When my usually sweet cat’s whiskers move forward, and the shape of his muzzle becomes square I know he’s had enough play and our next interaction may involve something sharp. Our interspecies communication isn’t at Dr. Doolittle levels… but it works for us. Mostly. We don’t share a common vocabulary, but we do have a language of sorts.
Language is such a remarkable tool. With words we can express emotions, describe beauty, build each other up and tear injustice down. Words help us to inspire, comfort and sometimes amuse. I’m the sort that appreciates not only a good turn of phrase but also feels that puns are an artform (your mileage may vary).
Of course, words are only part of our communication toolkit. We convey our thoughts using body language and grimaces, and pitch and tone have a place here as well. We also communicate with silence – from that meaningful quiet that occurs between grieving friends to the “silent treatment” offered to those who have tread on our last nerve.
Language can fail us for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there is a dissonance between what we are communicating verbally and our actions. I’ve thought for some time now that it would be helpful to have a dictionary that provided definitions alongside appropriate behaviors. A church that describes itself as friendly on the website but ignores the folks that have been visiting for weeks is a potent example reminiscent of one of the great lines in the Princess Bride when Vizzini says “inconceivable” for the nth time and Inigo responds: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Sometimes language fails because we choose to not to hear. Language only seems to work when there’s a willingness to hear and understand, and I have learned that I ignore my cat’s communication of his annoyance with great peril.
In this season, it is all too easy to pay attention to presidential debates and Facebook pages that are teeming with miscommunications. I wonder what would happen if we focused instead on the conversations happening just outside the walls of our churches. What are the deep fears and concerns (and joys!) spoken about around the dinner table, or at the conference table of the office on the corner? Where are hearts breaking… and does the church have the capacity and the desire to hear those stories? Do we have the words (or the Word?) to respond?
Let those who have ears to hear….