Speaking a new language

A couple months ago, my third-grade son went through a phase in which he incorporated his “Caesar’s English” words into his conversations. Even though the words were correct, it was strange to hear such big words come out of his mouth. During the high school honors night, which was three hours long, he leaned over, sighed, and repeated over and over, “This is tedious.” And in spite of the fact that the kids being honored were amazing and impressive, I had to agree. A few days later, he talked about what would happen “if the anger pervaded his body” and about how languor creeps over him at night. As a word person myself, I love the way he plays with language, tries out the words, sees how they sound and how they work together. The “new” words sound funny to us — very conspicuous and out of place because we don’t hear them very often. But they’re right, accurate, and appropriate. If we know what they mean.

However, sometimes people use words we don’t know. Have you ever suffered through a conversation in which someone uses the same word, over and over, and you have no idea what they’re talking about? But you feel too stupid to ask? When a whole lesson or conversation hinges on a concept that you don’t understand, it leaves you feeling angry and frustrated and embarrassed — and convinced you’re in the wrong place.

Many of us try out a new language when we get into church. We talk about our Christian walks, say we’re children of the King, that we’re born again and saved and were lost in sin before we found Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with that. And if you know what those things mean, the expressions are entirely accurate. But if you’re not immersed in the culture of the Christian church, the words and phrases jump out at you, awkward and obvious. In our effort to show that we belong, I think sometimes we unintentionally push away those who don’t go to church. They don’t have a clue what those words actually mean (covered by blood? — yuck!), and at face value they sound downright weird (if you found Jesus, was he lost?). Because of the confusion the words create, they become more and more convinced they don’t belong. So they decide to stay far away.

It’s good and right to talk about the ways our lives have changed since God became a part of them. And it’s wonderful to tell people how real He is and who He is. But just remember that not everyone knows the language. Don’t talk down to people, just think about what you’re saying. A good friend talks about, not when she was saved or born again, but when she started to fall in love with Jesus. Instead of pushing me away, that makes me want to know more. I want to hear the rest of her story. And I hope I can phrase things in ways that make people want to hear mine. Because each one of our stories is also His story, and those are the words people long to hear.

Writers group

I've put this on Facebook and emailed a few people, but I thought I should mention it here, too. For information about a writers group starting in August in Crawfordsville, please go here:

No more false advertising

Many years ago, I worked in an advertising agency in Indianapolis. One day, my fellow art directors and I were eating at Wendy’s. I distinctly remember the moment one of the guys unwrapped his sandwich, a look of disbelief and disappointment on his face.

“Does this look like that?” he asked, pointing to the large color poster covering the window next to us. No, not even marginally. The chicken patty was smooshed flat, the bun crushed on one side and wrinkled where it had been too tightly wrapped; the lettuce was a tiny piece of off-white, limp iceberg lettuce; and the tomato was the palest of pinks, drooping halfway off the bun. The photo on the poster showed fresh, plump, thick, mouthwatering chicken with a glorious red tomato and deep green, ruffly-edged lettuce. There are rules in advertising about showing the actual product you’re selling, but there are also people called food stylists who know how to make ice look like it’s exceptionally cold and the produce look like it’s glistening with moisture, freshly picked from the garden out back. The bedraggled sandwich sitting in front of my friend was a pale, poor substitute for what he thought he was getting.

Sometimes I think I do a similar thing when it comes to God. Oh, I mean well. I want to present Him with the best I have to offer — worship that is sincere and authentic and passionate, writing that is for His glory, prayer that never ceases and always seeks His will. But instead, I find myself throwing up a quick prayer before being distracted by the busy-ness of life. Or I come into church to worship, freely and gladly, but because I haven’t sought Him in prayer yet that day, it takes me a while to focus. Or, worst of all, I write an essay or prepare a lesson and when I get praise, I chalk it up to my own abilities. I know He inspired it all, but sometimes I want part of the credit. So what I end up giving Him is like that sandwich at Wendy’s, a second-rate, disappointing substitute. Yes, I’m still offering Him something, and in His goodness and mercy He always accepts it, but deep down I think He must be sad not to get what I’d promised.

We are called to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice — and that means our whole selves. If we take credit for some of our abilities, or if we offer not our first fruits but our second (or third or last) fruits, we’re trying to pass off a mealy slice of tomato for the lush, juicy, nourishing one we promised. Our sacrifice is no longer complete, but something less. What we bring to Him doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be sloppy or small or faulty, as long as it’s the best we have. If it is, He will turn it into something beautiful. No more shoddy replacements for the real thing. I want to see His eyes light up at what I present to Him, knowing I’ve truly offered it all.

Inner tubes

Swimming pools and me... two things that don’t go together. As I lie in the sun, I’m conscious of the sun sizzling my pale, unnaturally white skin. I feel the freckles forming on my face, popping out in the heat like popcorn on a stove. My body just wasn’t made to comfortably withstand heat, so I inevitably end up in the water — even though I’ll have to put on more sunscreen later. Unfortunately, I’m not much of a swimmer, either, so I prefer to lie on top of a raft or inner tube, dangling my feet and hands into the refreshing water but staying safely, for the most part, above it. (The splashing sounds in the pool help drown out the sounds of my skin turning crispy.)

My husband has always been a strong swimmer, and he doesn’t see much of a need for a floatation device. He will hop out of boats in the middle of the ocean to snorkel, diving down to look at the bright colors, coming up occasionally to check on me as I hesitantly float on the surface, life jacket and goggles and all. He dives into pools, swims along the bottom, and feels no fear. Not me.

I’ve been reading a lot lately in Christian publications about how churches fall short, about how “church” and “religion” have gotten in the way of so many people’s relationships with the Lord. Some people are turning away from church and trying to find God on their own. And if that works for them, that’s great. But I think the church is a lot like that inner tube I hold onto for dear life in the pool. Sure, if you’re a great swimmer, maybe you can navigate through life’s stresses on your own and still stay afloat. And for short distances, you might be more efficient and agile on your own. But sometimes, life is not full of sunlight and happiness. Sometimes there are storms. Bitterly cold rains. Churning, turbulent waters. And sometimes you’re not in a friend’s small pool, but in bigger waters — ponds, rivers, oceans. The distance might overwhelm you. You might be in over your head or choke on water or be knocked down by the waves or even find scary predators hiding below the surface. And when those waters get rough, or when your arms get tired, that’s when you need the security of the church. That the point at which an inner tube just might save your life.

Not every church can be everything to every person, and it shouldn’t be. The church cannot create or maintain an intimacy with God for us. But until we get there on our own, or when we can’t do it on our own, we can depend on the church to help hold our heads above water until we find firm footing again. And when we find ourselves lucky enough to be in a sunny swimming pool, we can focus on improving our abilities so that we’re strong, ready to help the next person who feels like he’s going under.