A Language Problem

Wednesday was Ash Wednesday in the Christian Calendar, the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent has traditionally been understood as a time of repentance and conversion of heart. Unfortunately, that focus has at times been a bit off the mark and become rather destructive. In fact, in an ironic way, declaring ourselves hopeless sinners can actually be an expression of arrogance that says, in effect, “Oh, no, I am a FAR greater sinner than you AND so much more spiritual than you because I am in touch with just how awful I am!”

The truth is that sometimes language is used to convey belief while at other times it serves to unintentionally reveal belief we may not be in touch with. I will never forget the old line from the Psalm, “I am a worm and no man,” which has always seemed to me a statement of braggadocio disguised as repentance. You see, repentance is worthless if it doesn’t lead to transformation – in fact, I would go so far as to say that if our repentance doesn’t lead us to new perspectives and new understandings it is destructive and should be abandoned because we are not spiritually prepared for its results.

Speaking of perspectives, I have been thinking a lot about inclusive language. I am a proponent of inclusive language in worship settings – and other settings as well. I have come to understand, however, that inclusive language can become an idol and a distraction rather than a vehicle for inclusion. God is properly understood as transcending gender, despite the truth that God in the Christian tradition has been traditionally described using male pronouns and the parental title “Father.” Over the past several decades we have been working to correct this sexist language and you will often encounter places where God is referred to as “she” or “Mother.” In other places we hear the pronoun “It” used to refer to God – I often do this myself as an attempt to broaden our perspective and vision of God. I don’t believe there is a problem in any of this – unless our own biases render us unable to hear what another person is saying who uses a different pronoun or name for God that the one we prefer. I used to serve a church where most of the members would have been unable to hear the most brilliant, heart warming, transforming message from someone who called God “Father” because of their own language biases. When this happens, language has become more of a distraction than an asset – particularly when the person using the “Father” word used it in writing seventy years ago when it was perfectly appropriate!

What about Jesus? Jesus was undeniably male by all accounts, though the indwelling Christ in him transcends gender. Do we simply swap “Christ” for “Jesus” or for places where the male pronoun is used to refer to him (which is, after all, accurate in the case of Jesus the man)? It’s an option, but I want to suggest it is problematic in a few ways. The first was is that Jesus has been defined by traditional Christianity as both God and human. Generally speaking, we ascribe the Name Jesus to him during his human incarnation and the Name Christ to him in his post-resurrection and ascended forms with varying degrees of accuracy. Throughout history, we have tended to emphasize one aspect of Jesus over the other. In times of trouble, we emphasize his Divinity and look for him to rescue us – a dubious practice, at best, but one that exists nevertheless. In those places and spaces you might say we emphasize Christ. In easier times, we tend to emphasize Jesus’ humanity, his presence with and among us. In these places and spaces you might say we emphasize Jesus. Of course Jesus Christ didn’t really suffer from a split personality, showing up this way over here and that way over there, but you get the point.

What happens, then, if we only allow ourselves to see and speak “Christ?” I want to say that we miss half the story – and for many of us it may well be the most important part.

It was Jesus who lived, worked, and challenged his religious and political culture. It was Jesus who called followers, Jesus who approached those in need of healing (though it was arguably the Christ within him who actually healed), Jesus who spoke with those on the margins, Jesus who ate with notorious sinners and the party people of his day. What I mean by all of that is that it was his humanity that approached them and spent time with them, not some kind of dazzling special effects show like Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

It was also Jesus the human being who was crucified.

If we restrict ourselves to focusing on Christ because we cannot tolerate Jesus’ maleness, the cross becomes a lie – the ultimate form of play acting wherein Christ mounts the cross without the pain, humiliation, and fear that public crucifixion brought. If Christ alone mounted the cross, there was no doubt within Christ that the outcome would be Resurrection. Only Jesus the human could have felt abandoned by God on that same cross. To attempt to excise Jesus from our language in the name of our own personal comfort may well be less an attempt to address our need for inclusion than an attempt to avoid discomfort around our own mortality and suffering. And that is a problem.

Far too many of us use religion as escapism. We seek to escape from misfortune, pain and suffering, poverty, hard work, broken relationships, loneliness, and a host of other absolutely normal parts of life. Most of all we want to escape old age, illness, and death. We warehouse our elderly in nursing homes (let me be clear, some of our elderly require more care than is possible at home so I am not denying the need for long-term care in skilled nursing facilities), we tuck our sick away in hospitals, and when they die we call the funeral director to whisk them away and not show them to us until they have done their level best to make them appear to be asleep, not dead. Our culture spends countless dollars trying to avoid aging or at least the appearance of aging. In may have started with Marco Polo, but we have elevated the fountain of youth to an art form – except it doesn’t work.

We need religion not as an escape from the realities of life but rather as a way to encounter them directly. We need Jesus at least as much as we need Christ, to show us that there are things worth suffering for and, yes, there are things worth dying for. To allow our own gender biases, no matter which direction they flow, to cause us to overlook Jesus is an exercise in missing the point!

Of course, we all have tools we use to make our spiritual journey more accessible. We have language we like and language we don’t like  and we are far from ambivalent about our music, style of worship, style of preaching, how the sanctuary should be decorated, whether or not the custodian does a good job with the church bathroom – and all of those things have one thing in common: they have to do with the inside of the building and what happens there. Jesus, however, calls us out from our church country clubs into the streets of our community so that we, having been transformed in our own walk, might help others find their point of transformation – no matter their gender, or ours. Could it be that we get exercised around all of those other issues to avoid actually encountering people in their pain? If so, we are of all people most to be pitied.

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