It’s Not Just What You Say–It’s How You Say It

Photo by ~diP, via Flickr

“There’s a brick wall–go beat your head against it!”

That’s how our pastor summed up the Old Testament reading yesterday. God was being frank–Elijah was being sent to give Israel a piece of God’s mind, and they weren’t going to take it well. It applies to us, too; if we are called to speak up on a certain subject, we have to do it, even if we know the response is going to be lukewarm or outright hostile, and success is unlikely.

A liberating thought, in some ways, but it’s not that simple.

It’s an election year, and politicians are already bombarding us with recordings of barking dogs to make them appear folksy, delivering half-truths in the most inflammatory language possible in order to fire up the base. Facebook friends are posting witty, scathing one-liners about those who disagree with them. And on the religious front? I’m sorry to say, most of the time evangelization looks more like self-congratulation.

My point is that when you have a call to speak, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Success is not the prize, as the song says, but God didn’t give us a call so we could go smear nastiness in each other’s faces in the name of evangelization. He gave us a call so we could change the world. And if you want to change the world, you have to speak the language of the person you’re trying to talk to.

Obviously inflammatory language works in politics–sort of–at least it works for one side in any election–but look at what else it’s caused. You’re either Democrat or Republican, and woe to you if you choose the wrong side. If you recognize, as many of us do, that both parties have serious problems in their platforms and attitudes, you’re left without any organized power to effect change. You almost have to jump on one bandwagon or the other to have a voice at all. Politicians get nothing accomplished because they refuse to compromise on anything, any time–because the real business of any session is to get elected to the next, not to do anything that will actually make the world better.

In religion, the stakes are even higher. And yet it seems that people of faith can’t see beyond our own little box. We think we’re evangelizing, but really we’re talking to each other, using language and concepts that affirm those who already agree with us, but which are, to those who aren’t part of the club, meaningless at best–and more often than not, push them away.

God won’t measure our response to His call by how successful we are, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to try to succeed. In other words, if we want to fully cooperate with God’s call for us, we can’t just open our mouths and say whatever we want. A friend of mine once told a story about a priest who was going to preach on Pentecost Sunday. People kept asking him what he was going to preach on. “I don’t know,” he said over and over. “I’m not going to prepare–I’m going to let the Holy Spirit tell me when the time comes.” That morning he got up to preach, and as he stood there waiting to be inspired, he heard the Holy Spirit tell him, “You’re lazy.”

Photo by a little ingenuity (:, via Flickr

How we share the message does matter. We have to form ourselves to speak the message given to us in a language others can understand and connect with. We have to learn how to meet people where they are, to focus on what we have in common with them, and build on that to open hearts to the places where we diverge.

And if you’re thinking that means we have to open our own minds and hearts to try to understand people whose outlook, philosophy and beliefs stand utterly at odds with our own–you are right.


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