My wife likes to make fun of me, occasionally. She has every right to do so. Why, you ask?
Here’s why: I will frequently talk about University of Michigan football using first-person plural pronouns. As if I’m on the team.
"Oh really," she says, "You guys are ready for this season?"
What can I say. It’s a reflex.
And yes, we’re ready.
Taking an aside from sports fandom, our words identify us with something bigger. The way we phrase our complaints, the way we refer to our “others,” makes a statement.
True Michigan fans will never say the words “Ohio State” but instead will say “Ohio” or “the Buckeyes.” In turn, Ohio State folks will say “the team up north” rather than name the state or mascot.
Think Voldemort, if you need a different example.
The language we use for the things that give us joy, that bring us pain, the way we talk about our challenges and struggles, they all draw an outline around the figure of our soul as we move through space. In that case, words matter a great deal.
The Scriptures talk a great deal about those words:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be pleasing to you O Lord… (The Psalms)
Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks… (Jesus)
The tongue is like a spark… (James)
We often take these teachings to apply to individual speech acts. What I say, what my child says, what I respond to – and yet it has to be bigger than that. And it is.
Because we always learn our words in community.
Children, for example, have in their hearts at birth a desire to love and connect with each and every person. They don’t really consider race or gender, save to ask questions about the visible differences (300-400 questions a day, remember).
But it is when they enter a bigger group – a family, a geographical area, a church community – that they learn the language of “different” or “dangerous” or “not like us.”
How we speak brings us in line with a bigger group, a group that expects our adherence and our allegiance, especially against our specific “others.”
Of course, this can be healthy or unhealthy. Raising our daughter, my wife and I will often address unkind or bitter words by saying, “We don’t talk like that.”
The difference between healthy and unhealthy group talk is best measured by the impact that language has on the greater world.
Faith is no different. We often use the language of talk show hosts or popular preachers of a particular movement or persuasion to make sure we align with our “team.”
Early on this is how we form our faith. We identify with a team that forms our identity, that gives us language to understand the new world of walking with Jesus that we have stepped into.
Sometimes this tribe is a healthy one, a team that is built on love and acceptance that builds us up and gives us life.
Sometimes the tribe is hostile and territorial, but frankly we’re new to the whole movement so how would we know? We have nothing to compare it to.
Then, eventually, we find ourselves at odds with the language of our tribe. We come to experience God as far broader in his mercy, and like Rich Mullins we find that “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy/I cannot find in my own” and suddenly we begin to use words that belong to a different team. Then...
We sit down at Thanksgiving dinner and when Grandpa drops that bludgeon-force slur like so many meals before, we suddenly speak up and call out the language for the shallow laziness that it is.
Suddenly, the team has doubts about our commitment. Are you really a team player?
Ultimately, the question in faith and life is this: what team – what tribe – do our words connect us to? With whom are we aligning ourselves with, using the terms we use and the words of distinction we create for others?
Because, as Jesus says, our hearts ride on the timbre of our words. With what team does our heart belong?
In a related story, we kickoff on September 1. We're ready to go.