lenten journal: hearing the words again


I’ve continued my journey into The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us over the last couple of days and read something this morning that made me think of our lenten journey. Let me explain. In a chapter called “Ignoring the Content, Celebrating the Style,” James Pennybaker makes two points in an aside to the chapter that struck me.

Direct Versus Indirect Knowledge
Some languages, such as Turkish, require you to provide evidence for any statement you make. If I said to you, “It was very hot in Austin yesterday” in English, you would likely shrug your shoulders and assume that I’m telling you the truth. In Turkish, however, you would use different forms of the verb “was” to denote whether I personally experienced the hot weather or am simply relaying the information from some other source.

Social Knowledge Lost in Translation
In a striking series of studies, Stanford’s Lera Boroditsky has demonstrated how the language you are speaking at the time dictates how you remember pictures of events. A bilingual Japanese-English speaker would likely remember the relative status of three other people if introduced to them in Japanese rather than in English. A bilingual Turkish-English speaker will remember me talking about Austin’s weather differently if we spoke in Turkish compared to English. (36)

Yes, I know he said nothing about Lent, but he did talk about language and memory, which lie at the heart of both life and faith. It matters how we remember things and how we talk about those memories.I remember getting a newsletter many years ago from someone whose husband had gotten ill and then died. “We found the cancer at Epiphany,” she wrote, and he died soon after Pentecost.” The sentence carried much more than it would had she said he got sick in January and died in May. Using the markers of the church year conveyed their journey of faith and grief.

The language of faith is an inside joke, if you will: those who know the words get the punch line. When Ginger’s first roommate in college was someone who had not grown up in church. Ginger was speaking Baptist when she asked her, “Do you have any convictions?” to which the young woman replied, “I’ve never even been arrested.” When you know the vocabulary, it’s a whole different story. Sometimes, we need to break the stained glass that has ensconced the word and relearn its meaning. My word to relearn for this week is confession.

Oh, I know what it means, and yet — our responsive Prayer of Confession at Pilgrim yesterday breathed some fresh air into my vocabulary. Here is the prayer:

All:  We confess our sins because we believe sin is real.  We believe sin is the real brokenness of relationship with others, with the earth, with myself, with God.

One:  We confess our sins because we participate in systems that break people.  We participate in systems that break our environment.  We participate in systems that break our relationship with the Holy.

All:  And, yet, we believe sin is more than passive participation in systems.  We confess our sins because, consciously and unconsciously, we cause brokenness.  Sometimes, we sin because the choice we’ve made seems to be the lesser of evils.  But sometimes we sin because we’re just selfish, jealous, lazy, proud, impatient, scared — or just too tired to care.

Another:  We confess our sins because that act of confession—that act of prayer—calls us to accountability and reminds us that we are not just sinners.

All:  We are also reconcilers, peacemakers, healers.

One:  And we have the responsibility to try to heal what we have broken, which is often really hard to do, and that’s why . . .

Left:  We also confess our sins to remind ourselves that we can’t do it on our own.

Right:  We need help. We need grace, community, and God.

All:  And so we confess our sins, not to make ourselves feel guilty, not to put on the sackcloth and cover ourselves in ashes. We confess our sins so that we can learn to love ourselves in all our wholeness, so that we can learn to love others in all their wholeness like God loves us.

The first thing I loved about the prayer was how long it took us to pray it. For a congregational prayer, this was a big assignment — not to mention we had to keep track of whose turn it was to speak. As the voices moved from one to all, and left to right, I prayed and listened. What I heard with new ears was the call see not only my brokenness but also the things — the people — I have broken. Like the Turkish word that let the hearer know whether I had experienced the heat in Austin or not, the lines about brokenness helped me hear the word sinner in a very personal and, I must say, helpful way. I loved the truth that sinner was not the last word. I am also a reconciler, a peacemaker, a healer.

It is our practice at Pilgrim to use the same prayers and responses for all of the Sundays in Lent (they usually change week to week). This season offers me the chance to tell time differently, to circle each week back to the same altar, to the same prayers, to the same words and see what has changed, what has been lost, and what has been found in my life. True, in some ways that is no different than any Sunday, but this season that moves in rhythm with winter giving was to spring, with old growth offering itself that new growth might come, I am grateful for the repetition and intention that calls me to look at my words that they might provide evidence that I have experienced the grace of which I speak.



  1. For all the wonderful, deep thoughts you stir up… it sure feels a little lacking to keep sending a simple ‘thank you’…. you know, I should be paying for this stuff! hehe = ) But, that’s what I’ve got… Thank you. I threw out the “bath water” of liturgy and church calendar observances a long time ago … holding onto Jesus alone (which wasn’t a bad thing…) but now, of course, I see the importance of all of it. I sure enjoy how your writings make my older self appreciate the warmth of that bath water. I’ve made a copy of the confessional prayer to keep in my Bible. Thanks. (again)

  2. Patricia,

    I know we were trained to think life moves in one direction. I feel like I keep learning there is more of a circular motion to the progress and part of repentance and redemption is the grace to circle back and pick up things we had discarded yet still need, or at least need for the next chapter.


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