Language can be a very confusing thing, especially English apparently.
At work, we had a lady from Spain who spoke English pretty well but was still confused about many of the things we said. For example, the difference between lunch and dinner. Depending on who she was working with the mid-day meal was either described as lunch or dinner, or she’d be invited out for an evening meal and it would be described as dinner.
But it’s not just non-native speakers who get confused over English and word meanings. Where I come from, in the Black Country (which is a part of the UK that not everyone in the UK knows exists) we have a word to describe silly things or people which is ‘Saft’ which auto-correct always tries to change to ‘daft’. It seems saft is not a recognised word outside a very small geographical area in the middle of England. (It totally is a real word though because it has been in print and is in common usage. There’s a joke about a foreigner (a Londoner) being called ‘saft’ by a small child and thinking it was a compliment).
Recently, the nursery rhyme Incy Wincy Spider caused confusion for someone I know. Incy famously climbs up a water spout. However, what is a water spout? The only spout this person knew of was on a teapot which is not what Incy was climbing. Incy was climbing up a drain pipe, which doesn’t fit in the song at all.
Language changes, word meanings change, things that were acceptable to say at one point are no longer acceptable to say, things that were not acceptable to say are now acceptable to say.
There are some churches that when people go there they are required to learn a whole new way of speaking, learn new words and apply different meanings to words they thought they knew. I have a tattoo which says ‘Redeemed’ and my next tattoo will say ‘Sanctified’. These are words that I know and I know how they relate to me and my spirituality. I am always well aware that there is a good chance that I will have to explain the meanings and/or reasons why I would want them on my skin to a lot of the people who see them.
When Jesus spoke, he spoke in ways people could understand. There is a reason why Jesus spent a lot of time talking about farming. The people he was speaking to understood about farming. There is a story Jesus tells about a man who is holding a wedding and all the important people he invited don’t turn up so he sends out his servants to invite anyone who is just hanging out on the street. These people come and the wedding party is full of happy guests. The man notices that one of these men that he’s just dragged in off the street isn’t wearing appropriate clothes and throws the man out of the party.
I never really understood this story until the wedding traditions at the time were explained to me, apparently the man would’ve provided appropriate clothes to the people he invited and this man had decided not to wear them. Suddenly, the story makes a lot more sense. But Jesus didn’t need to explain this point to his first audience, they would’ve understood it!
When I sing songs saying that I have been sanctified, that’s ok for me, I understand it.
I think it is very important for churches, for people who claim to follow Jesus to make sure that the language they are using makes sense to the people who are hearing it. Which may actually involve getting out of our comfort zones and talking with people.
There is a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode which explores language awesomely. Darmok is an episode where the crew meet up with an alien race who only speak in metaphors or references to stories. The problem is that without knowing the stories, the references are meaningless. Like saying ‘I feel like Elijah on the mountain top’, unless you know why Elijah is on the mountain top you don’t know how I am feeling.
In Star Trek, the way the two crews learnt how to communicate with each other was through shared experiences, sharing stories, making new stories.