean we could adequately explain to a red-faced teacher why we didn’t do our homework or to an angry boss why we lost the memo.  Our fear stymies us.  And it’s not our communication skills that are the only problem.  There’s the issue of the poor skills of our listeners.  They may not be listening.  They may have an agenda that blocks them from hearing anything but what fits into their preconceived notions.  They may be operating out of life experiences that are so far removed from ours that even if we use the same words we mean opposite things.

The real problem, it seems to me, isn’t language but the human heart.  It’s our selfishness, our self-deception and our ability to be deceived – by ourselves, each other, and that enemy at large, known as Satan, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, the Prince of Darkness – whatever you want to call him, he is the spiritual force of evil whom the Bible says is our “accuser.”  There is a prince of darkness who is trying his hardest to make each of us miserable.  There are powers and principalities of evil who don’t WANT us to understand ourselves or each other.  There’s an enemy who lies to us all day long, who tells us we’re not good enough, and by the way did we know we just messed up?  And who do we think we are?  And did we realize how much time we’ve wasted today?  And btw no one loves us – and all those other unpleasant untrue little thoughts that trot their way past the screens of our minds throughout any given day, trying to derail us and our relationships and mire us in gloom, doom and insecurity.

The solution doesn’t lie in any Utopian language or in figuring out a way for all of us to speak the same language.  It lies in spending time with the Author of all our words, thoughts and hearts.  If we invite God in, His Holy Spirit comes to dwell inside us.  The Hebrew word is “tabernacle.”  God tabernacles within us if we ask Him to, and communicates with movements as subtle and intimate as the best human communication.

God has the answer to every communication problem we’ve ever had.  He can heal us of our selfishness.  He can reveal to us the hidden depths of our pride – depths so deep and dark and horrible we have no idea they are lurking within us until He shows us in His kind and loving way.  We know something sabotages our best efforts to communicate but we often don’t know what it is.  God reveals truth – sometimes in words, sometimes in deep knowing, sometimes in his holy Word, sometimes through Christ.  It’s not a coincidence that Jesus is the Word  of God.

God can also soften our hearts toward people who don’t listen to us.  He can give us patience with their foibles.  He can enable us to hear opinions that don’t mesh with our preconceived ideas.  He makes us more open-minded.  He makes us more loving.

Most of all, God can give us peace.  Spending time with the Author of all our words will silence the voice of the Accuser.  God tells us truth.  God will tell us that yes, of course, SOME of what the prince of darkness tells us is true.  Lies seldom flap around without any basis in reality.  But the whole of it is completely wrong.  The conclusions are wrong.  The premises are wrong.  Anxiety comes in the gap between who we are and who we want to be, my friend R.J. Heijman once said.  Yes, it does.  And Satan steps in to accuse us of everything he can think of by pointing at that gap.  And then he throws in the kitchen sink.  But Jesus Christ fills the gap.  He came to be the bridge between us and God.  He covers our flaws.  He covered our inadequacies on the cross.  It’s done.  It is finished.  The gap is closed.

The Hebrew Scriptures teach that God tore down the Tower of Babel because He didn’t want us humans to unite together in a project of evil.  But if we rebuild ourselves by uniting with Jesus, we are joined together in the heroic purposes of God.  Barriers melt away.  Language begins to serve its purpose.  We are able to let our yes be yes and our no be no.  We begin to fear, a little less, people with rageful tempers. We can confront them, lovingly.  We can walk away from them without guilt.  We can share with others the truth about our shortcomings, because we know God has forgiven us the moment we tell Him we’re sorry; our sins were paid for on the cross.  We tell the truth about things we’ve done wrong because there’s no more shame, no more sorrow, no more condemnation.  Shame is Satan’s game.  Jesus took all the shame and guilt on the cross for us so we can live in freedom, joy and victory.

God wants us to take courage, just as He came and told Paul in this chapter of Acts.  acts 23:11.  He wants us to speak bravely.  Jesus is truth.  The more we know Him the more we know the truth.  And the truth – as someone wiser than myself or any philosopher once said – sets us free.  The truth frees us from the limitations of our languages and ourselves.  God enables those who love Him to speak to others in the language of their hearts.

We get there by inviting Him in.  We can use our language, no matter what language it is, to say: “please, God.”  Or: “help me, God!” Or, “I’d like to know you better, God, but I don’t know how or what to do or even what to say.”  We all know the language of desire and need.

And no matter what language we speak, God’s answer is always: those were the very words I was waiting for.

posted by Caroline Coleman in “A Chapter a Day” on January 15, 2013

words that hang like magic in all our skies: Acts 15

Acts 15.  This week’s New Yorker story, written by David Gilbert, captures the thoughts of a fourteen year old perfectly.  He reminds us of what it’s like to be bored yet unable to think of something to do; separating from our friends yet needing them; embarrassed by our parents yet loving them; rejecting snobbery yet succumbing to it; jealous of our brother and yet adoring him.   “Member/Guest” by David Gilbert, The New Yorker, November 12, 2012.

Perhaps the most moving moment occurs when Beckett’s mother rants about another member at their beach club in the Hamptons named Mrs. Lord.  “Mom went on about the high heels at the beach, the desperate social climbing, those sunglasses like she was the Jackie O of Toledo – she was on a roll – and that slutty daughter of hers, that drug-addict son, that husband who humps anything that moves.  They all laughed because she was funny, Beckett’s mom, and smart, and years ago, had been almost beautiful, but Beckett silently begged Mrs. Lord to escape.  Run away, run away.”

We know that the person Beckett most wants to run away is not Mrs. Lord but herself.

Beckett imagines her friends as thinking of her as “too scared to live in a bikini world.”   Who can’t relate?  Aren’t we all too scared to live in a bikini world?

And don’t we all find ourselves like Beckett, caught in a tangled web of our own inadequacies?  Don’t we all find ourselves laughing at cruelty – and then urging the hapless victim to run away, knowing the person we want most to be able to run away is ourself?  But when the problem comes from inside your own all too human heart, how CAN you run away?  We are all, in a sense, like a fourteen year old girl, trapped in the summer, unable to escape ourselves, unsure even where we would run if we could.  The adults, recognizing that Beckett is bored, suggest places for her to visit the following summer – Cambodia, India or camp – but only once, in the entire story, when Beckett speaks to an unbearably lonely sad figure of a man who serves as “homeland security” for the beach club (“a Long Island Heathcliff”), do we, and perhaps Beckett herself, discover where she really wants to go: Rome.  Beckett adores Latin.  She waxes poetic discussing her love of this long dead language:

“‘It’s a supremely stupid thing to be good at.  It’s not even a real language anymore.  It’s like being fluent in Braille, that’s what my mom says.  And I’m not even that great at it  I just have a good memory, and I like puzzles.  But the words themselves, you know, the Latin itself, it’s really …’  She searched for the right word. ‘Really lovely to look at,’ she said, ‘and lovely to read aloud, and then you get to the meaning, what’s underneath those words, and it’s even lovelier, because you’ve made it your own, if that makes sense.'”

It does make sense.  It makes perfect sense – even for those of us who never studied Latin, or if we did, never ‘got’ it.  There’s something that each of us loves.  There’s something that makes each of us perk up.  There is something that lifts us higher than the mundane world of jealousy, snobbery, wanting people, rejecting them, needing people, being hurt by them, being restless, wanting ice cream, feeling fat – the world of Beckett evoked in this little gem of a story.  These somethings fly out at each of us in unexpected moments – rabbits escaping from the magician’s hats of our lives.  We grasp at them, and hold them for a moment, until they elude us again.

Is that the sum of the human existence?  To have passions in this world that sustain us, and to which we can devote all too short attention – because so many other things call to us, things outside us, and most of all things within?

The wonderful news is that there is another way, another hope, another calling, which answers all of our own and Beckett’s longings – spoken and unspoken.  There’s a more beautiful way, a way that her love of Latin hints at but will never completely satisfy.  There is a truth that is really lovely to look at.  There is a love that has a meaning underneath the words, and it’s even lovelier.  Because that Love is a person, and He makes us each His own.

That love, of course, is the love of God.  And nowhere is it more movingly described than in this 15th Chapter of Acts, when Peter stands up to the people who want to impose the rule of circumcision on all believers — even grown non-Jewish men who have no interest thank you very much in going under the knife especially in that part of their anatomy –and says:

“We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.”

Acts 15:11.  Those words are like the sky-writing that Beckett looks at when she tries to describe why she loves Latin.  Those words hang like magic in all our skies.  Look at them.  Look at the word “all” in there.  All of us – every one – are saved in the same way.  There is no distinction among people.  In the face of that truth, our snobbery melts away.

And look at the word saved.  In the truth of that word, all our pretenses of being fine thank you very much just as we are melt away.  All of our need to feel better than anyone else dissolves.  When Beckett listens to her parents argue, she thinks: “Day after day, they sawed each other in half, yet they always managed to emerge whole at the end of the evening, nineteen years of semi-miraculous ta-dah.  What was the illusion, Beckett wondered, the love or the hate?”  Neither is the illusion, in most human relationships, at least ones that have weathered the storms; there is both love and hate.  We don’t want it to be that way, and yet there it is.  The hate sinks into our flesh like shark teeth, and we can’t extract it on our own.  We need saving from ourselves.  As Beckett so truthfully thinks after admiring her friend Natalie’s superior bikinied body: “there must be a Natalie in every group, Beckett figured, even ugly girls must have their Natalie, a Natalie upon whom you wish a little hardship and maybe, on sleepless nights, a full-blown tragedy, a Natalie who elicits the worst in you and confirms your own petty sense of self.”  We don’t want to feel jealousy – yet at times we do.  We don’t want to wish anyone harm – and yet ugly thoughts creep in when we least expect or want them.

But recognizing these truths about ourselves – whether through reading fiction, through being self-reflective, or through holding up to ourselves the mirror known as Holy Scripture – is ultimately a good thing, not bad.  Because God comes not to condemn us, and make us feel bad.  He came for the opposite reason.  He came to save us, and make us feel wonderful despite ourselves.  He came to say: “I know.  I know what you can be like.  I know your petty thoughts.  I know your ugly jealousies.  I know your insecurities.  I know your hatred in the midst of your love.  I know your snobbery in the midst of your judgment of other snobs.  I know it all.  I just want you to know it, and ask for forgiveness.  And you will be washed cleaner than any ocean can do.  Because I adore you.  I have a plan for your life.  And if you just spend time with me, I’ll help you sort through all the irrelevancies and focus in on the pathway I’ve carved for you and you alone.”

There lies the transforming truth we all crave.  There lies the language dormant in us all – the language of distinctive distilled love.  There lies the dead brought suddenly to life.  For we are all saved the same way, through the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.  We don’t need to deserve God’s love – He loves us.  That’s the good news, because none of us are perfect enough to “deserve” anyone love’s – not even on our best days.

And yes, absolutely, in moments, we feel ourselves shine.  We all have moments of splendor in the sun where we know ourselves to be immortal.  We all have moments where it feels like we’re living in that breathtaking dive from the high diving board — the kind of stupendously high diving boards that are now banned due to litigation fears but on which those of us who did, in fact, get bored at country clubs on the beach in the summer once challenged ourselves on.  We love those high dive moments.  We touch the sun.  Our bodies arch like birds.  We are more than the sum of our parts.  We know – and yet even as we know – we know these moments won’t last.  We’ll crash into the water, usually with at least one limb misaligned and therefore hurt.  It’s like Beckett waxing poetic about Latin.  She will lapse back into a stammer of her “like.. like… likes” at any moment.

But there is a divine dive into which we can all enter at any moment and linger.  There is a perfect arch of splendor in the sun which we can all achieve and retain.  And the beauty of this divine dive is that we all embark on it the same way.  We embark on it the way I once stepped off the high dive at my country club: with tremendous fear and self-loathing and wanting to be brave but knowing I was not.

God knows we’re afraid.  That’s why He comes to us.  We are all like children crying out from our beds awaking from a nightmare, screaming for our parents, hoping against hope that they’ll hear us even though their room is at the other end of the house.  God hears our every cry – even the ones our own parents can’t or won’t hear.  Our parents, after all, are as mortal as we are.  Some of our cries are too painful for them to hear, because they suffer from the same fears, perhaps as yet unacknowledged, and don’t want to confront them in themselves, let alone in us, the children they love.  Our parents fail us most when we need them most – paradoxically for the very reason that they can’t bear to fail us.

But God is the parent of us all who is never afraid to confront anything.  On the cross, Christ already confronted the worst that hell had to offer.   He died to give us the gift of grace – the one true language of love – the language of life – that says: “I give you all that I have, and all that I am, and I’ll never take it back, no matter what you do or say or think, because I’m in love with you and always will be.”

That’s the truth we all seek.  It’s the gift of grace that saves us all.  There’s no distinction.  It’s available for every one of us the same way.  God asks only that we ask for it.  He loves us too much to force us to do anything – even take the first step off the high dive.  But if we take that step – despite our fears – we discover that instead of stepping into a deep desperate fall from grace, we float up to heaven.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com in “A Chapter a Day” on November 9, 2012.