The intriguing thing about language, for me, is this: I can type the word “orange” and your brain has already made specific associations. I was thinking of the fruit, specifically the rind. Maybe you thought about fleshy inside of the fruit, or some other orange something. From there you could chase an idea all over the place, and find yourself somewhere I had never intended, because I did not qualify the word. I think that’s fascinating. It’s also aggravating as hell…especially if you’re a writer.
In communicating an idea or concept the ways in which we communicate can be so limiting. If you’ve taken a philosophy course maybe you know what I mean. You say “justice” and I say, “Well, what do you mean when you say ‘justice’? If justice means people getting what they deserve, how is it determined and who decides?” See what I mean? Aggravating. Hope to communicate anything at all just…fizzles.
I spent this past weekend on retreat with the rest of my church leadership. It was very enlightening, but also challenging. The most challenging aspect was having my word associations for God questioned. I run the opposite direction from some words, but until a word was suggested I didn’t think to question…well, I didn’t think about it. You’ve probably seen me use most of the “omni” words (omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient…blah, blah, blah). Using them isn’t bad, but using them without qualification insinuates things I don’t mean. For example, none of those words, for me, insinuate free will is out of the picture, whereas others may decide free will is negated.
Realizing I had used the omni’s without qualifying them, I felt a familiar aggravating sort of feeling, much like how Thomas Aquinas must have felt when he said, “…I lost all appetite for writing. In fact, all I have ever written about Christ seems now to me to be like a straw.” When I write, I have to accept that I am never going to fully define God, Christ, or anything else, because I would never write a single word. To define God is to limit God, yet definitions are the life force of language. So here we are…stuck in wanting to define God, but being completely unable.
When I think of God’s love, and my growing conviction about what it means to be in relationship with Him, a sense of peace infiltrates this dilemma. For a time I thought about being an art history major, and in “History of Art: 14th Century to Present,” I discovered one of my favorite works of art:
“The Banjo Lesson” by Henry O. Tanner
Tanner’s piece depicts a grandfather, teaching a young boy how to play the banjo. The much-too-big banjo is awkward in the boy’s hands, while the breadth of the grandfather’s arms encompasses both the banjo and the boy. The boy plucks unskillfully at the strings. The grandfather watches, his lips poised to quietly make suggestions. Surrounding them is the interior of a poor man’s home. A glow from their fire casts warm oranges and yellows from the right of them, as cold hues creep in from the left—from the world outside the cabin.
There are a lot of things I like about Tanner’s Banjo Lesson. I like Tanner’s reference to heritage and the passage of knowledge from one generation to the next. I like knowing of a nineteenth century piece depicting African Americans in a setting other than a field and doing something of their own will rather than jumping at a white guy’s bark. I appreciate the artistry, the realism, and the Americanism, but most of all Tanner’s piece is a favorite because it gives me a glimpse into what it looks like to just show up.
Tanner’s piece depicts God teaching me how to love and be in relationship. The task is foreign and awkward to me, but the breadth of His arms encompasses my stubborn un-love, my apathy, my selfishness, my short attention span, my doubting, and my inability to even understand or trust who He is. God watches and holds me, whispering love and acceptance in spite of the stumbling mess I am. Surrounding me is a world of people just like me, broken, wanting love, trying to define something indefinable, getting things wrong (whatever that means, and we’ll leave it to God).
A glow from His fire casts warmth and stability as we try to figure out how to love and be genuine community, and all the while a persistent coldness creeps at us. We cannot avoid the harshness of life or the harshness of our peers. Yet, in spite of our inability, our striving, our inexperience, our debate over definitions and the nature of God, we come to meet the Teacher. We aren’t always sure if we even want to learn, but the Teacher beckons, encourages us, and we find we have lost our desire to be anywhere else.