Sunday, March 22, 2015


It was late 1970's-ish.  I was in middle school.  I was attending a very conservative private Christian school.  I don't remember the conversation, but apparently I was talking with my teacher and told her something was "screwed up."  I don't think this was an angry conversation, I think I was just very matter of factly letting her know that something was not going the way it should and it was screwed up.  This part I do remember.  I was called to the principal's office and told that I shouldn't be using this phrase.  We were a Christian school, after all, and we need to keep our thoughts and speech pure, etc., etc., etc.  I'm sitting there and have no idea what I did wrong.  As I'm sitting and listening, I'm trying to figure it out.  And then I did.  I was horrified by his implication.  That was in no way what I was saying.  I was so mortified, I didn't even try to defend myself and I didn't tell anyone about it until years later.  Those Christian school years were when I found out that there were not only words out there that were obviously not appropriate to say, but there were lots of them that were very offensive to some, but you would have no idea that was the case until you were caught using the offending words.

Here's one of more humorous examples of my stumbling to find my way around the bad language landscape.  I had found out that many Christian school parents didn't like words like gosh and darn because they were just substitutes for the real word.  One night I was spending the night at my friend, Tammy's, house.  I ended up spending MANY nights at Tammy's, but this was one of the first so I didn't know her parents very well yet.  Tammy asked me if I'd pluck her eyebrows for her.  Her mom was sitting and reading or doing a crossword puzzle or something while Tammy and I plucked and talked.  I told her I was done and she looked in a mirror and said, "No, you need to do more.  I want them to look like yours."  Now, Tammy had bushy eyebrows and mine were pretty thin.  I was explaining to Tammy that I didn't think I could do that.  I wanted to tell her that would hurt like heck, but mid-sentence I started thinking, "Oh no, maybe her mom doesn't like heck."  So, as I'm making the switch mid-stream, I realize I don't know what word to use to substitute for heck.  The sentence came out, "That will hurt like hell."  Right in front of Tammy's mom.  Mortified again.  Tammy later told her mom, "MaryEllen never swears," and her mom was like, yeah right.  It was true, well, except for saying "screwed up" on occasion.

Fast forward many years.  I'm teaching 6th graders and I'm reading a book called The Revealers to my class.  It's about a small group of misfit kids who have become the targets of relentless bullying in their middle school.  The main character of the book has been repeatedly threatened and even physically hurt by some bullies at his school.  He says in in the book, "They are making my life a living hell."  As soon as I read this sentence, I hear a couple of gasps in the room.  I ignore it and keep reading, but as I'm reading I'm thinking about the gasps and it's bothering me, so I finally stop to address it.  I asked why some of them gasped when I read that part.  One student tells me she is a Christian and her family doesn't use that word.  I said, hell is a place in the bible.  Doesn't your pastor ever talk about hell?  Another student pipes up and says that he's also a Christian and he just doesn't talk that way.  I try again.  The character is just talking about the place, he's not swearing.  But they aren't having it.  So I just continue.  Up to this point kids have been cruel to this character, no gasping there.  Kids have beat him up, no gasping there.  But as he's expressing the depth of his pain and comparing it to hell, that's when they gasp.  Unbelievable.

A few years later, my students are working on an assignment in their groups.  I'm walking around, monitoring their progress and answering questions.  I get to one group that is obviously having problems.  I ask, "Did you read the article?"  One kid (we'll call him Bob) says yes.  But "Cindy" says, "No you didn't.  You just read part of it."  "I read enough," says Bob.  "No, you have to read the whole freaking thing!" says Cindy, quite authoritatively.  I walk off hiding my grin because Cindy seems to have the situation under control.  Out of the corner of my eye I can see my classroom aid, who overheard the whole exchange, looking at me like I should do something.  When she realizes I'm not going to, she tells Cindy that we don't use that word in school.  I immediately remembered the girl in the principal's office being told she did something wrong when she had no idea what he was talking about.  It made me a little mad.  Really?  We don't say freaking in school?

What do all of these stories have in common?  Some kid was trying to express themselves and was stopped dead in their tracks when they said a word someone had decided was offensive.  Wasn't the fact that a kid was concerned about something not going the way it should be what was important?  Wasn't the fact that a kid didn't want to cause their friend pain the important thing?  Wasn't the fact that the kid was being hurt and terrorized the important thing?  Wasn't the fact that Bob wasn't doing his part in the group the important thing?  But a word can suddenly become the most important thing.  The Bible does call us to keep our language wholesome.  What he doesn't call us to do is monitor others' language and point out when it doesn't meet our standard of wholesome - losing sight of what important thing they might be trying to say.

God shows us grace daily for our many trespasses.  In spite of them, some much worse then saying a bad word, he still listens when we need him.  He doesn't let those sins keep him from hearing us.  So this week, let's get out there and listen with love and grace.  Just, please, don't screw it up! 


Blogger Kevin Wright said...

Excellent! Words are having a good day...

7:52 PM  

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