Lord, Teach Us to Say: The Importance of Correct Language
I read. I write. I preach. Words are my business. I have no literary education that any university would recognise. Any undergraduate arts student may well have read more classical English literature than I have. But, hang it all, no master though I be, I know when my mother tongue is being bawdlerised!1Nouns are used as verbs – so today, we impact. We used to have an impact upon. People commit. Period. But how can that be? Commit is a transitive verb; it needs and takes an object. In a recent article in Time magazine, I read of "herds of sheep" (unheard of!). The definite article, the, has two pronunciations, the and thee (as it were), corresponding in usage to the two indefinite articles, a and an, thee and an being used before the first four vowels; if you're a Pom and drop your "h" s, you'll use thee and an before h as well. And vowel is pronounced vowel, not val (or whatever the one-syllable substitute I often hear is). Yesterday on the radio a chap hoped that Ansett "would soon be earborne." (I suppose he meant airborne; fleas are bad enough without 767s!) And today on TV, someone else said Qantas Australia had lent Qantas NZ "a large quantity of spears." Maybe they are what grounded the airline. Not to mention New Ziland, or women constantly pronounced woman. Is it so illogical that a change in the spelling of the second syllable alters the pronunciation of the first?
Dear readers, I remember 1 Corinthians 13 and I try to suffer long. I do not want to be a mere purist but there are times when it is not possible to know what someone has said or written – simply because they do not know or care how to speak properly. So, for example, the day after I thought I had finished this article, Mr Mallard said in Parliament, "Crime has reduced." But, reduced also being a transitive verb, one wants to know: crime has reduced what? – the amount of money in some people's pockets? No doubt. The number of cars still in the possession of their legitimate owners? I am quite sure. The number of people with no bruises and unblemished skin? Of a certainty. But since Mr Mallard was answering a question on behalf of the Minister of Police, George Hawkins, I have the feeling it was not Mr Mallard's intention to mean anything like what his words require him to mean. But, ah well, Trevor Mallard is only the Minister of Education, so one ought not expect too much, I suppose.
A little protest
So when I have to listen to near-homey (sloppy) talk at public, official meetings (by public figures whose business is also words!) or hear very bad habits of speech at prayer often, may I raise a little protest? The disciples asked, "Lord, teach us to pray." He told them what and in what order. Today he would have to "teach us to say" (also a transitive verb requiring an object. But rules are made to be broken (occasionally!) for effect; when one knows them and not continually out of ignorance or laziness). How you pray in your closet is your business. There you may pray as a little child speaks to his father. I don't care how stumblingly or with whatever terrible grammar. In fact, in the closet the stumbles and the bad grammar might even be expected, because there the heart should be poured out. Paul did tell us there will be times when we do not how to pray. Actually, he said "we do not know what we should pray for as we ought." And please note that the "groanings which cannot be uttered" are those of the Spirit to the Father, not ours. Nevertheless, that agony of heart may well result in groanings and poor speech. That is fine – in the closet.
Some public considerations
But when we pray in our Bible studies, for instance, or in other groups, we need to remember a few things that we often do not. These come to mind:
- When we pray with others, we are, necessarily, leading in prayer. We are praying for the others present. We are praying on their behalf. To be present in a gathering of 500 people, as I was the other day, and the person leading us begins, "Lord I pray..." I begin to wonder what is going on. Am I in the right place? Am I intruding in someone's private prayer time? Goodness, they have a large closet! They need to be more careful and heed Jesus' injunction to "lock the door." To pray in public is simply that; it is public, it is corporate. Please don't leave me out. I might get a complex. I want to pray with you. According to the apostle Paul I am supposed to be able to say Amen at your giving of thanks. For it is to be our giving of thanks and our requests. But when you say "I" you make me feel like an eavesdropper on a private conversation. When we pray in public, then, we say "we" and "us" and "our."
- When we pray, let us do so. We don't need to tell others what we are doing. Although, if I may just interrupt myself for a moment, we do. There is a very annoying habit that seems to be a foible of charismatics particularly and being picked up by general evangelicals of simply "moving into" prayer (I suppose that is the in phrase that would describe it). There I am. I am listening to somebody speak on whatever and without pause or by our leave, change in tone of voice or introduction, all of a sudden we are praying! Or at least, that appears, later at least, to be the intention – a bit like news readers gabble away on commercial radio stations and TV. They take bigger pauses for breath mid-phrase than they do between sentences, let alone between news items! Maybe I'm getting old and a little slow, but sometimes it takes me a while to realise, oh, hey, we're praying now. Close eyes. But what is the point? There is no respect in the voice. Who on earth, or at least in heaven, would think we were now approaching the throne of God which, for sure is the throne of grace, of condescension, but it is also the throne of the Almighty! The maker of heaven and earth, the ruler of all and no man can stay his hand or say to him, "What doest Thou?" So let me start again. Yes. Inform us we are about to pray please, so we can take half a second to prepare ourselves, take off our hats, sit up straight and close our eyes, and psychologically prepare ourselves to speak to him before whom the holy angels cover their faces and Isaiah and John fell down as dead.
- Let's try again with what was going to be No.2. We don't constantly need to be informed we are praying. Certainly God does not. "Oh Lord we pray this and we pray that. I pray for so and so. We pray that you would do xyz." Yes, we are praying. We all know that. God knows it. Get on with it. Just ask for want you want to ask; give thanks for what you want to give thanks. Do we say, "Dad, I just wanted to ask you if ... and Dad, I want to thank you for ... Jane, I thought I should tell you. And Jane you ought also to realise..." Yes, at times we speak like that. I am not saying we may never say, "Lord, we pray..." But it should be a bit infrequent. Have you ever read the prayers in the Bible and noticed how direct they are? "Thank-you Father." "Give me understanding according to your word." Not constantly, "I pray for ... We come before you to..." Read Psalm 119 or Daniel 9. In that prayer of Daniel 9, which runs to more than a column and a half, entirely a confession of sin, Daniel tells God "I pray" once. Listen to how directly he speaks: "We have sinned and committed iniquity ... Oh Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for your own sake, my God, for your city and your people are called by your name." Don't tell God you are praying. He knows! Pray! Say what you want to say to God directly.
- Do we constantly need to say just? "Oh Lord, I just want to thank you. Father, we just want to praise your name." And so on, ad nauseum. This is a terrible old fault of evangelicals, the ones who know so much about prayer they scorn written prayers. (It's all right. I'm not just slagging off. This is the country of my childhood.) It goes right along with a terrible verbosity. Talk about long prayers and vain repetitions! Nobody uses language so inefficiently, and has such long services, and for all their verbose speaking say so little than people who "move in the spirit", and love extempore 'praying' and 'preaching', and excoriate the letter – as they would refer to our Forms. Of course, we're not great ones for written prayers either. But we could learn a lot from them. Look in the back of the Psalter Hymnal sometime. Or at the prayers and collects of the Anglican Prayerbook. We could do a great deal worse, and very likely often do. The word just, used in this way, has no entry in the dictionary (not my two kilogram Chambers, at any rate). The nearest would be a meaning something like "barely". It means simply, merely, briefly. What do people mean by this? It seems to me it can only be this sort of idea: "Lord, I know you're very busy, you've got the whole big world to run. And I understand what a mess it is in and what a lot of trouble and time it must take you to manage it. It must have cost you a great many grey hairs by now. I feel sorry for you. And please forgive me for interrupting you to mention such a trivial thing in the whole scheme of things, but may I just..."
That is the only possible meaning the use of the word just in this way could have. How much less of the Lord's time you would have used if you had simply taken a leaf out of Daniel or David or Abraham's book and directly and succinctly addressed God with whatever you had wanted to say! And, pray tell, what is time to the Eternal? Nothing. So he told us not to come to him afraid to bother him, thinking we'll barely get a hearing. He will only just manage to fit us in. He told us to come to him boldly! If you want to talk to God, He has all the time in eternity. Only speak in a manner that is appropriate to the occasion, private or public.
A word from the Lord
Finally, remember the third commandment. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." "Oh Lord, I just want to thank you, Lord. Father, we just want to praise your name God. We just want to exult before you Jesus" (that is if they don't say exalt which, of course, would be entirely wrong but sometimes I think more appropriate). Thus the Lord's name, in one form or another, gets tagged on to the end of every second sentence. Again, look at the prayers in the Bible. I quoted some of Daniel's prayer above as follows: "We have sinned and committed iniquity ... Oh Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for your own sake, my God, for your city and your people are called by your name." It is a long prayer. In it Daniel addresses God directly seven times, always at the beginning of a new supplication, never as a mere tack-on. Only at the very end, as his prayer rises to a passionate crescendo, does he address God insistently in the manner quoted above – those extra four times. But since it is a prayer of confession, it can hardly be said to be the pattern followed in most prayers we hear today. In Psalm 51, David addresses God by name only five times, in Psalm 32 none, in the first 104 verses of Psalm 119, eleven times, and in his great prayer dedicating the Temple (nearly three columns long), Solomon addressed God by name eight times. Excuse me, please, if I wonder if this arises out of an almost magical quality that some sections of Christendom attach to the mere word Jesus. Surely, if anything is taking the Lord's name in vain, it is that. Apart from the poor style, for that reason let us avoid it.
The beauty of grace
Christianity is about grace. Grace, before Paul got hold of the word and invested it with a great deal more and deeper meaning, used to mean beauty. (Mind you, what could be more beautiful than saving grace?) But grace, originally and still, has to do with beauty and form and balance. So God is a God of grace, with whichever connotation we use the word, for when He had finished work on the sixth day, He said, "Behold, it is very good." We are to imitate our Father in heaven. We too, then, are to strive for beauty in all that we do, for all we do is to be done to the glory of the God of all beauty. God forbid we ever exalt the beauty of expression over the content of what is expressed, but the two are not opposites even though they can be played off against the other. I do not want to discourage anyone, and none of us, speaking in public, get it right all the time (what is wrong with this sentence? I didn't pick it up until the second reading). However, we live in a coarse age in which anything goes. It is considered bad to correct children's mistakes. That is silly nonsense, and one result is that we carry our childish mistakes into adulthood. But by then we have to justify them by stigmatising anyone who dares to correct us as a 'stickler' or a pedant. It is not pedantry to strive to use man's unique gift well. Above all, let us speak from the heart, but let us also try to speak accurately, clearly and with grace to the God of all grace.