Another Look: To Be Well-Spoken

Another Look: To Be Well-Spoken

Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

• Jeremiah 23:29, NRSV

• • •

One of my personal goals in life is to be well-spoken.

I am tired of “lingo.”

I reject group-imposed boundaries around how to express what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, what I’m considering. I want to find a way to say it so that it grabs, sticks, bites, hurts, heals. First, in my own heart. Then, if anyone should listen, in theirs.

Hell is being trapped in a world of clichés. Nothing is real. Nothing has weight or substance. Nothing penetrates. Nothing wounds or nourishes. I want words that bring the dead to life.

Bounded, insider language is a Christian problem (and a problem for all “tribes”).

Words create worlds. We live in those worlds and they define us. Someone using different words doesn’t fit in our world. We can’t listen to them. We find it hard to take in their foreign phrases, to translate them into something we can grasp. We summon the auto-immune response and reject them out of concern for safety. We watch, we listen to, we read those whose language fits the preconceived notion. We deem them “safe.” They will not disturb our world.

In this world, we get together day after day, week after week, year after year, and say the same damn things to each other! Imaginations atrophy as we sit there safe, sipping our iced tea.

These gated worlds!

I want words that shatter worlds! And speak new ones into being! Let there be light!

A coworker once gave me information about a new patient and his family. Baptists, of the independent, fundamental variety. King James Only. White shirt, dark tie. Nothing but the blood Baptists. Straight as an arrow. Locked in a narrow world.

“I can speak that language, ” I said.

I made the visit. I asked the standard introductory questions, using their terms. I inquired. I listened. I showed respect. They allowed me to enter their world because I could verify the passcode. I knew the secret handshake.

But once inside, the conversation shifted. I sat in silence where one might have expected a platitude. Then I spoke a single turn of phrase that caught them off guard. Tears welled up. For a brief moment, a slice of raw humanity appeared through a crack in the gate. Their pain bled out a little. I’d like to think a bit of healing took place.

In that moment, no shibboleth was spoken. No Christianese. No lingo. Just a human heart bleeding and a wordless moan.

Many of us are not ready for that. I wasn’t, not for years. Even today, there are times when the reality is too sharp, too uncomfortable. Discomfited by the heaviness, I blurt out some cliché. And my mouth tastes like dust.

The authors and speakers and friends I love rarely if ever fall into this trap. I never know what they’re going to say or how they’re going to say it. They speak epiphanies. They build metaphorical worlds that carry me away and I am along for the ride: rising and falling on an open sea inhaling sharp salt air one moment, feet sinking into a spongy forest floor the next. It’s fairies and rabbit holes, wardrobes and windswept plains, ball yards and small town backyards, hobbits and desert saints and boarding school wizards, slums and palaces and log cabins and creaky old Victorian mansions.

But it’s not just the pictures they paint, the metaphorical worlds they create, it’s the medicine they give: words fitly spoken. Words that turn my head, that cause my jaw to drop. Words that make me stop and turn around. That make me shiver. That wrap me in a warm sherpa throw. That make my heart bleed ’til it’s whole again.

Not the same old lingo. Not tired trade language. If ever they use such words, they do so only as a foil for that which is clearly genuine.

Don’t let me settle for it, Lord. Put fire and hammers and balm and blankets in my mouth. Heal the sick, raise the dead, comfort the brokenhearted. Make the story real and build a new world.

What a gift is language!

Oh, to be well-spoken!

30 thoughts on “Another Look: To Be Well-Spoken

  1. “David Cornwell says:
    November 5, 2018 at 9:52 pm
    Thank you both. I’ve missed this crowd and Chaplain Mike. I’ll do my best to hang around for a bit.” best news of the week!


  2. Thank you both. I’ve missed this crowd and Chaplain Mike. I’ll do my best to hang around for a bit.


  3. ‘trust thyself’ . . . .
    a theme from Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’, has challenged the idea that we too often discount speaking ‘our own truth’ as OURS, as original and not unconnected to the Source of Creation, so each individual brings something into this world that is new for the service of Creation as contribution unique and indispensible to mankind

    ” A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. ”
    “Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.”

    (quotes from the essay ‘Self-Reliance’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson)


  4. Hello TED,

    loved that Kafka quote and yes, it does fit in with Jeremiah’s call to ‘break up your fallow ground’

    as to the power of ‘words’, I think it was Wordsworth (no pun intended) who wrote this gem:

    “The World Is Too Much with Us

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”
    (Wm. Wordsworth)


  5. sometimes our ‘words’ will not suffice, hence the wisdom of the Franciscan saying:
    “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

    in these times of the great dissonance between the hate mongering of a political leader and the self-proclaimed Christian leaders who follow him;
    that Franciscan saying may help to divide the sheep from the goats. Example: if your political choice states he supports health coverage for pre-existing conditions, and yet his own voting record shows his consistent opposition to this coverage;
    then you might want to go ‘Franciscan’ at the polls and vote for them who do not try to con you with lies.


  6. :). So true. I communicate monthly with my Pastor from 1979 and he knows better (the state of my spiritual welfare) but I guess it still grates on him a tad that I don’t sound right.


  7. Mike, I found this quote by Franz Kafka years ago. See if it works for you. I think Kafka may have been reading your Jeremiah verse.

    If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books, and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.


  8. They’re probably praying for your Salvation, you Apostate Backslider.

    That’s why I’ve come to hate Christianese. It’s made the jump from a Technical Language (specialized technical terms) to a Mystery Language (tribal IFF codes for the Inner Ring to freeze out all Enemies). ANd if you grew up in the Bubble where Christianese is your mother tongue, well, a Fish Doesn’t Know It’s Wet.

    I’m not a GUBA (Grew Up Born Again inside the Bubble); I have an outsider’s POV and Christianese just doesn’t communicate with anyone on the Outside. Something I learned when I attempted fiction writing; if you require long footnotes for all the technical/specialized terms, you’ve already lost your reader. The narrative flow is broken, and you’re off on expository tangent after expository tangent.


  9. Thanks for your thoughts HUG. I haven’t spoken with those folks Srain 30 years and they didn’t reply. I’m sure it sounded like I had lost my way because I didn’t speak the language anymore. Perhaps prayers were said for me to find my way again.


  10. david cornwell?! I haven’t seen that name here for a long time, but remember him as being possibly my favourite commenter…sweet.


  11. Because your condolences spoke Truth.
    All too often, Christianese buzzwords obscure the meaning.

    “If you don’t want to call it God, call it Truth.”
    — the “Bill” who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, when asked about “higher power?”


  12. You are probably thinking that I need a psychiatrist by now. Not really — but it has taken me a lifetime to shake off the pain inflicted by well meaning but troubled language.

    You don’t need a shrink.
    I’ve been there too.
    Another casualty of the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay, Jack Chick, and the Evangelical Bubble.

    For example: a room full of people engaged aloud in prayer which was loud, with each voice trying to make sure his prayer was certainly heard by God.

    Or trying to one-up everyone else without actually noticing he was doing it.


  13. A long time ago I noticed that God talk had started wearing very thin on me. I’d go to certain events or visit with people I needed to visit, some relatives, but mostly friends or acquaintances. I knew before the door opened that I’d be caught up in a way of discussion that I dreaded to enter into once again. It wasn’t that these were bad people. It’s just that the language they used had become stale, coded, and standard. And some of it made me feel very uncomfortable because it did not really fit my reality.

    Just one small and in some ways insignificant example: We would no more than open a conversation before the promise of the “rapture” would be invoked as being some kind of hope for us — as if Jesus might suddenly take away our pain and transform our existence by our being caught up to the sky and then leaving the world to burn.

    When I was a child I’d hear similarities to this kind of talk and it would scare me to the point that I’d actually lie awake at night in fear — and wonder if I was really saved — or would be left to burn in this world or in hell. Or language about what it meant to be “saved” and what one must do to “pray through” preferably at the church altar (kneeling rail). Warnings were issued to children that certain kinds of behavior were signs of being “lost.” Once on a ride through the country a sign appeared along the road reading “Prepare to meet Thy God.” Again, this was very frightening to me. I saw it as a normal road sign — not something put up by a church or individual. Was God suddenly going to appear, look at me, and see that something was wrong with me? And snatch me off to hell?

    You are probably thinking that I need a psychiatrist by now. Not really — but it has taken me a lifetime to shake off the pain inflicted by well meaning but troubled language. When I went to college it was there again. Language that I’d never be comfortable in engaged in by well meaning people. For example: a room full of people engaged aloud in prayer which was loud, with each voice trying to make sure his prayer was certainly heard by God. I never learned to pray like this. I felt like an inferior soul wandering holy halls alone.

    My little essay here wandered away somewhat from what Chaplain Mike began. But language has consequences and builds worlds — or destroys souls.


  14. A friend and mentor from my evangelical days died recently. I sent a condolence that expressed my thoughts about his fundamental decency and paternal kindness. I knew that those words would be looked at askew, lacking all the expected lingo about his love for the Lord and God’s people, etc. but I just didn’t have it in me to talk fake. He was particularly kind and decent so that’s what I said.
    I have begun writing music again after a 30 year hiatus. There is a particular joy in language when combined with music. The music speaks so the words can be chosen economically. The music supports the thoughts and translates the ideas. Going from major to minor chords, key changes and so forth, all bring richness and emotion to even the most mundane of phrases.


  15. “. . . . The sages have a hundred maps to give
    That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
    They rattle reason out through many a sieve
    That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
    And all these things are less than dust to me
    Because my name is Lazarus and I live.”

    (an excerpt from GK Chesterton’s poem ‘The Convert’)


  16. –> “I remain continually surprised at how often I use language to disguise my thought than to express it.”

    Yep, I hear ya. Of course, one thing that’s led me to that point is watching some people offend others by “speaking my truthful mind.” There can be a lot of carnage in speaking what one truly believes.

    I think what CM is talking about is different, though. He’s talking about the near perfect phrasing of an idea or thought that brings revelation or healing, not carnage.


  17. This post is one of the most beautiful and poetic things I’ve ever read. A heart-touching prayer. Thank you, Chaplain Mike.


  18. So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
    Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-
    Trying to use words, and every attempt
    Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
    Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
    For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
    One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
    Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
    With shabby equipment always deteriorating
    In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
    Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
    By strength and submission, has already been discovered
    Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
    To emulate – but there is no competition –
    There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
    And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
    That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
    For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

    ? T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


  19. Well spoken Chap. I find myself speaking to those I work with and ask me about God more often now than I used to, “I don’t know” rather than try to make up something spiritual and loft because it’s true and right. I wish we would all say it more often.


  20. I remain continually surprised at how often I use language to disguise my thought than to express it. Other people can be extremely risky.

    And I remain surprised how much easier it is to be forthright in Spanish than in an increasingly politicised English. I have said things in Spanish that would get me fired if I said them in English.


  21. Unless you and I have immersed ourselves in the literary/artistic/popular culture of the 21st century, we have little right to judge it. I know I haven’t immersed myself in it, but what I’ve read from secondary sources is that in the world of literature new poetry is flourishing and popular to an extent unhoped for and unimagined a couple of decades ago, when poetry was thought to be dying as an art form. Of course, the new poetry is aesthetically different from what came before, it is world shattering, to use CM’s phrase, borrowing from the traditions of hip-hop and rap, cross-cultural idioms, and popular culture that old folks like you and me may consider alien and unfriendly. We can’t expect the world, nor language and the arts, to stand still in a fixed pose that is canon to us, but irrelevant and meaningless to younger generations; it just doesn’t work that way.


  22. Chaplin Mike, As demonstrated by your prayer liturgy yesterday you have a gift and certainly an appreciation for language and its effective use to really communicate. With your experience, your background , your temperament, vocation, your talent and your God given ability you have a different perspective and depth than many people you interact with. As cited in your article , you have to “know your audience”, where the come from and background to appreciate their level of discourse.
    I , like many people my age, of course lament the lack of education in the humanities and an appreciation for them. Simple eloquence conveying a complicated thought is hard to achieve. For some reason the best example I have in my head is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber, a wonderful, funny, well written short story and one most people use to identify with. It was made into a movie with Danny Kaye, I think in the early 1950 s and was somewhat true to the storyline and the use of language and imagery to provoke emotion, humor.. A “new” movie with Ben Stiller was made a few years ago and was just awful. The imagination and the whole unique and universal message as Mitty as the every man daydreamer to be more than he was , was lost. To shorthand it , it was a good example of the “dumbing” down or the lost of appreciation of effective word play and thought.
    Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce and now Bill Maher used/use language to make people laugh and think, good examples of communication skill. Of course being 70 years old , I blame the internet, the public schools, television, movies and basically modern culture for the decline in our language skills as a culture. Oh I forgot, I also blame President Obama and the Democrats. LOL, ROFL, WTF and BFF, just exhausted my internet vocabulary.
    I remember having to learn the “Gettysburg Address” and just doing it because I had to. Years later the first time I saw the Lincoln Memorial and went to Gettysburg I really appreciated the genius of Lincoln and the message he was trying to convey.
    I am sure in your travels when you cite or mention Martin Luther and have many people assume it to be Martin Luther King Jr. who certainly in America in more well known . Again in our culture today , it seems to me, the old get off my lawn guy, we have to assume the bar is low on communication and reference skills. Most of the time clichés are enough , depending on the situation. .
    I do appreciate your thought and share your viewpoint. However I do think that clichés, stereotypes, platitudes and simple statements of the obvious do serve a purpose. For many it is enough and that is their comfort level and the level that they live and understand. Does that sound too condescending , snotty or whatever, I hope not .

    Thought , imagery , transmission not just of facts but ideas and our humanity , our civilization is dependent upon good communication skills. That is why the printing press is the most important and world changing invention in history.

    After reading my comments above, I am concerned about my ability to communicate effectively. If I were a book I would be banned in 1950’s Boston or burned in 1930’s Berlin. I would be on the “ash heap of history” or “on the wrong side of history: , love my sound bites, if they are small and easy to digest.


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