Thursday, January 12, 2017

Words [2017:2/52]

I graduated from Bethel College in 1999 with a degree in Communication. Back then you could choose from three different tracks within the Communication major and I chose print media. My aim was to be a journalist.

When I was in high school I discovered a love of writing. I enjoyed both creative writing and journalism. I found more freedom in creative writing but I enjoyed being able to recount events concisely and accurately through journalism.

I held three different positions at two different newspapers for the first eight years that I was out of college. I did a lot of writing and designing during those years.

There were some unforeseen side effects to working in journalism. First, being required to write every day made it less appealing to spend time writing outside of working hours. Second, there is a constant challenge to keep your writing fresh. It's easy to get into a rhythm and pretty soon that rhythm can change into a rut where you use many of the same words, phrases, sentence and paragraph structures. Editors will let it slide for a while, but sooner or later they'll push you to change things up.

Avoiding the use of cliches is one of the biggest challenges I experienced as a journalist. Cliches exist for a reason - they provide accurate descriptions in an easily recognizable way. They also get overused and can even lose their original meaning eventually.

The need to keep things fresh and avoid cliches drove me to keep learning new words. I've developed a love of words over the years and I'm always ready to look up definitions when I hear words that I'm not familiar with. I normally don't use a great variety of words in conversations but I enjoy trying to effectively use new words in my writing.

Here are some of the words and phrases I've been learning or re-learning lately:

Definitions: 1. Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change; 2. Cautiously moderate or purposefully low; 3. Traditional in style or manner; avoiding novelty or showiness

Sometimes the meaning of a word differs depending on the arena in which it's being used. I believe this is the case with the word conservative.

In last week's post I ended by saying I no longer fit into the political categories of Conservative, Evangelical or Republican. In many ways I still consider myself conservative and evangelical. However, as descriptors of political preferences they do not describe me.

Just as cliches can lose their original meaning with overuse, words can also take on different meanings over time. I believe the meaning of conservative when talking about someone's political bent is different than the definition above.

Rather than describing a person's political strategy or ideals, the word conservative is most often used to categorize people. The words evangelical, liberal, moderate and progressive are used the same way. Each word has a dictionary definition that is still valid, but it also has a commonly applied use, which may or may not agree fully with the definition.

Part of the reason I've tried to separate myself from the political distinction of conservative is because it is often associated with narrow-mindedness, racism, war, lack of concern for the vulnerable and religious extremism. Correct or not, when using the word conservative in a political conversation, those are the characteristics assumed.

"Conservatism always positions itself as a return to a better era. The data tends to indicate that better era never existed." - Mike McHargue, The Liturgists

Going back to the good old days isn't always the best thing for everyone. In the world of politics many people want our country to go back to the values and principles of our founding fathers. I can understand this sentiment but I disagree with it because their values and principles weren't all that great for everyone.

About two months ago I read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States for the first time. While much of those two documents is admirable and worth protecting, there are a few small phrases and caveats that shouldn't be ignored. In the original documents, the rights that were supposedly given to all men were really only given to white men. Africans, Native Americans and women were not given the full array of rights. 

I realize people who want to return to those days aren't trying to take away people's rights, but the founding fathers' view of and discrimination against minorities must not be ignored. It was part of their character.

The reason I've spent so much time writing about this one word is because I've always considered myself conservative. The current meaning of the word, however, is not something I am comfortable applying to myself. It's a part of my ongoing deconstruction and it's causing me to deeply examine both the word and my own heart.

Definitions: 1. Pertaining to or in keeping with the gospel and its teachings; 2. belonging to or designating the Christian churches that emphasize the teachings and authority of the Scriptures, especially of the New Testament, in opposition to the institutional authority of the church itself, and that stress as paramount the tenet that salvation is achieved by personal conversion to faith in the atonement of Christ

Again, the political use and the common use of the word evangelical have taken on two different meanings. If you're talking about my religious beliefs then I am clearly an Evangelical. But if you're trying to fit me into a political category, I don't want anything to do with the term Evangelical.

Evangelical and conservative seem to go hand in hand in the world of politics. Therefore, Christians who claim to be Evangelical quickly get lumped in with all the stereotypes about conservatives. 

I don't think it's ever a good idea to try to categorize people. We were made by a very complex Creator who created us in His image, so that means we are complex as well. We shouldn't try to fit every person into a box, or even a set of boxes. It makes it too easy to minimize each person's uniqueness.

Definition: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Personality tests are meant to explain people, but sometimes they are used to categorize people. For that reason, I'm not a big fan of personality tests. However, there is one personality test I've taken twice and my results have caused me to embrace and use my strengths much more effectively. The Clifton StrengthsFinder says my top two strengths are adaptability and empathy.

I was aware of my adaptability long before I took the test. Working in the newspaper business, with its constant tight deadlines, almost requires adaptability.

Empathy, however, was not something I was very familiar with. Honestly, I couldn't have told you the difference between empathy and sympathy until about five years ago.

I was very close to my mom growing up and I've always thought of her as a very kind and loving person. It turns out that she is also very empathetic. She identifies with the feelings of others and has compassion for them.

My mom's influence must have passed on this trait to me. I always knew I could identify with others, probably a little more easily than most people, but I didn't know there was a word for it. I also didn't know it would become a strength in my life.

As I've spent time living and working in different cultures, empathy has been a great asset. It has helped me identify with the struggles of those who are different from me. I have been especially grateful for this ability when I've spent time with people groups who have been historically oppressed or marginalized.

I'm not saying I know what it's like to be oppressed, or that I completely understand the experience of all people. I am saying that empathy has allowed me a deeper glimpse into the lives of people and that has caused me to deconstruct many of the things I took for granted growing up.

One of the knocks against conservatives and Evangelicals is that they lack compassion toward the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. I think this alleged lack of compassion comes from a lack of empathy. 

Many people outside the Church feel only judgment and condemnation from those inside the Church. The Church should be the most empathetic, the most compassionate and the most accepting group of people in the world. After all, those of us who claim to follow Jesus know that if it wasn't for His love, His grace, His atoning sacrifice for our sins, we would all be doomed. And yet, as we look out into the world outside of the Church, we are quick to cast judgment and retreat into the safety and comfort of being surrounded by people who think, act, dress, talk and worship like us.

The people of God's Church have been called to care for the orphans, the widows and the foreigners - the least of these even. So, where is our empathy? Where is our compassion?

Sadly, I believe the Church has become so consumed with being right, with being comfortable, with power and with racism that it can't see past its own doorstep and into a world full of people in need.

"Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it." - Gregory Boyle

There are so many more words I want to discuss, but this post has already gotten very long. Maybe I'll do more "Words" posts throughout the year. Some of the words I wanted to address are privilege, gentrification, justice, equality and unity. Those will have to wait for another day.

It's important to me that I use words accurately and in the correct context. My co-workers and I joke a lot with each other about words. We laugh and call out each other's mistakes, but it's because we really want to communicate clearly. We talk about a lot of very important topics and so we want to be careful in the way we speak about them. We also want to be honest about how words apply or don't apply to us.

My love of words has caused me to carefully examine their meanings - literal or practical - and that has led me to know myself and the people around me better.

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