THE POWER OF WORDS
I love language. I love the way that a great stand-up comic, a compelling TED Talk speaker, or a thoughtful preacher can frame our world in new ways with the mere power of their words.
As the inheritors of the Christian faith, we have received a vast collection of words — powerful things.
And yet these words often take on a life of their own. Words that were once beautiful and compelling, become horribly misunderstood over time. Good words are misused, and they now leave a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. Some words just become clichéd and diluted, while others become weapons.
We have plenty of those words: evangelism, sin, tithe, truth, pure, authority, power, salvation, righteousness, church, revelation, holiness, testimony, repent… I could go on.
These words can give hope and make God more visible. But their use and misuse over time has made it increasingly challenging to do so.
Talk about evangelism and watch the room empty. Talk about truth and then listen for the swishing sound of eyes rolling.
Sometimes it’s necessary to abandon words that cause confusion, and to begin sculpting new vocabulary for a new time. We do this all the time on campus, in order to make sure that the intensions of our words are heard.
But there is a trade-off to this approach. These words are biblical words. They have united people behind God’s story and God’s vision for millennia. When we lose the understanding of these words, the stories begin to lose meaning, and the vision becomes lost in translation.
But these words have already been lost, haven’t they? They were lost when their meaning became twisted.
If we want to see God’s vision take root in the next generation, then we have to ask: How will we save and restore the meaning of these words once again?
NEW LIFE IN OLD WORDS
I will regularly devote a sermon to talking about one of these words, hoping to restore its rich heritage and claim it once again as a tool of vision and hope.
But this year we’re taking a step further, and spending an entire semester exploring the meaning of “Holy.”
While at one time, holiness was central to God’s vision and call for both Israel and the Christian Church, today holiness is a bad word, usually associated with legalism, judgmentalism, and self-inflation (“holier than thou”).
When we looked at its history, we found that the word has two root meanings: 1) set apart, and 2) designated for a special purpose. But it also shares its origins with words like “whole, health, and healing,” and has historically been associated more with communities than individuals.
So, we might say that we’ve seen something holy when God calls together entire communities, setting them apart, and giving them a special purpose: to restore wholeness where there is brokenness, and healing where there is hurt.
That doesn’t sound like a bad word at all. That sounds like hope.
Isn’t that what young adults seem to be looking for? From service work to activism, they are inclined towards the holy. Our goal is to extend Christ’s invitation into an ancient holy community, devoted to all kinds of “bad words” with good meanings that give life and hope.