Using words with care

I am fortunate to have fairly good hearing, but I am aware that it is not as good as it once was. Yesterday we had a few minutes to wait in the car while my son ran an errand. I was playing a word game with my granddaughter who was sitting in the row behind me as we waited. She has discovered “knock knock” jokes, but doesn’t quite understand how humor works. But she knows that her grandfather loves word games and she can raise laughter and a good feeling by trying to make knock knock jokes. Because I was sitting in front of her, I didn’t always turn around to look at her when she spoke. I discovered that there were several times when I didn’t fully understand what she said. For example, she said “Barbie” referring to a doll and I heard “Bobbie,” the name of a boy. Our granddaughter has no problem correcting me when she knows I have misunderstood, so I had reason to listen very carefully. But I simply didn’t hear every nuance of what she was saying. I had to ask her to repeat several times during the few minutes we played the game.

So far my hearing has not prompted me to investigate hearing aids. I have had a simple hearing test administered by my doctor at my annual check-up, but have not gone in for a full test by an audiologist. When my hearing loss becomes more severe, I assume there will come a time for me to be tested. I suspect that my closest family members will be the ones to notice and urge me to seek a remedy for my lack of hearing.

The reality is that most of us will experience a degree of disability due to a lack of hearing at some point in our lives. Everyone I know who has lived to be older than 100 years has had significant loss of hearing. I can recall many conversations with elders in which I strained to make myself heard and I have a pretty loud voice and am trained in projection and speaking slowly and clearly. I invested a lot of energy in speaking clearly and being understood in four decades of being a preacher. I had to learn quite a bit about microphones and sound systems so that those who came to church could hear and understand what I was saying.

All of that, however, is not the same thing as being completely deaf. There is a rich culture in the community of people who are profoundly deaf. Many who are born deaf learn a sign language such as American Sign Language. And like other languages, ASL carries with it a distinct culture, humor and capacity to express what it means to be human. Most of us who experience the partial deafness that comes with aging don’t know much about how it is to be unable to hear. You can tell in part by the language we don’t use: sign language. You can tell in part by the language we do use: spoken language.

Of course there are many people who are fluent in multiple languages. You don’t have to be deaf to learn sign language and there are plenty of deaf persons who are fluent in the language we speak. Some can read lips very well. Others read written words. Many persons who are deaf are excellent writers and editors. They know what we say and how we use words. They also recognize it when we use language in ways that is inaccurate and sometimes hurtful. When it comes to deafness, news headlines are particularly bad in the way they use deafness in negative ways. I don’t know how many times I’ve read headlines that speak of people “turning a deaf ear” to problems. It might be the weather forecast, or an appeal to a legislative body, or almost any other topic. Using language that way clearly uses the disability of deafness to refer to willful ignorance. Deaf people are not more ignorant than those of us who can hear. And they are definitely more intelligent than those who chose to be willfully ignorant.

We simply need to be more careful with how we use words. It isn’t just deafness. I am struck at how frequently I read or hear language that might be hurtful to people who have disabilities or suffer from mental illness. American slang is filled with such references. A poor choice is referred to as “dumb” or “lame.” An annoying habit might be called “OCD.” A creative person is called “crazy” or “psycho.” Too often phrases like that are used in ways that can be hurtful to those who have disabilities or are the victims of certain illnesses.

It can be hurtful when people excuse their ableist language by labeling the attempt to get them to use more inclusive language as “political correctness.” Of course there is a political aspect to our use of langue and language is used to obtain and maintain power over others in the political arena, but it isn’t just a matter of being politically correct when someone asks another to refrain from using language that is harmful. Words and how we use them can hurt others.

About 15% of the population has some significant disability. And those of us who don’t have a disability are able only temporarily. An accident can render on disabled in a few seconds. Age can cause disability that comes on more slowly. Remembering the centurions I have known, every one of them used a wheelchair for mobility at some point in their lives. All of them had loss of hearing and loss of vision that was significant enough to make them be seen as disabled. Learning to use language that is not hurtful of those with disabilities is important if for no other reason that every one of us will one day experience disability.

Spending more time with those who live with disabilities is teaching me to be more careful with the language I use. It may also be helping me prepare for my own future.


The other night I had a nightmare. I can’t remember very many details from the dream and I don’t have a narrative story that I can tell of the dream. In the dream I was walking away from the house where we now leave and there was a sense that I had to leave. I don’t know where I was going. I didn’t get very far away in the dream. What I can remember is that I woke feeling upset. I got out of bed and read for a while to calm myself. I can’t remember a time before that dream that I had such a dream. I did experience nightmares as a child on occasion. Most children do and there is some evidence that dreams that are emotionally upsetting are more common during childhood than adulthood. It has been theorized that nightmares are part of the way that people practice for emotionally tense situations and that we learn from our dreams how to deal with the realities of our lives.

I guess I had a type of nightmare in the period of time after my wife experienced cardiac arrest in the hospital. While she was still in the Intensive Care Unit I woke with a start and experienced a small panic attack when there was a code blue in the hospital ICU. This code did not involve my wife, but it caused my heart rate and breathing to elevate noticeably. Afterward, I woke with a start a few more times to find similar results. Some months later, I woke suddenly thinking I was having a panic attack, but checked my heart rate and breathing and they were not elevated. I decided that I am capable of dreaming of a panic attack when I am not having a panic attack. The thought amused me. The experience ceased and hasn’t happened since.

A week or so ago the BBC published an article that said that reports of nightmares by adults have increased dramatically during the year of pandemic. One theory is that nightmares increase as stress increases. People are under a great deal of stress with unemployment, isolation, increased responsibilities and other things that affect them during the pandemic. Another theory is that nightmares are related to depression and there is significant evidence that depression has become more prevalent during the pandemic.

Whether or not we remember them, dreams are important to memory. Dreams are part of a process by which our brains sort out events and emotions and organize them for future retrieval. People who are severely sleep deprived begin to have problems with memory, especially short-term memory. Their brains become unable to retrieve memories because the memories are jumbled and they haven’t had enough time for their brains to organize them. As I write, I realize that I am speaking in analogy. The complex electro-chemical reactions of your brain aren’t exactly the same as filing cabinets that need to be organized. It is more accurate to think that the brain rehearses the firing of synapses that are required to retrieve a memory. In addition to memories of names, events, and ideas we also have memories of emotions. Our ability to remember emotions plays a big part in our being able to handle stressful situations. We can recognize anger and know that we’ve felt that before. We can learn techniques to express our anger in ways that are less destructive. We learn to recognize love. We learn to be less fearful in the depths of grief. We use memory to help us face the challenges of everyday life. To the extent that dreams help us sort our memories, they are important.

An added complexity to understanding dreams is that most of us do not consciously remember many of our dreams. Dream researchers know that people can learn to remember dreams. A discipline of recording dreams upon waking will increase the ability to remember dreams. We had a college professor who kept a complete dream journal for decades. He was able to accurately remember ten or more dreams from each night. I have never disciplined myself to remembering dreams. Occasionally, when I remember a dream, I will report it to Susan and we may discuss it. Most of the time the meanings of my dreams are very easy to discern. I would dream of not being prepared at the start of a worship service, for example. It was a fairly constant struggle for me to be prepared not only to lead worship, but to gracefully deal with interruptions in my planning. The dreams seemed to me to be a simple reflection of my life with some details exaggerated.

My recent nightmare must have some meaning in my life, but it isn’t immediately obvious. The dream occurred the night after we received our second doses of Covid vaccine. Unlike some of our friends, we did not have unpleasant reactions to the injections. We didn’t experience any negative symptoms or feel ill in any way. And I haven’t experienced vaccination in a negative way. We went out of our way to seek vaccination as soon as possible when we became eligible. I don’t think that I have been stressed by receiving the vaccine. It has been a cause for celebration.

And if the dream was about dealing with the emotions of leaving home, you’d think that I might have experienced it when we moved away from our home of 25 years in South Dakota rather than months later when we are settled and comfortable in a new home. Since the dream was specific about me leaving this particular house it might be an expression of some anxiety about this house, but it is a rental and we have no intention of settling in this particular house long term.

So I don’t understand my dream. Perhaps it was simply a gift so that I can have more compassion and understanding for those who are experiencing great increases in stress and having more nightmares as a result.

The human brain is full of mystery and we understand so little of how it works. I’m unlikely to begin analyzing my dreams at this stage of my life, but from time to time they entertain me and give me something to think about. And as long as nightmares are rare, I’ll pay more attention when I do remember one. And I’ll continue to wish sweet dreams for others.

Shaped by language

I belong to a book study group that meets over Zoom. We just finished our discussion of the book, “Entering the Passion of Jesus” by Amy-Jill Levine. Because our format is Zoom, we have the opportunity next week to have the author join our group. Without the cost of travel, we were able to arrange a time for a conversation with the author, which demonstrates one of the advantages of this format for a book group. As we met this week, we spent some time planning our conversation with the author. We wanted to discuss our questions and the format of our meeting before the actual meeting so that we could make the best use of our time. Since the topic of the book is the last week of Jesus’ life, one of the questions that arose in the group had to do with the influence of Biblical languages on the text. We read the Bible in English, but the Gospels originally circulated in Greek. Then, in Roman times, the Bible was translated into Latin. For more than a thousand years the primary way that people could access the Bible was in Latin translation. Jesus, however, lived in a multi-lingual society. He would have been familiar with Hebrew, the language of the scriptures we sometimes refer to as the Old Testament. The gospels report that he quoted Isaiah and other Biblical prophets in his sermons and teaching. He was crucified under Roman law and his trial was likely conducted in Latin. Aramaic, the language that originated in the same region of ancient Syria from which Abraham and Sarah came, was one of the most prominent languages of the Ancient Near East. It is likely that Jesus spoke Aramaic.

Whether or not we know ancient languages, they influence the way we think about the world. Our group was trying to format a single question that might address the role of language in the stories we have been studying.

Since that meeting, I have been thinking about how we are influenced by ancient languages and culture. When I was a seminarian studying Biblical Hebrew, I struggled with the differences in tense between Hebrew and English. We tend to think and speak of time in three primary tenses: past, present and future. Biblical Hebrew, however, focuses primarily on two tenses: that which has finished and that which is ongoing. When translating from Hebrew to English one makes judgments about which words best express the meaning of the original language. When you add to those translation problems the simple fact that languages evolve and our language is much different from the way people spoke English hundreds of years ago, there is a challenge to know exactly what the words of the Bible mean.

Jesus spoke of love. Greek, however, has multiple words that are all translated as love. Eros refers to sexual passion. Philia is deep friendship. Agape is love for everyone. Those three words are commonly understood at least in part because preachers have addressed them when interpreting scriptures. Ancient Greek, however, didn’t stop with three words. Ludus is playful love. Pragma is longstanding love. Philautia is love of self. Storge is family love. Mania is obsessive love. So when we encounter the word “love” in translation, there are multiple possibilities of its meaning.

We are shaped by these ancient Greek concepts even when we are not aware of them. A person who knows nothing of the Greek language can understand that love is a complex emotion. We know that affection and love can take place in many different relationships and be expressed in many different ways.

When it comes to time, it is even more complex. The structure of our language is such that there are different words for time. Once again, Greek has multiple words that are translated in to the single word, “time” in English. Chronos refers to the type of time that can be measured with a clock. Chronological time is an important concept in the understanding of modern physics. Ancient Greek, however, also uses the word kairos to refer to time. In a sense kairos refers to a moment that stands outside of the flow of time. In Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus, for example, it says that while Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem “the time came for her to be delivered.” The word is kairos. Its purpose in the story is not to record the exact moment and time of day in which the birth took place, but rather the incredible powerful moment of birth that transcends time. For those of use privileged to witness birth it is a moment that is different from all other moments.

We know that time spent holding a newborn infant has a different quality than time spent filling out tax returns. We know that time sitting with a person who is dying passes in a different way than time reading a novel. We know that time seems to pass more quickly when we are playing with a child than when we are waiting for an appointment with a doctor. We know that not all time has the same quality. Our experience teaches us concepts that go beyond the power of our language to express.

As I thought about the complexity of our questions about ancient languages and their translation to modern languages I was struck by the ways in which the digital meeting format is shaping our understanding of time and space. Next week when our book group meets, most of us will be in Washington where we are currently operating on Pacific Daylight time. Our author will be in Central Daylight time. Our meeting begins at 6:30 pm for us, but 8:30 pm for our author. Yet we will experience ourselves as meeting at the same time. With any luck the chronos will work so that we begin together and the kairos will allow us to connect to share a common experience while living in different time zones.

It is, it seems to me, just another example of how living through this pandemic is shaping our lives and culture. I suspect our language also will be shaped by our experiences. Already the word “zoom” means more than moving quickly. It has become a word to express a particular kind of digital meeting space. We are shaped by the words we use and sometimes we are shaped by words we don’t use.

Now that I'm vaccinated

Yesterday we received our second doses of Pfizer vaccine. Our vaccination cards report that we have been fully vaccinated. It wasn’t a very dramatic event. We didn’t leap up and hug the nurse who gave us the vaccine. We waited 15 minutes as instructed and then got in our car and came home. It was raining, which is typical for our new home in the Northwest. According to the information we have, it can take up to three weeks before our immune systems have ramped up in such a way to make us unlikely to contact Covid. After that, we will continue to wear our masks, observe social distancing and be careful about hand washing and personal hygiene as we have been. For a casual observer, little has changed.

Theoretically it should make travel easier, but we traveled quite a bit during the pandemic. As more and more people are fully vaccinated it should allow for the opening of some gatherings. I participated in a Zoom meeting last night during which we had conversations about options for faith formation for adults after we are allowed in-person gatherings. The majority of the participants in the group favored continuing Zoom meetings after the church goes back to face-to-face worship. There were some who say they prefer the distance format for education and for worship. Going to church has been the center of my life for so long that I strongly prefer face to face worship. Susan reports that I have more patience for Zoom meetings than she, but I don’t feel like I have much patience for such. I’ll work to use the technology to the best of my ability, but my priority will continue to be relationships based in in person meetings. I don’t expect being vaccinated to change very much.

The return to normal, however, won’t be a return in my opinion. Instead we’ll go forward, changed by the experiences of the pandemic. More than a year of covid isolation has resulted in a year remarkably free of flu and colds. We’ve been very healthy. We did receive our flu vaccinations as we do every year, but I can’t help but think that wearing face masks and being careful about contact with others has decreased our exposure to harmful viruses in general. I’m willing to be more diligent if that keeps me from spreading sickness to others.

I suspect that public schools will not be able to return to “normal.” With the large numbers of children who have received much less schooling in the past year and the huge variations in how much educational support families have been able to provide, children will be at many different levels of understanding and ability when they return to the classroom. It has always been true that dividing children by chronological age has meant that teachers deal with a range of abilities and experiences, but I suspect that the entire concept of graded education might be seriously challenged by the wide range within a single age group. One seven-year-old might be doing math on a fifth-grade level and another struggling with basic math facts. Another seven-year-old might need some of the basic kindergarten experience. They might all need the social interaction with other seven-year-olds, but benefit from learning experiences with students of different ages in a way that is closer to a one room schoolhouse than a modern graded elementary school.

Churches will never go back to the way it was before. We’ve been drug, kicking and screaming in some cases, into the world of social media in a way that we won’t go back. Live streamed worship has become the norm and it will continue to be important for those who are shut in or isolated by health problems. Churches will continue to live stream in order to serve members who are not able to come to the church. Members will continue to connect over distances that previously were unthinkable. Congregations will find ways to remain connected to those who are in different counties, states and countries than the church building. I suspect that many congregations will adapt by changing the types of buildings they use and how they use space. Congregations that don’t adapt to the new realities will fade, losing members and financial support. Creative congregations will find new ways to use their buildings to expand their ministry and outreach into the community.

We won’t go back to the way we were before the pandemic.

I hope we will go forward with some new insights.

Having our vaccinations has taught me that while personal health is important, it is insufficient to think only of ourselves. We need to think and act with others in mind. It isn’t enough to avoid the virus myself. I must also behave in ways that help others to avoid infection. Understanding that people can spread the virus without experiencing symptoms gives a new way of understanding our responsibility for one another. I’ve got zip lock bags with clean masks in our car, our truck, on my dresser and in my pocket. I don’t expect I’ll stop carrying them. I’m more attentive to the way I wash my hands and the process of wiping down surfaces. I think we’ll continue that care. We do it because keeping others safe and healthy is important. We need our mail carrier and store clerks to be healthy. We need our first responders and dentists to be healthy. We need our teachers and office workers to be safe from infection. We all have a role in caring for one another.

As a more introverted person, and I know that will surprise some who know me, I am not big for crowds in the first place. I’m much happier at a family dinner than as a member of huge audience. I won’t miss mass gatherings, because I didn’t enjoy them that much before. But we will need to learn to be more careful going forward.

The year and more of the pandemic has offered lessons in life. I pray we have been open to learning them.

Diversions of a retired pastor

From the beginning of writing my journal, I have worried that my thoughts might be repetitious. I don’t want my journal to be boring to regular readers. I decided that I would make political commentary a rare subject because there are plenty of political blogs and as a pastor, I didn’t want to alienate people who had different political opinions than mine. Living in South Dakota, there were plenty of people who had different political opinions and I counted them as my friends. I was proud of the simple fact that our congregation had rich diversity of opinion and was a meeting place for those who disagreed. I worked hard to keep opinions from dividing people and the conversation civil. I often would say, “I don’t mind telling you what I think, but I don’t want to tell you what to think.” I also knew that there would be people who might think that I was speaking on behalf of the church. A pastor is seen as a spokesperson for the church even when she or he feels that the speech is private. Since publishing my journal is an act of going public, I didn’t want people to think that I had authority to speak for the entire church. We congregationalists are fiercely independent and don’t like to have others speak for us.

I set up a few runs for myself in the early days of my writing. At one point, I decided that I had posted enough pictures and told enough stories of our cats and decided to stop writing about them. That rule became moot when our cats passed away and for a time we had no cats. Here in our rental home, we have a no pets clause in our lease agreement. However, our son has a barn at his farm and what is a barn without some barn cats? These days there are three cats who live in the shop where I work a couple of days each week. They are “rescue” cats and were quite wild when we got them. It has taken me a while to get to the point where they do anything except hide when I come into the shop. There are lots of good hiding places in the shop. But they now know that I’m the person who leaves fresh food for them and who puts treats and toys out and who cleans their litter box. I installed a cat door in the shop so that they could venture out around the farm and explore the rest of the barn, where there is no shortage of mice to hunt. So far, I see no evidence that they have used the cat door, even though I put treats right next to it. I’ll prop it open one night and see what they discover.

So, I might relent and include a cat story from time to time.

Also, there are times when I want to follow-up on things I have previously written. For those of you who don’t live in South Dakota, I should report that snow came yesterday. Friends sent a picture of 5” of snow on their deck. They live near where the fires were raging and are now under control. It turns out that the fires were a scare, but the losses were fairly light. The snow is just what is needed right now.

I’m still finding my fitness watch to be amusing. Yesterday, I replaced three valves in some of the farm plumbing and set seven fence posts in concrete. I was building fence as I went along with rails and pickets and carrying lots of materials, including 80 pound bags of concrete. After a day’s work, and a leisurely supper we went for a walk along the river. It was a pleasant evening for a stroll. My watch decided that the walk along the river was more than twice as much exercise as building fence. Go figure!

Our grandson has expressed interest in flying remote control airplanes. We purchased a basic beginner airplane for him at Christmas and he has enjoyed flying it. We expanded his fleet a bit with another plane at his birthday and I have worked with him building a couple more. Along the way I discovered that the basic airplanes, minus the electronics and motors, can be constructed very inexpensively out of cheap foam board purchased at the dollar store. I can build a pretty neat model for a couple of dollars. The process was fun and I was learning, so I made a couple model bush planes. Since I didn’t invest in a fancy transmitter and I didn’t install electronics in my model planes, they were fun to build and interesting to look at, but didn’t have much play value. I switched to making gliders that can be thrown. I’ve build several that we can use to play catch in the back yard and one that is way too big to fly in our back yard.

Then we had a conversation about aerodynamics that involved taking about the biplanes and triplanes that were used in World War I. Those planes produced so much drag that even with their tremendous lift, they simply couldn’t go very fast. So I build a model of a Fokker DR1 triplane and a Sopwith SE5 to illustrate the conversation. For fun I painted them. They don’t fly as they have no motors and the weight and balance are off, but they were fun to make.

Now I have a whole bunch of foam airplanes in the garage without much purpose. They were fun to make and I don’t have much money in them - probably less than $20 in the whole batch. I have no idea what to do with them. I guess I’ll see if I can meet a kid whose parents don’t mind if he or she brings home a bunch of foam airplanes. Maybe I could give them away one at a time. They seem to collect in the garage faster than canoes.