When people find out I am a pastor, they typically respond in one of three ways. Some people sort of freeze up, awkwardly excuse themselves, and disappear. It is clear that my presence has made them incredibly uncomfortable. Other people will start talking about some past church experience (sometimes good, sometimes not so good) and eventually express some sort of spiritual longing and desire to reconnect with God with the clear implication that I’m supposed to help them resolve this. Others apologize for swearing.
Now when people apologize for swearing, I usually dismiss it. I say something like, “Hey, it’s not a big deal. Don’t worry about it.” But what I want to say is something that would take a lot longer to explain. When someone I have just met apologizes to me for swearing in my presence, here’s what I’m thinking: “With all of the things that are wrong in this world, with all of the pain that we cause one another and to the world God created, I’m just not all that concerned with the fact that you just cussed in front of me. As long as you’re not taking the Lord’s name in vain or swearing in front of my kids, as a pastor, I’m really not offended. It is the writer in me that is most bothered by your foul language.
Some of the most vulgar people that I know are writers, and I find that really baffling, because it runs absolutely counter to the work that we do. As writers, we value words. We fawn over them. We literally sweat it out every day trying to find the exact right combination of words. And because we are people of the word, there is perhaps no greater faux pas in writing than the use of a tired or clichéd phrase. I’ve taken more than my fare share of writing classes, and I can tell you that there’s nothing worse than being accused of peddling in cliché.
Why is that? What’s wrong with reusing a phrase that was effective enough to become a part of our language?
First of all, cliché is lazy. It is often the first thing that pops into your head. When you want to describe how something difficult became much easier, your mind is probably going to suggest, “Hey, what about running downhill?” Right? Running is hard but running downhill is a lot easier. It’s low hanging fruit. So you grab it.
But the overused, overworked phrase has lost much of its power to evoke. When we hear language that is fresh and new, we have to process those words. We have to think about them and consider what they mean. The clichéd phrase, however, is dead. It is so familiar that we read right over it. The problem is that we don’t actually think about the time we eclipsed some huge hill, and started down the other side, and again found our stride, and caught our breath, and allowed the hill to carry us onward. We don’t think about it because we’ve heard the description too many times.
However, if I were to use this analogy: “Writing this essay was like learning a computer program. At first, it was really difficult, but at some point, it clicked in and it became really easy.” Now you probably haven’t heard that comparison too many times, and so you actually have to think about an experience, and more than likely will understand what I’m saying on an emotional level. “Oh, yeah, that make sense,” you think. “I totally get that.”
Which brings me back to swearing. The ol’ f-bomb, in particular, often functions more like linguistic filler than anything else. I’ve spent time on athletic fields and on construction sites where there is a constant stream of f-ing this, f-ing that, where the word is supposed to amplify what the person is saying. Only it doesn’t work, because it is so overused. It’s like scenery. It’s like the dust that flies out from the blade of the table saw. It’s everywhere. It is the ultimate cliché.
This is not to say that there is no place for swearing in our writing. People swear. It’s how some people talk, and it’s not really honest to tell a story about that construction site without some salty speech. But even then, we should be aware that its overuse does nothing more than anesthetize the reader to the word, therefore sapping it of its power. It would be wise, then, to save it for the right moment, and to keep in mind that in the biggest, most emotional moments, it might be more powerful to take the profanity out. The best writers are the ones who are always finding a new and different way of saying something. We know this. We just need to employ it.
And now that I’ve spoken as a writer, allow me to say something briefly as a pastor. If you are a person who believes that there is a Creator-God who constructed the universe and gave human beings a unique role within that world, then you also believe that our humanness is sacred. And part of what makes our humanness sacred or holy is our capacity to communicate through language. The fact that God also chose to reveal himself to us through the word speaks directly to its value and power. And yet, how often do we consider the value of the words that we speak?
Recently, I attended a spiritual retreat with my pastor, Tom Arthur, and as we prayed through the Beatitudes from Matthew, chapter 5, it occurred to me that Jesus said more in these few lines that I would utter in my entire life. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled . . . blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Go ahead, spend an hour just chewing on those three lines. Such is the power of the carefully chosen word. Words have the power to harm and to heal, to conceal and illuminate. They have the power to change your life and the lives of the people around you.
I wish I was the kind of person who always handled words with respect, but the truth is that I can be incredibly careless—because I want to make someone laugh, or prove that I’m not uptight. But when I really think about it, I want to be someone who treats words with respect by listening more deeply and speaking (and writing) like someone who understands the sacredness of words.