Strong Words

plumbbob_leadI love words. Finding the right one, precise, honed like a scalpel to slice sharply into the flesh of a sentence, gives me visceral pleasure. I abhor lazy diction, especially in prose.

When the kids were in high school, they would ask me to proofread their papers. We had an agreement that unless they indicated otherwise, their paper would get “the full mom.”  I’d give them feedback as if they were a peer, their drafts peppered with comments inserted in shorthand:  “awk,” (awkward), “vary w.c.,” (vary word choice), “m.s.” (more specific), “s.m.” (say more), “lazy,” (self-explanatory).  I don’t know whether this practice was good for our relationship, or made them better writers. I like to think they appreciated my honesty, affording them enough professional respect to give their work a tough read, having confidence in their ability to improve. Nate and I still laugh about one high school paper where he must have used the word “impotence” in every other sentence. “Have I taught you nothing about varying your diction?” I asked him, bemused. “Trust me, Mom,” he answered. “This is how this teacher wants it.” He was right. He got an A. Purely as piece of effective writing, it was a dud, though.

It’s hard to communicate how profoundly I feel words matter: they elevate conversation, unlock conflict, ignite our imaginations. It’s one of the reasons why the current presidency so pains me, the wanton disregard for language and its power to inspire, educate and uplift. I try to employ language as a surgeon uses his tools, for healing, painstakingly specific to the particular case in my care. DJT wields it like a cudgel, beating us down and dividing us with words, when his job is to elevate and unite. Words are free; they don’t belong to elites, and a broad, rich vocabulary– whether street, slang, regional or academic– is available to anyone willing to learn. Yet the prez sows mistrust for the worth of language in our culture and discourse.

This morning in church, the Old Testament reading was from the book of the prophet Amos. The verse uses a lovely, evocative metaphor: that our relationship with God is a “a plumb line,” a moral center against which we measure whether, like a builder’s wall, our lives are canted or straight, misaligned or solid.  I love the heavy, hanging truth of the image, the moral clarity of it, its plump mouthfeel. The Rector urged us to check in with our own plumb lines, to make sure we are hanging straight with God, to adjust if necessary.

My plumb line orients to Jesus’ radical teachings to care for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised.  It falls straight to his practice of healing and honoring women, lepers, or society’s rejects (like the Samaritan, an immigrant.)  JC is certainly no fan of the ruling class of his day, the powerful Pharisees, those who observe the letter of law to the detriment of its spirit, or intent. But he loves sinners, and children, outcasts and neighbors. I do not see these priorities reflected in our current leadership.

I wanted to find the exact Bible passage, so I went down the Google rabbit hole, finding instead an LA Times article by Laureane Keane.  She, too, was interested in the plumb line image. She reports:

          …I located a sermon online, “What’s your plumb line?” written by the Rev. Joseph J.
          Clifford, in which he writes, “By what do we measure our lives and our community?
          What tells us that things are aligned, that life is where it needs to be?”

            He also asks, “How do our plumb lines compare to God’s?”

            God’s plumb line “has a lot to do with the poor. It has a lot to do with
that is living in right relationship with God and neighbor. It has a lot
to do with justice.”

 Strong words, ones to live by.

Gratitude #14

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