Instant grits are not, on the whole, part of the Canadian landscape, but there they were in a kitchen cupboard of the apartment where I'm staying. So I tried the cheese version for breakfast. I don't know how they'd stand up against the Real Thing, but they weren't half bad as a change from oatmeal.

It occurred to me, as I ate them, that someone had to have given them the name "grits". It's such an odd name. I imagined some early Colonial farmwife getting creative, when she realized she hadn't set her dried hominy corn to soak the night before and needed a quick fix for breakfast, smashing up the grain to make it cook faster. The family liked the results, and she started hominy-bashing more regularly. She'd need a word for the uncooked product, and because it was so gritty, she called it "grits".

But knowing I can be wrong, I checked the big dictionary I'd found in the apartment's study. I was wrong. The word for the cereal is indeed related to the word for the abrasive, but the link goes right back to Old English: "grit" has been around, like "meal" (as in oat meal, or meal worm), for a very long time. Probably it goes right back to Sanskrit or something.

Nonetheless, someone, sometime, first uttered a word that, in time shifted pronunciation and maybe meaning, and eventually fetched up getting attached as a label to the stuff I had for breakfast. And other words are getting made up even now, because we have new things around that need labels attached to them, or old things with new uses. Language evolves and shifts as we move forward in time, and the old words don't always mean the same thing they did for our forebears.

It's funny: I work with language as a tailor works with cloth; it is my bread-and-butter, what pays the phone bill. But it rarely occurs to me to thank God for language, or to recognize what a huge thing language is. It's one of those biggies, like sex or nuclear power, with immense power for harm and healing. And yet (unlike sex and nuclear power) we tend to take it completely for granted--probably because we cannot remember a time when we didn't have it.

Now that I found myself paying proper attention to it, words-for-words started popping up all over the place. I read the Venite at the little prie-dieu in the apartment's study: "Come let us sing to the Lord; let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving and raise a loud shout to him with *psalms*." Picking a psalm at random, I got number 39: "I said, 'I will keep watch upon my ways, so that I do not offend with my tongue. I will put a muzzle on my mouth while the wicked are in my presence.'" I'd have found some such word about speech in almost any other psalm I started to read.

Barbara Brown Taylor notes, in _Gospel Medicine_, that the physician Luke "carried words in his black bag, words like 'Weep no more,' 'Do not be afraid,' 'Your sins are forgiven.' His medicine was gospel medicine, which was Jesus' medicine--medicine that works, strangely enough, through words." (p. 4)

Words have enormous power to hurt or to heal: to incite hatred (as a mis-preaching of Islam did a couple of months ago) or to spread the good news of God's love; to hurt or to heal; to savage or to soothe. We slap labels on each other as a way of putting them down and puffing ourselves up; we use language to twist their intentions and to stir up division.

When we rip into each other, judge and condemn one another in the name of God, twist the other's words around to justify our anger--then we have taken a great gift from God, one of the very greatest, and put it to evil uses. Yet we think that whatever we say is acceptable to God, because our words are acceptable to ourselves, citing Scripture in self-justification--and beside, they're only words, aren't they? and words are only words. For this excuse-making there is a perfectly splendid old word: codswallop.

Ultimately we will stand before God, accounting for what we have done with the gifts God give us, language included. We might find ourselves facing a God who says, in that voice, "You preached WHAT? in My Name?" '

The more we use Scripture to bash other sinners with, the more we feel enabled to "tell the truth in love"--which usually means beating someone else up while maintaining that feel-good feeling--the more we call ourselves Christians and engage in kindergarten-level slanging and baiting and real nastiness, the more we invite God's judgment of what comes out of our mouths. And then, the only words that fit are "Lord, have mercy on me, a miserable offender."

On the other hand, the more we put our mouths and typing fingertips at God's service, the more we do to spread the Gospel. That's all evangelism is, really: talk, but the right sort of talk: usually gentle, usually personal, always loving. Or sometimes, more subtly, it's silence (which is also a form of communication) accompanied by work, for sometimes "work is love made visible", and talk may be a less loving thing than silence. "Always preach the Gospel; when necessary, use words."

Still, it's all a matter of speech. As Taylor notes, Jesus' ministry "is first and foremost a ministry of *words*. Jesus has been anointed to *preach*, to proclaim the good news of release, recovery, sight, liberty. He will, incidentally, do all those things before he is through, but from the beginning his ministry is not of ministry of doing but a ministry of *saying*." If that's what Jesus did, so should we.

Of course our deeds have to follow our words, or we won't walk our talk--and nothing is more discrediting to the Gospel than a Christian who proclaims one thing and does another. But the talk comes first; and the talk tells us when the walk isn't in line--or at least the talk should do that, and if it isn't doing that, we have a Problem that needs to be addressed.

I am here in this wonderfully comfortable apartment with kitchen cupboards full of good things because I have a certain facility with the English language (a pure gift, that, and nothing I can claim credit for), and because God, with my full consent, has chosen to put that gift to God's purpose, at least some of the time. When this gift of mine falls away from God's purpose, that's my doing. It's my responsibility to try to keep a close guard on what I write and say, to try to keep my words aligned with the Gospel. I don't always succeed, but I do keep trying.

Let the words of my mouth (and my fingertips on a keyboard) and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 01 Dec 2001
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