Just an Old-fashioned Love Song

Friends, at the College of Knowledge in Virginia, I earned a B.A. in English and History (by the skin of my teeth due to excessive bridge-playing, but I feel sure you will forgive my youthful indiscretions…). I have read plenty of old-fashioned books and old-fashioned poetry. I scored well on the verbal portion of the SATs and spawned a child who spoke like an old man at age 2 and scored perfectly on said test. I know the circumstances when formality and respect require the use of "vous" rather than "tu."

Sunday morning on CNN, during their "Voices of Faith" segment, I heard a preacher from New Orleans using an old-fashioned word. It certainly was church-y sounding. When the anchor person asked if the preacher thought God had punished New Orleans, the preacher said it was a "chastisement."

Here are the definitions of "chastise" as given in the online Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:
1) to inflict punishment on (as by whipping);
2) to subject to severe punishment, reproof, or criticism.

Here’s something I don’t like about the King James Version. The Bible is twistable enough, but the high-flown, poetic Bible language of the KJV is weapons-grade twistable. If you aren’t a reader, if you aren’t a student of language, and you hear your preacher use a good old-fashioned Bible word such as "chastisement," you might think, "Hmm, that sounds like a word from the Bible and a big one at that. Preacher must know more about this than I do. That Chastisement stuff sounds pretty bad; we’re lucky it wasn’t a Punishment!!"

Now I must admit that although I thought about this yesterday, I’m posting about it now because of something Lorna wrote in a comment. I had the same visceral response to her use of the word Rebuke that I had to New Orleans Preacher’s use of the word Chastisement.

When I wrote of the low attendance–"I was bummed out that one more beautiful Sunday meant we didn’t have great attendance. I wish I got that. But I don’t."–I did not mean that I don’t get great attendance. I meant that I don’t "get" not wanting to be at church! I’m certainly aware that people meet God in other places, but one hour a week for the gathered community seems slim at best, not for my self-esteem but for their life as a community. The underlying concern is for Small Church, not for my feelings or my pride. This fall season has been so slow in starting that those who are in church are beginning to feel rejected by those who are not. It’s an old pattern at Small Church, one in place long before I arrived there, and it concerns me that this particular cycle remains unbroken.

Rebuke, Chastisement–these are loaded words, weapons-grade. They say, "I have special knowledge of God’s purpose and intentions, because I know old-fashioned Bible Words."

Now, Lorna, this may not be true in your context. Perhaps Finnish Methodists are more familiar with the language of the Authorized Version. But the average American pew-sitter isn’t. And the average New England pew-sitter is unlikely to talk much about a sermon whether or not you would say it is "from God," unless it made him or her very angry.

I’ll admit that both the comment and Lorna’s post about her own preaching experience nicked me in a place that is sensitive. I’m probably reacting to the comment because I’m thinking about her story of tearing up a well-written text and preaching from the heart.

You see, in my context, stopping in the middle of the sermon and kneeling at the cross would be as suicidal as preaching my sermon would be in an Alabama Methodist church (see Kathy’s comment on my last post). The kneeling alone would create an uproar amongst non-kneeling Congregationalists!!

Everytime I try to wrap this post up with a powerful conclusion about Jesus calling us to love the world into the right shape rather than chastising it, I highlight and delete it, so I’m going to stop here and ask my bloggy friends, what do you think of these matters? How do literary words affect ordinary people? What’s the place of punishment language in religion today? Do we think of those moments when we are pulled back by the Spirit, or whatever you might call it in your own life, as rebukes or as something else?

I’m on the road to Connecticut for a non-blogger meet-up with my dear, breathtaking husband, to celebrate his birthday, but I will check in later.

10 thoughts on “Just an Old-fashioned Love Song”

  1. I guess for me, the concern about the church’s ‘insider jargon’ is that it turns people away and creates an even greater divide between the churched and un-churched.
    I personally don’t use the high-octane language of punishment. My image of God doesn’t include the “Mean-Parent” image.
    Words such as chastisement, punishment, and rebuke only serve to perpetuate the idea that the church is in the world to wag a finger at God’s people and say “You’ve been a very bad person” — no wonder people are hesitant to come back to the church after an absence. They’re likely afraid they will get detention!
    For what it’s worth, I see God as an inviting, loving presence in our lives. As for the Spirit….I feel the Spirit invite me to many things……to a pastoral call that I had not scheduled but was ultimately needed by both myself and the person I visited…to a change in a sermon…to a new and richer life in relationship with the Holy.
    sorry, that was preachy….

  2. See, I think that the average person hearing the word “chastisement” is going to think, “Boy is *that* guy out of touch. And they wonder why nobody cares about church anymore.”
    Here’s my two cents:
    It probably wouldn’t suprise you that I would say that it’s all poetry, because all language about God is analogical. And that’s not just the KJV, it includes the NRSV, which generally strives for painstaking fidelity to the original text, but even if they get it right, the *original text* is analogical, so it’s still poetry. Yes, the downside is that the NRSV, too, is weapons-grade twistable, but that’s not the fault of the poetry (because how else does one describe the indescribable?), that’s an issue of our own interpretation.
    A quick search for “rebuke” on my Palm device (love that I can do that) yields three results in the gospels. All are of Jesus rebuking someone, or calling us to rebuke someone: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” (Luke 17) There are plenty more examples of Jesus rebuking someone than that, although perhaps a different word is used. And that was in the NRSV, not exactly an ancient translation.
    One of my frustrations with the liberal church (which is where I am grounded as well, so it’s a frustration with ME) is that we are (justifiably) put off by the fire and brimstone of the right, and are so afraid of being associated with that, that we domesticate Jesus into our buddy who’s just lovin’ us in all our cute imperfection, hoping we’ll change our ways sometime. I think we want to make Jesus a helluva lot more patient than I think he is. Jesus was loving and forgiving, yes, but dammit, he was Not Nice.
    So my issue is not with the fact of rebuking, but the particular stuff that people are lifting up as worthy of rebuke.
    Damn right we should rebuke (and be rebuked) for our greed, our self-centeredness, our lack of commitment to the least of these, matters which Jesus spent a lot of time talking about. Does that mean that God doesn’t love us, that we are no longer worthy of love? When I reprimand my daughter for running away from me in the parking lot, does it mean I don’t love her anymore? (And by the way, I put chastisement and rebuking in a totally different category than punishment. Punishment is punitive, I see the former as discipline in the sense of teaching. I wouldn’t use those words because they are old fashioned, but the activities they describe are part of our learning and growing.)
    Jesus preached some suicidal sermons too–the one in Nazareth would have been the death of him if he’d stuck around, and of course the raising of Lazarus was the last nail in the coffin. Now here is where self-rebuke comes in, because if I feel the gospel leading me in a dangerous direction and I soften the edges because of what it might mean for my career… well, I can justify my behavior in any number of ways, including honorable stuff like not wanting to get fired because my family depends on my income. But the fact is, I am called to take up the cross and follow.
    The thing with the liberal church is that we have taken to heart verses like “take the plank out of your own eye” and “let the one without sin cast the first stone.” I think it’s good we have internalized these things–it checks our own self-righteousness. But it should not paralyze us from speaking out against wrong, which you so clearly did, Songbird.

  3. oh (((songbird)))
    I’m really sorry I hurt you.
    a thousand apologies. As I wrote the comment I hesitated over the word rebuke but could’t find another one. But I should have taken more time or care to find a less-loaded word.
    To put the kneeling at the cross in context. It’s definitely not done in Metsku either. We still have the wooden cross there as a left over from the 24/7 prayer week – I hope it stays – because it’s two Sundays in a row been a focal point of the service in a way that the altar has never been.
    Most of our congregations here in the Swedish conference of the UMC are tiny. 20 is good attendance in many. I hadn’t thought your post through in view of how the congregation might feel – abadoned, alone, worried for the future, and for that I’m sorry too.

  4. Ah, I’m thinking of the wonderful old gospel song “I Been ‘Buked” and the impact the word “rebuke” had in that context. Our wonderful English language can be so precise and imprecise at the same time. Unlike the Icelandic folk, who have dozens of words for snow to describe its infinite variety, we tend to use our words more generally and contextually. Thus, when we have words like chastisement and rebuke, we tend to read it through the prism of our view of life and the world.
    I hate the thought that using such rich old words creates a sense of elitism in the church. I struggle with the sense that we are dumbing down our language to a lowest common denominator.
    When I’m looking for a middle ground, and trying to understand the complexity of different homiletic traditions and how we can learn from them, I reread Peter Gomes’ Sermons and remind myself how simplicity is a virtue in preaching, and that this is not dumbing down of any order. Whether I can achieve that is another thing altogether.
    When I think of the application of language to the Divine, either in the KJV or the NRSV, I agree with reverendmother – it’s poetry. We try to clothe the ineffable in something that gives it a form we can recognize. Only poetry can do that, even if it’s not always recognizable as poetry.
    Poetry is beautiful, but it’s essentially about speaking truth to…well, to whatever, to power, to money, to evil. The stark beauty of a well-turned phrase in the interest of speaking out against evil, as you did, Songbird, is the best and highest use of language. Think of birch trees in a winter landscape. That was your sermon, and it was both powerful and beautiful.
    I’m proud of you, for what it’s worth.

  5. First, I’m sorry to be offline for so long, not having had a chance to reply especially to Lorna. Lorna, you did nothing wrong! No need to apologize! This issue of mine with the language was already there, waiting to be–well, poked!!
    And I continue to grapple with church being tepid rather than warm. If anything I felt “‘Buked” by your experience as compared to our average week in worship. mibi, I don’t know that song, but maybe I need to hear it?
    Typing oh-so-quietly in the dark while Pure Luck sleeps, more when I get home.

  6. As an unashamed liberal, you’ll not be stunned to hear that rebuke/chastise is simply not in my faith vocabularly…it doesn’t mean that I am not very aware of God making it clear when I’m going against his plans for me, but I simply don’t see it in terms of rebuke I hope it doesn’t mean, either, that I hesitate from exploring with the congregation when I think we’re way off course…but it’s we, not they, so again it’s more lament than rebuke. And I guess that I have a similar set of buttons to yours, Songbird, which get pressed by that sort of God talk…which implies to me a sense that the speaker is somehow part of an inner cadre from which I’m excluded…Oh heck. Anyone want to unravel any more raw edges this morning???

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