Finding the words
On my shelf I have a fascinating book with the title, Descriptionary. I’ve come to appreciate it more and more as I’ve grown older, since it’s designed to help people find things for which they can’t quite come up with the word. If I can’t remember what a carburetor is, or a euphonium, a dictionary won’t help me much; one has to actually know the word to look up a definition in a dictionary.
In the Descriptionary, I can go to the section on “Automobiles,” where a quick scan through the entries will soon enough bring me to “the device that vaporizes fuel, mixes it with air in appropriate proportions, and then delivers the mixture to the intake manifold.” Lo and behold, then it tells me that’s called a “carburetor.” Or in the “Musical Instruments” section, the “brass tenor tuba rarely used in orchestras but frequently seen in brass and military bands” is – voila! – a “euphonium.”
I turned recently to the “Modern Religions” section, then “Christianity,” and was surprised at what I found. More precisely, I was surprised at what I didn’t find. Oh, “cherubim” were there, and “rosary” and “liturgy” and “pope” and “plainsong” and “original sin.” I was intrigued that both “atheist” and “heretic” are listed under Christianity, but not under other modern religions; are those unique to the Christian world?
What I didn’t find were faith, grace, forgiveness, freedom, and reconciliation. Those are gifts of God that are at the heart of our tradition and our community. They are, indeed, at the heart of our very relationship with God as Christians. Yet they seem not to be part of the “Christianity” that the editors think people will want to explore.
Could it be that the Christian church in today’s society has projected its peripheral and secondary matters more than its heart? Do people know the outward forms, the art and structures and paraphernalia, and even the rebels and deniers, better than they know what God offers the world through the church? I would like to believe that the editors think those essentials are so well known that no one would need to search them out, but I fear that the opposite is true. I fear that what is central and life-giving is not apparent enough to send anyone looking for what to call it.
When the apostle Paul wrote to the community in Corinth, he said that he “did not come proclaiming lofty words or wisdom.” Rather, he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). Paul knew what was central; he knew that he had to keep the focus on that, without distractions. We may not exactly want to lead with crucifixion when we meet people – and, by the way, neither “crucifixion” nor “Jesus Christ” is in the Descriptionary’s profile of Christianity. Certainly, though, we can lead with the grace, forgiveness, freedom, reconciliation, and faith that the crucifixion and Jesus’ resurrection have given us.
Who knows? If we do that better, maybe enough folks will want to know more about them so that one day they’ll be able to go to the Descriptionary and find “the peculiar and powerful characteristics of believers’ lives that make them especially effective as mediators, friends, citizens, generous donors, and kind co-workers.”