Monday, September 24, 2012

Seminary Speak

Over the weekend I attended a conference/retreat with a group made up of mostly pastors with a few lay leaders and seminary students.  At one point one of the pastors said, "What we need to do is stop using words like ecclesiology and speak so that everyone can understand us."  I agree.  

I have always agreed, ever since I first got frustrated listening to sermons I could barely understand because the preacher was using all the words he learned in seminary including some in Hebrew.  He might as well have been speaking in tongues.  

Using un-understandable language is, perhaps, just as much an occupational hazard for preachers as it is for doctors.  It's not just doctors' handwriting that can't be understood, after all.  Their language is just as incomprehensible and they insist on using that language even when trying to help their patient undertand the answer to the most important question, "Just what the heck is wrong with me, anyway?"  I don't know about you, but I've been on the receiving end of that conversation way too many times.

At an interfaith event a couple of years ago which was titled something like, "An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," the participants were in small groups trying to wrap our minds around what the speakers had said. I was answering a question about the varying understandings and practices of the Lord's Supper one of the people in my group asked when a seminary student informed me that what I was describing was transubstantiation.   I knew that of course, but the Jewish lay person who had asked the question didn't and I was speaking to her, not to a group of theologically trained folks.  I chose to smile and continue, but I really wanted to explain to the student why using accessible language is just as important as having accessible bathrooms.   

Consider this:  When planning an event most of us stop to determine whether the location we are using is wheelchair accessible. We do our best to remember to offer vegetarian and even gluten free options in the meals we plan for the event.  If we know there will be people attending who speak a different language we arrange for interpeters.  The last thing we want to have happen is for a participant to go away - or worse, stay away - because they will not be comfortable at the event, because they can't use the toilet facilities or because there is nothing for them to eat or because they don't understand a word that is being said.   

And yet, when trying to present our faith to others we, the preachers and teachers of the Gospel, too often fall back on words that the vast majority of the people hearing us can't understand.  We might just as well be speaking in tongues.  

On Pentecost the disciples received the gift of speaking so that everyone could understand them.  They weren't speaking to the theologically trained ministers and seminary students in the crowd, but to everyone.  Everybody could understand them.  Thus they were able to go out into the world carrying the Good News of God's unconditional love and compassionate forgiveness to everybody, using words that everyone listening could understand.  

I can hear Jesus now, saying,  "Go and do likewise."