My grad school car was a five-year-old VW bug, and I was determined to keep it going without recourse to a mechanic. So I enrolled in free, community-ed course in automotive maintenance at a local high school. There I learned to replace points and plugs, reset timing with a strobe light, reposition balance weights on the wheel rims, etc. But the thing that stands out most in my memory is the teacher’s love of his tools.
He waxed rhapsodic about the Snap-On brand, and spoke of the thrill in seeing the company sales van drive up. He urged us to guard our shop kits zealously and to insist that loaned wrenches be returned promptly and in good condition. And the exotica he showed us (e.g., the ring compressor for sliding pistons into cylinders; the spinning and trimming machines for truing and balancing tires) were dazzling.
But what are my ministerial tools, given my failure to pursue a promising career in auto mechanics (though I do love “The Tappet Brothers” on Saturday a.m. NPR)? After all, just as the mechanic has his sockets, the fisherman his lures, and the golfer his clubs, the minister has his gear. The answer, I think, is words.
This may sound a bit effete, off the pace set by the blacksmith’s hammer, the pilot’s control yoke, and the infantryman’s rifle. But don’t let the Apostle Paul hear you, for he was right pleased to use words – and right manly in their employment.
I recently reread Acts 18 and was struck by the many verbal verbs in play, particulary by Paul: (4) dialegomai (reason) & peitho (persuade); (5) diamarturomai (witness); (9) laleo (speak); (11) didasko (teach); (13) anapeitho (seduce with words): (20) erotao (ask) & epineuo (consent); (21) apotasso (bid farewell) & lego (speak); (22) aspazomai (greet); (25) katecheo (instruct); (26) parresiazomai (speak boldly) & ektithemi (explain); (27) protrepo (encourage) & grapho (write) & apodechomai (welcome); (28) diakatelenchomai (refute) & epideiknymi (demonstrate [through the scriptures])
And this doesn’t pick up on such nouns as ‘vow’ and ‘message’ and ‘question,’ on the blasphemy of their foes, or on talk of Paul’s opening his mouth. It’s communication wherever you look.
Those with an Esperanto chromosome might suggest the Greeks (or Dr. Luke) could have done with a leaner vocabulary, perhaps reducing the 19 verbs listed above to a half-dozen or so. Surely they could combine didasko with katecheo and ektithemi to get one word for teaching. And why not lump laleo with lego to get one word for speaking? So much clutter!
But words are like tools engineered for specific tasks, with, for instance, a particularly long handle for a torque wrench or a thin, handy design for the pocket telescoping magnetic pickup tool. The same goes for more ordinary discourse. We have a single word for the front of the hand (‘palm’), but it takes several words to address the other side (‘back of the hand’). The reason is that we use and refer to the former more readily (“Cross my palm with silver”; “He palmed the basketball”; “Palmolive soap”). (Yes, the backhand is used by thugs and tennis players, but you don’t suffer a cut on your backhand or receive your change at the checkout desk by extending your backhand.)
So we can suppose that a word persisting in the dictionary has a certain bolt to tighten or loosen, a fallen cotter pin to retrieve, or a stripped screw to back out.
In this connection, I like to entice (torment?) my students with extra-point vocabulary questions on their readings quizzes. For instance, in my spring course on discipleship in a secular society, I drew from Harry Blamires The Post-Christian Mind, giving them the chance to shine by defining ‘tautologous,’ ‘tendentious,’ ‘novitiate,’ ‘nonplussed,’ ‘specious,’ ‘anodyne,’ ‘denouement,’ ‘abattoir,’ ‘Chippendale,’ ‘crofts,’ ‘foppery,’ and ‘pudenda’; and from Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers, with such words as ‘probity,’ ‘misogynist,’ ‘aseptic,’ ‘demur,’ ‘Bolshevism,’ ‘imprimatur,’ ‘kitsch,’ ‘flotsam,’ ‘bourgeois,’ ‘temerity,’ and ‘opprobrium’ — and the letters ‘SJ’ after a priest’s name.
I can’t say they much appreciated it, since most like to sail past these often puzzling words without disturbing their dictionaries. But, as we worked through the lists in class, bringing etymology and history to bear on many, they seemed to warm to the exercise.
The point is not to parade your erudition in the pulpit, but to ready yourself for promiscuous reading (to use Milton’s expression), for nuance where needed, and for freshness in expression. Yes, you can play golf with only a seven iron and a putter, but it sure helps to have a driver, a pitching wedge, and a range of numbered drivers in your bag.
So while you’re teaching your people to be grateful for Christ’s propitiation and to appreciate the nature of apocalyptic literature, you might also urge them to be wary of obsequious people and to go easy on the schadenfreude.