Whatever you’re doing right now, I want to ask you to NOT think of an elephant. Feel free to think about whatever you want, just not an elephant.
As a wise man once said, ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste, or not to have at all.’ Researchers have learned some important things about the way the mind acquires, stores, and recalls information. Notably, the mind handles information by bundling and framing it. Where it can do so easily, the information is more easily stored and recalled. Where information is difficult to conceptualize in this way, it is disposed of. There is a lot of information to be known about elephants. All of us have some notion of them. Those who have had experiences with them have not likely forgotten them. They are memorable creatures, even if we’re instructed to NOT think about them.
How often do you find yourself walking into a room and forgetting why you were there? We tend to regret the information we can’t seem to recall at the right times, but disposing of information can be very helpful. Why? Because we are simply not capable of handling all the things which our minds can perceive.
Information overload is even more of a problem in the modern era, where it streams at us far faster than we can process. We’ve learned to cope with the flood of information by looking for patterns. When we hear a deep growling sound, we remember other times we’ve heard that, and soon recall the danger that sound suggests. When we encounter a situation that confounds us, we sort through memories of similar things, and latch onto those which connect symbolically.
It turns out that words play a very important role in shaping our ability to discern patterns, and therefore, our ability to store and use ideas. When information fits our view of the world, we tend to retain it. Unfortunately, if conveniently, we tend to ignore and forget information that contradicts our perceptions or opinions.
Words are symbols. They bundle and frame things as ideas. They carry them like boats carry people over the sea. Their contents may shift. Their courses may drift. They may even capsize and sink, or ground upon a rocky shore. Not surprisingly, they sometimes disgorge their passengers and take on new ones, before setting out for entirely new destinations.
The Hebrew word Ruach is a good example. At times it means Spirit. Elsewhere-breath. Sometimes wind. It can even mean scent, or the verb, to smell.
Today, spirit can also refer to the intangible presence of a deceased person, a class of alcoholic drink, team enthusiasm, a quality of character, or to one’s mood. We perceive the intended meaning in relation to its context.
Mars Rover 'Spirit'
'Spirit' B-2 bomber
This dynamic can get tricky for people of faith who have canonized ancient texts, formulated creeds, and spent years with the lyrics and liturgies of their traditions. We shouldn’t be surprised that we have so much conflict over language. It is important. What else can come close to conveying our understanding of God, of the meaning of Jesus’ life, or the purpose of following as a disciple? What else can so stand in the way of communicating the principles of our faith across divides of culture or world-view?
So much more can be said about the power of words to carry or fail to carry the ideas we hold most dear. This May, following the lectionary, my sermons will look at a few of them.
We’ll explore the biblical journey from its beginning in ‘the garden’ (Eden), to its conclusion in ‘the beautiful city’ (New Jerusalem). We’ll consider that city’s river and ‘tree of life.’ We will talk about glory, a concept attributed both to things divine, and things military. We’ll celebrate Pentecost, the miracle in which the Holy Spirit (as tongues of fire) descends upon a diverse group of worshipers and helps them to understand each other. Finally, we’ll contemplate ‘Woman Wisdom,’ a feminine image of the divine honored in the book of Proverbs.
Whether the language of our faith looks more like a mine-field or a tapestry has a lot to do with our spirits. But the season of the Spirit endows the faithful with the wisdom to navigate the dangers and the inspiration to take their creative turn at the great loom.
See? I am making all things new! -Rev. 21.5