on new words, true words and i do words: Romans 12

We love new words.  They make us feel like we’re not static.  We love to turn words like lathes to reflect our new experiences.  The Internet is the perfect tool for accelerating the coinage of new words.  Urban Dictionary, for instance, is a nimble online organic dictionary that can add new words the very day they’re uttered.  It’s wonderful.  All that’s required for a word to make it into the urban dictionary lexicon is for people to like it.  And the number one reason people choose to like a word on Urban Dictionary?  They like a new word because it’s funny.

So modern English is apparently going to be funnier.  Ha.

But the thing is, words have always had shadows (see e.g., “words have shadows, too – you hear?”).  The existence of a dark underbelly to words doesn’t necessarily conflict with the humorous trajectory of the Urban Dictionary lexicon; perhaps part of the reason we find words funny is that they do reflect the nuance of human experience.  And if you look at urban dictionary, most of those words and concepts are pretty dark – as with one of today’s words, “grey driving,” a slice of ageism which refers to those who drive like myopic grannies.  So our new words will continue to reflect both the light and the shadows of human experience.  They will evoke the grey.  Because our words are asymptotes.  They’re always approaching the real experience but never quite getting there.  That’s why even the most articulate among us stumble sometimes when describing things:

“It’s like so hot out today.  I mean it’s like warm.  Muggy.  Humid.  Gross.  I mean, better than like January. But it’s like August in May.  It’s so um July.  It’s like summer in spring.  It’s um.  Yeah.  It’s um yeah.”

We all wax unpoetic at times.  It’s always yeah um yeah at some point during our days.  The ancient Greeks argued about whether the names we give to things are merely conventions or if names can get at the true essence of their own meanings.  (see e.g. “Plato’s Cratylus“)  It sounds like those Greeks were hoping to come up with onomatopoeic words for every concept.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  It would turn every sentence into poetry.  Instead of words being “pale shadows of forgotten names,” as Patrick Rothfuss once put it, words would be bright light-filled orbs.

Unfortunately onomatopoeic words work beautifully in only certain arenas.  They’re wonderful for collisions: bam, bang, clang, click, thud, bash, whop.  They work wonders on describing the movement of air: whoosh, flutter, whiz, whisper.  They’re dandy for animal sounds: baa, bark, hiss, cuckoo, cock-a-doodledoo, meow, oink, ribbit and quack.  But those of us who are adults are hoping to rise above picture and comic book level – at least one day.

So how do we keep our words fresh and new in a nuanced sophisticated way?   Can delving into Urban Dictionary put us on the right track?  After all, it’s so cutting edge if we go there we can find the world transforming in real time.  But wait.  Hold it.  Isn’t this the Heisenberg uncertainty principle at play?  Isn’t the moment a word makes it into a dictionary, even a modern slangy one with a questionable criteria, by definition the moment that word becomes part of the “world”?  Yes.  Oh no!  We’re doomed.  How do we stay even fresher than the Internet?  How do we stay so true to our experience we don’t even need any self-appointed “editors” to “like” us? The answer must lie in living a fresh and new yet nuanced sophisticated life.  How do we do that?  The answer:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  (Romans 12:2 NIV).

I’ve always loved that sentence, long before I believed in God.  Something independent and freeing rises up in us at the thought that we can escape conforming to the pattern of the world.  We’re made for more than a cookie cutter life.  And a transformed mind will automatically be able to speak in a transformative language.

So how do we avoid conforming to the patterns of the world?  Luckily for our questing independent souls, God is so fresh, so new, so alive, that to cling to Him is to be transformed.  I know that sounds impossible.  How does our independence get realized through clinging?  The answer is that God made us that way.  We will always cling to something.  But to cling to anything less than love will diminish us.  Clinging to Love fulfills us.  That’s why God urges us not to do more, but to get to know Him.

Getting to “know” God, in all the lovely intimate ways we use that word, is the only way to become newer than the newest word coined. And the way we do that is to move into His words.  It’s the only way to even begin to follow all the wonderful advice Paul plops into this chapter.  In fact, his advice is so transforming, I pretty much have to sprinkle it into this blog and let it whisper to you on its own.  For the words of the Bible are “alive.”  2 Timothy 3:16.  Scripture is more active than even onomatopoeia.  It transforms us from the inside out.  These words go bam inside our hearts.  They flutter, whisper and whiz.

For instance, Paul warns us: “don’t think you’re better than you are.”  Bam.  The moment we read those words, we realize: guilty as charged.  We didn’t know we were thinking it until the word met us where we are.  Paul then says: “don’t just pretend to love others.  Really love them.”  Whoops.  Those words expose to us the truth that sometimes our love is so fake it disgusts us.  Paul keeps going: “hate what is wrong.”   We read that and realize sometimes we DO love what’s wrong. What’s wrong with us?  “Never be lazy.”  Never? Okay, so failing on that one, too.  “Be patient in trouble.”  We cringe.  We know that when trouble comes we prefer to whine, complain and retreat.  And apparently retreating is out: “always be eager to practice hospitality.”  Seriously?  Always eager to have people over?  Always?

While we’re still reeling from all this good but crazy hard advice, Paul keeps going: “Bless those who persecute you.  Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.” Got it.  Don’t wish their house will fall down on their sorry heads.  Ask God to shower them with roses.  No problem.  Bring it on, Paul: “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.”  Wait.  You mean we don’t get to tell them to suck it up?  We don’t get to preach at them?  We have to sit and cry with them?  But what if that puts US in a bad place?  What if going there with them means we – gasp – have to go there, too.  This is when we want to stop reading, but we can’t.  Paul is crescendoing:  “Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people.”  Whop.  “And don’t think you know it all!”  Okay.  But what if we DO know it all.  What then, Paul??  “Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable.  Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.  Dear friends, never take revenge.  Leave that to the righteous anger of God.  For the Scriptures say, “I WILL TAKE REVENGE; I WILL PAY THEM BACK,’ says the Lord.  Instead, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them.  If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.’  Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”  Romans 12:3-21.

Sigh.  We know we want to be like that, and at the very same time, we know we’re not.  But the reason these words are called good news, is that all we have to do is know the only one who IS like this.  He takes care of the rest.  His words whisper in our hearts.  He tells us He loves us even when no one likes our words.  He loves us even when no one thinks we’re funny.  He loves us as we are.  He really loves us.  He doesn’t just pretend to.  He hates when we do wrong things, but he’s patient with us.  He’s always eager to welcome us.  He loves us even when we hate Him.  He laughs when we’re happy and weeps when we’re sad.  He doesn’t pay back our evil with evil.

Instead, He promises that because of the cross, He forgives us no matter how many times we’ve cursed others.  He says He became a curse Himself so He can always bless us.  He tells us we can be the greyest drivers through life of all, but He’ll always steer us in the right direction.  He says we can slam on the brakes at the very wrong time, and no matter what we hit in our skiddering sideways path, He’ll rescue us.  He says that when our enemies curse us, He knows how it feels. He asks us to trust justice to Him.

He knows our hearts because He made them.

Those are words that rise up like hot air balloons and — pop.  We find ourselves being kind to our worst enemies, not because we hope God will “get them,” but because God is so very kind to us.  When we get to know Him through His words, we find we’re exploding with a lightness and joy we didn’t even know existed.  When we let go of the world’s lexicon and cling to Him instead, we find that the oldest words of all can be the newest.  We find there the message that we are loved, and through His love we can be rewritten into a dictionary full of words like hope, hospitality, kindness and forgiveness.  His love shines brighter than any shadow the world can cast.

He is the word we’ve been looking for our whole lives.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day