An elderly family member with Alzheimer’s was incapacitated after a fall in her apartment, and my family and I became responsible for her care. Unfinished work mounted up, we had taxes to do, and we felt all the swarming nibbling host of worries that fray the nerves without sinking the soul. I would be an ungrateful sod if I thought such trials anything exceptional.Yet Christian hope pertains to the lesser as well as the greater trials of our life. The short petition that follows the Lord’s Prayer in the Roman eucharistic rite expresses the idea beautifully: “In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
“Speak truth to power.” The phrase resonates with the biblical prophets and the courage it takes to challenge those preoccupied with maintaining their power at the expense of truth. The phrase rings true in Robert Mugabe’s rule over Zimbabwe, or in the stonewalling silence of a church in the wake of a sexual abuse crisis.Yet in American culture, and especially in mainline Protestantism, the phrase has become hackneyed. Pastors invoke the phrase in sermons; seminary professors use it in classroom lectures; groups organize around it. One person even suggested that the phrase is the very heart of the pastoral vocation. Is it really?
In American theological education, we are in the midst of recruitment season. Applications to M.Div. programs across the country have been read and argued over by admissions committees, and offers of admission have gone out in the mail. Now we are wooing our accepted students, making the case that our school is the right place for them to become the ministers God is calling them to be.
The word jargon suggests needlessly obscure words that insiders use to dazzle and confuse outsiders. But if we call the same words “technical vocabulary,” we’re suggesting a precise and established way of speaking that emphasizes accuracy. Christians have lots of words like hermeneutical, ecclesiology and sanctification.
One of our family hobbies is to tackle new languages at the dinner table or on trips or in odd moments before bed. I can’t say we’ve made great strides, but we have ventured far enough to decipher Old English fuþark and cry hwœt! as needed, write our names in Egyptian hieroglyphs and order pastizzi in Maltese.
Oliver Sacks, neurologist and writer about the quirks of the brain, grew up in a strictly observant Orthodox Jewish family. When he was 18 his mother found out he was gay and told him she wished he had never been born. As an adult he chose not to follow the religion and rituals of his parents. But eventually Sacks came to see the value of sabbath observance. As he lay dying, he found his “thoughts drifting to the sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” Sacks died in August (New York Times, August 14).