Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Of Language, Lenten Discipline, and Lousy Attitudes

Happy Easter-tide! Now that we are on the other side of Easter, how was your experience? Was Lent a formative time for you? Or just another Spring? I'd like to share a previous Lenten experience with you, and talk with you about where we go from here with the growth we have done.

One Lent, felt a conviction to give up cussing. Yes, those of you who feel embarrassed when you "cuss in front of the preacher," I have struggled from time to time with language too. So did Martin Luther, actually. So one year, I tried giving it up cold turkey.

Hardest. Lent. Ever.

As it turned out, this was a very stressful year in my life, and apparently the vigorous release of a naughty word had been some sort of coping mechanism for me. A mechanism which I was not nearly as ready to give up as I had hoped. There is series of scenes in the movie "Airplane" where Lloyd Bridges' character realizes, under great stress, that he picked the wrong week to quit smoking, drinking, and a variety of other bad habits. I felt like I had picked the wrong Lent to quit cussing.

Honestly, that year was my worst commitment to a Lenten discipline ever. Like a good Pharisee, I could manage to keep from cussing in front of others, no problem. But when I was by myself, and stressed, or angry, or otherwise in a foul mood, the words would just start flying. I was particularly fond of stringing several together in a row, making a nonsensical sentence that would make a sailor blush. Towards the end, began to realize why I needed to give this up, and it was about much more than just my selection of vocabulary.

You see, the words themselves only have the power that we give them. Most "cussing" actually falls into three categories: (1) "Rude" language, (2) Swearing and invocations, and (3) Actual Cursing. The first is usually comprised of words for common things, such as bodily functions or parts, which are considered impolite or inappropriate. Many of these were once actually acceptable to a particular people group, but as invading groups came in, such as the turnovers between Celts, Anglos, Saxons, and vikings in Britain, the conquered people's version of the language was considered uneducated, rudimentary ("rude"), common (in Latin, "vulgar"), and unacceptable. So where there are polite and impolite words for a thing, such as common bathroom activities or intimate actions, this is often evidence of the layers the English language is made of.

The second group usually involves the use of the name of a deity, or some other object which is called as a helper or a witness to the truth of a matter. So using God's Name in vain would be the most obvious, but more socially acceptable words such as "gosh" (a reference to the Land of Goshen, hence also "my lands!", substituted frequently for the Name of God), or usually anything starting with "by" and a name ("by George", "for the love of Pete", and "gadzooks" also fall into this category, the former two invoking saints, the latter "God's Hooks", a term of questionable origin). These are either derived from calling on help from God, or calling on Him (or another figure) to back up that what you say is true.

The third group, cursing, would be invoking eternal damnation or other punishments on the object of your wrath, such as the sofa or cat you tripped over in the middle of the night. Again, there are suitable alternatives offered by the English language, depending on the company you are keeping.

If you think this stuff fascinating, check out Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. He's got a lot of good stuff about the English language in general.

So what is appropriate language and what isn't? Well, we could probably get Pharisaical about what words are and are not appropriate, and such thought has brought us these substitute words such as "darn" and "shoot" which seem better. But the Gospels propose a better solution I think. Perhaps not directly, but by principle. As we went through the Sermon on the Mount earlier this year, we noted that Jesus would often take a strict code of law, and challenge his listeners to get the heart of the thing, curbing lust in one's heart rather than just not fooling around with the neighbor's wife.

Back to my Lenten commitment. I began to notice certain attitudes were prevalent when I was in the mood to cuss. Anger, negativity, bitterness would prompt the aforementioned four-letter-words, all of which are repeatedly condemned in Scripture, and do not contribute to love of God or neighbor. What my Lent was revealing to me was my own bad attitude was the deeper problem underlying my vocabulary choices.

So what about your lent? My hope for you is that you were able to get at some deeper issues than just an addiction to chocolate or Youtube. Maybe you can take some time now to ponder why it was you gave that up. Perhaps it provoked some feelings over Lent that you can now take into the light of Easter-tide (the season between Easter and Pentecost). Maybe it showed you how you use food to fill another need, or the moods that inspire you to dive into Wikipedia for hours at a time (or is that just me?).

Whatever the case, journey on Easter People!

And, since language and "Airplane" both came up in this post...just for fun...