? dId U Mean

One of the signs that the world is coming to an end is that a week ago or so I went to an evening church service. My reasons were more scientific than spiritual simply because I have continued to notice how “foreign” the chrisitian world is to me. Aside from being lulled to sleep – literally, I was out like a light for a chunk of the teaching – I started hearing all these words and phrases that at one point in life I understood, but now rang like a foreign language. I wanted to stand up in the middle of it all and ask, “What do you mean when you say that?” My response was part curiosity and part frustration that the speaker assumed I was “with” him.

I know I am guilty of presuming my intention is understood far too many times; that I too have used the vernacular of whatever group, organization, etc., I was in without considering the possibility that someone in the room wasn’t “with” me.

Once Steven Biko when asked by his South African Judge, “why do you call yourselves black? You are not so much black as brown,” Biko responded, “ Why do you call yourself white? You are more pink, than white.” Two different groups assuming the other is on the same page with intent.

We use words with a tremendous presumption that the ones who hear us have a similar understanding of what we mean. How do we know we aren’t misunderstood?
Do we define each proper noun/adjective/verb? Or does it have to do with the community of which we are a part? What happens when someone outside the community enters? Will he or she hear those catch phrases and words so easily thrown around the way we mean or do they come to the room with their own background that defines those words?

One of the more trivial yet fascinating aspects of the TV show “The West Wing,” is the constant examination of what language they should use to convey a message through the press core to the world, to a national leader, to the other party. The show is a lesson in grammatical tennis, tossing back and forth different words and what they mean versus how they will be understood. Not that we should all live so frantically, but I must wonder what would happen if the general populous started having the freedom to ask openly what others mean? What would it look like if someone could go to a church service and not feel like every word was one more reason to not come back, that they could interact with the messenger instead of just hearing a message? What if reporters took more responsibility in communicating a clear message than inflaming the emotions of their readers/listeners/viewers? What if you and I dropped presumption and insecurity for honest exchange and trust enough to listen and asks?

Maybe it has to do with relationship. Do words fall empty if they lack relationship? Can words be a stepping off point instead of the end of the point, the end of the conversation?
Through out my undergrad classes at university the same thing was said again and again: the assumption of language is a shared meaning. But those same Profs were tossing in the idea of a post-modern effect on language – how meaning is relative - with one Prof referencing Prince’s changing of his name to a symbol…not a word. Yet, they all concluded that meaning was based in relationship.

In the choreography of coincidence that is my life, I received from Netflix this last week a BBC series called “The Human Face”. In the first episode they explore the incongruencies that happen when we communicate without seeing each other’s face. They point out that there are rarely cases of pedestrian rage because unlike during the road rage incidences, there is the ability to have the unspoken apology expressed when two faces bump into each other. Even deeper, they look at the increasing number of kids growing up playing computer games and how they eventually suffer in the relational department because they lack the experience of face-to-face interaction and conflict. But the one that really hit home was how in email we try to head off misunderstood meaning in words by adding facial icons - “:)” or “:(” – to express meaning that is lost by not being face-to-face.

After that church service was over, I entered into a conversation with a couple of guys that regularly attend. They asked if I liked it, and in my ever too honest response said, “I wasn’t too impressed.” (And I was trying to hold back some of how I really felt) I then asked them why they came. They had their reasons here and there, but underneath it all I could hear that it was the community aspect that they really were drawn to. The community brought meaning to the words they shared.

A few days ago I was talking with a friend who made a very good point about the whole idea of having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Quite simply, since Jesus isn’t physically here and now, and not all together measurably audible, then how can one have a personal relationship with him? In one sense it’s kind of like the email thing. I can read the words, just as you are reading these, but if I don’t know the face, the character behind the words then how can know I am hearing the meaning intended? My friend knows his wife loves him in part because he sees her face when she says those words, he physically experiences life with her in such proximity that her “meaning” is understood.

All said, if there is this enormous volume of difficulty in meaning in human-to-human relationships, how can anybody who claims to “know” God, “know” Jesus presume that it is easy to do so? Much less that they take such liberty to communicate so haphazardly, so poorly the reality of him?

I have a hard enough time in my one-to-one experience of God, hearing him “correctly,” “seeing” him here and now. I often ask him “What do you mean, did you mean?” And yes, I get some insight into the answers through the various communities I get to be a part of. The beauty of those communities though is the freedom to ask “What do you mean when you say that word?” To not be able to do so would be inconceivable…. and unlike Vizzini in The Princess Bride, I do think that word means what I think it means. ;)