My sister Wendy and her husband Barry had two wonderful Labrador retrievers, Morgan and Bruno. Last year Morgan died, and Bruno doesn’t have the stamina he once did for taking long walks. But back when they were young, whenever I visited Wendy in Massachusetts, twice a day we loaded them up in a truck and drove them to an idyllic little country road that meanders through the woods and cranberry bogs. On one particular afternoon we parked the truck at one end of the road and had walked about a half mile or so when Bruno darted off after a rabbit and hurt himself jumping over a large rock. He started limping and we realized that he couldn’t make it back to the truck without doing more damage to his leg. So, Wendy headed back to get the truck while I waited behind with Bruno. I wasn’t sure how this was going to work as he was very, very protective of my sister.
As soon as Wendy walked away, Bruno went nuts trying to go after her. I held tight as he pulled on his leash and I commanded, “Sit, Buno.” He obeyed, and sat. Then I praised him and patted him, and with a calm voice I tried to assure him that everything was going to be fine. “It’s OK, Bruno. OK.” But I no sooner finished saying this than he was trying to charge off again down the road after my sister. So once again I had to command him to sit. He obeyed and sat. And once again I praised him and patted him, “It’s OK, Bruno. OK.” And then again he suddenly lunged forward to run after my sister. It happened over and over.
When my sister returned and I told her what Bruno had done, she informed me that OK was the command Bruno had learned for go. The poor dog. I was telling him, “Sit and go” over and over again. “Sit, Bruno… It’s OK, Bruno. OK.”
I was clueless. I assumed that telling Bruno it’s okay would be reassuring for him. I thought it would calm him down. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Words can be deceptive in that way. You may assume everyone understands that a word means what you think it means only to become flamboozled when you can’t communicate.
That seems to happen a lot among Christians. We’ll use the same loaded words and not even come close to attaching similar meaning to them. Words like: sin, salvation, evangelical, redemption and resurrection. They don’t mean the same thing to me that they do to a conservative Christian. And so, we can have a conversation and think we’re in agreement because we’re using the same vocabulary, but actually we’re worlds apart.
I don’t know what to do about this. It makes dialogue difficult, particularly when the need to defend one’s perspective is greater than any openness toward understanding a different perspective. I have to tell you that after a lifetime of conversations with conservative Christians, I'm both wary and weary. I am fed up with people telling me I’m going to hell because I don’t believe in a literal place called “hell.” I’m also sick to death of explaining to people that being a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America doesn’t mean that we’re anything at all like the Christians who call themselves evangelicals. And I’m tired of people tuning me out when I talk about salvation as a journey toward wholeness, which includes embracing our imperfection. What kind of a preacher talks like this, they wonder? How can she call herself a Christian?
How is it that language, which is intended to bring people together, can drive such a wedge between us? Sometimes I think the Christian church universal would be a lot better off if we would just shut up. If we’d stop trying to convince each other we’re right and instead, do what’s right together: feed the hungry, build houses for the homeless, speak for those who have no voice. Maybe if we spent more time being Jesus in the world we wouldn’t have to worry so much about defending our version of Jesus with our words.
Okay, enough said. It's time for me to shut up now.