God Language

I was truly blessed yesterday when I had the opportunity to attend a writing workshop sponsored by the Craddock Center in Cherry Log, Georgia. You are saying, “Whur’s Cherry Log?” Well, Cherry Log is between Elijay and Blue Ridge off Highway 575 in the foothills of the beautiful North Georgia Mountains. God often hides in strange little out-of-the-way places.

What wonderful hospitality! The Craddock Center welcomed, hosted, and fed 160 participants for a workshop on preaching and writing. As a Christian blogger who has read Barbara Brown Taylor, I welcomed the opportunity to attend. For readers who do not know Barbara, here is a brief bio. Barbara is an Episcopal priest who has served churches in Atlanta and Clarksville, Georgia. She currently teaches religion at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. She is an excellent writer and an outstanding speaker. When I was going through the transition to the Episcopal Church, her book, Leaving Church, was my companion guide. I only wish our time with Barbara and the workshop had been longer.

I learned so much in two hours as we took a picture from a folder on the table and did a free writing exercise. We were to spend seven minutes being the voice for the person in the picture. I had a picture of an immigrant woman carrying a tray of tortillas which she appeared to be preparing to serve. I wrote about her struggles as an undocumented immigrant trying to make money to support her poverty-stricken family back in Nicaragua.

During the second hour we did exercise trying to associate various religious terms with “body language,”–the senses. What is the color of redemption? What is the temperature of salvation? Jesus always spoke in terms people could understand—sheep, grain, vines and branches, etc… Jesus never said, “I value you, my followers, as close personal friends.” He did say, “You are the vine and the branches” to point out the close intimate relationships he had with his followers.

This afternoon I will go to the final Institute for Continuing Learning class on “The Language of Religion,” where we have learned that God’s language is the language of myth and symbols. Actually, I believe God’s primary language is silence and God’s primary revelation is creation. The scriptures of religion are secondary. Nevertheless, we can only speak of God in symbolic, metaphorical, analogical language. If we take myth as fact, we lose what we are trying to understand. Literalism in regard to scriptures has led to much violence in the history of religion.

There are no coincides with God. Today’s readings arrive as gift and give me excellent examples of what Barbara was teaching us about God language.

In Isaiah (Chapter 1) we read:

Wash yourselves clean!
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil; learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.

Come now, let us set things right,
says the LORD:
Though your sins be like scarlet,
they may become white as snow;
Though they be crimson red,
they may become white as wool.

Notice the bodily language God uses, “Wash yourselves clean!” to describe what hearing God’s word means. God spells out concrete actions resulting from “doing good”—making justice one’s aim, redressing wrongs, being the voice of defenseless widows and orphans.

Isaiah gets even more incarnational, more descriptive. What color is sin? First, it is scarlet—bright red tending toward orange on the color spectrum Just to make sure that his hearers get the message, Isaiah reinforces what he is saying by saying sin is crimson—deep dark red. Sin stands out in deep, bright colors.

What color do our sins become when we wash? White! White as what? “White as snow.” “White as wool.” Now we have a picture of washed—cleansed–of sin as pure white in contrast to deep bright red.

Isaiah goes on the the rest of the story:

If you are willing, and obey,
you shall eat the good things of the land;
But if you refuse and resist,
the sword shall consume you:
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken!

What will happen to you when you wash yourselves and come clean? You will eat the good things of the land. If you do not come clean, you will fall by the sword of judgment.

Isaiah knew how to give flesh to God language. His prophetic preaching comes alive and we can savor the colors and the taste of food.

Jesus knew how to talk to connect with the people:

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’

Jesus wants to get to the punchline:

The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

How do we acquire the quality of humility? Using the scribes and the Pharisees as a foil, Jesus describes in concrete terms what you do not do if you are humble. Parenthetically, Matthew was written toward the end of the first century as the Jesus Movement was parting ways with Judaism and the synagogue. Some of the hyperbole attributed to Jesus from writers from the various communities of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is just that—exaggeration. Nonetheless, if you want to be humble, you do not parade around flaunting your tassels and phylacteries. You do not seek places of honor at banquets and in the synagogue. You do not love greetings and salutations of high honor in the marketplace. Jesus is using body language to describe what humility is not. Not doing what the scribes and Pharisees do is a description of humility.

Thank you, Barbara Brown Taylor. I hope I am getting your teaching.

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