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.