Rector's Blog: The Words We Cannot Say
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When Moses asked what to call God, God gave him the run around. “I am that I am,” was God’s response. Except it may not have been. The same phrase could be translated, “I will be what I will be” or even “I am what I will be” or “I will be what I am,” or even (yes really), “I am the one that is.”
God is exhausting and difficult sometimes.
But God was making a point. To know someone’s name implies familiarity. To use someone’s name is to say, “I know you.” It reflects a kind of intimacy. Think about talking with even a friend and how the conversation feels different when you say their name. And God wasn’t ready for Moses to go there. God had healthy boundaries. But God’s reasoning actually goes deeper. In Moses’ time and place, there were many gods with many names. To invoke a god’s name was to hold some kind of power over that god – either to be able to speak of it however you wished or, in religious rituals, to be able to conjure the god to do your bidding. The God of Israel had no interest in being conjured or spoken of lightly. And They definitely had no interest in any man thinking he had power over them. That’s not how God rolled. So, God said, “I am that I am. And if anyone asks who sent you, tell them I Am sent you.” Good luck, Moses.
As the tradition developed, Moses’ people, the Israelites, continued not to call God by name. A variation of “I Am” was used throughout the Scriptures but was written without vowels – rendering it unpronounceable. God’s name, right in front of you, and yet unspeakable. Every time the Jewish faithful came upon the name they could not say, they would just say “the Lord.” In fact, the majority of the time you see the term “the Lord” in Hebrew Scriptures, it’s actually the unpronounceable name.
The idea was simple but powerful. God’s name is holy. And to use it runs the risk of misusing it. To say this word could cause damage to our relationship. We could forget who God is to us and start talking about God like they’re just some other person. We could use God’s name to advocate for things that are ungodly, unloving, and unjust – which is the definition of taking God’s name in vain, and there’s a whole commandment about not doing that.
So, the people of God made a decision, God can call themselves whatever God wants. As for us, we’ll agree that there are some things we just can’t say.
We have trouble with that today – this idea that there are things we cannot say. I am a straight cisgender White Christian man in America, and my group of people in particular gets really bent out of shape about the possibility that there are things we cannot say. I have heard many of us complain that we can’t joke about things like we used to. And we have to be careful about how we talk about race and gender and sexuality. We get nervous and frustrated. We don’t like being in trouble. And, if we’re honest, we’re pretty anxious about being held accountable.
But what really seems to upset us is when other people can say words that we cannot.
Many of us have finally given up the “N” word (thankfully) but then how come our Black siblings get to use it? We were told not to say Queer, but then some of our LGBTQ siblings started using it for themselves. It even became the Q in LGBTQ! I have heard cries of double standards.
I have a suggestion for us. There is a difference between what people choose to call themselves and what we have a right to call them. And I have a further suggestion: If we were paying attention, God was teaching us this thousands of years ago.
Many people who are and have been historically marginalized in our culture have chosen to take the names our ancestors gave them, the names that were used to show power and dominance, the words that were used to show familiarity and even ownership - they have taken these words out of our mouths and made them unspeakable to us. They have said, “I am that I am.” They have said that I don’t get to name them. What they do with those words is now up to them. Not me. How I feel about it is about as relevant as how I feel about God’s name.
If you think I am comparing our Black and LGBTQ+ siblings to God, you are correct. They are made in God’s image. Jesus himself hallows them and lives within them powerfully. And it’s our eternal vocation to treat them as such. And that means respecting the boundaries we don’t understand and refraining from using the words that have been used to wield unmerited power.
And hey, I know we’re Christians. And as Christians, we believe Jesus is God. And we say Jesus’ name all the time. So maybe we feel like all that showing respect for God’s name stuff is ancient and irrelevant. But if we think like that, we are missing the point. We say the name of Jesus because Jesus himself has invited us to do so. He has asked us to, he has opened himself up to us in this way. But that does not undermine the boundaries God set at the outset of our relationship. The familiarity and intimacy we experience of God in Jesus Christ does not negate the mystery and agency and otherness of God.
Furthermore, Jesus and his followers feel really strongly about how we use our words. Jesus says that what comes out of our mouths has more to do with our destruction than anything we put in them. He says that calling people names they don’t want to be called renders us liable to the fires of Hell. James says our tongues can unleash those fires upon others. Paul tells us to speak only in order to build one another up.
In other words, no: We cannot say all the things we used to say. And that is good. Because we are learning how to love our neighbor more fully. We are learning to listen. We are learning to respect and honor the presence of God in people whom we have historically maligned and harmed. To grow in love is to see God in persons of every age, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic situation, or political persuasion. The words we cannot say never belonged to us in the first place. And that is liberating, because it gives us more time to talk about the love for which we were born.
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