The quote that stood out for me this morning was one from Mark Twain that I think I found on the Internet in which he says, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” It started a whole train of thought.
Growing up back East I was quite familiar with both lightning and lightning bugs. One of the joys of summer evenings when I was a child was looking at the gathering darkness and seeing tiny flashes of golden light signaling something that I couldn’t understand but providing beauty that I could enjoy. Sometimes we would catch lightning bugs and put them in jars just for the joy of seeing them close up. They were beautiful although they did have a certain pungency when you caught them or released them from their jar. When it came to lightning, though, that flash of light could be fearsome. I remember being terrified of it as a child, hiding my head in Mama’s lap while the storm raged outside in our family dog cowering under that the seam chair in which we sat. It took a while but I learned to see the beauty of lightning even though I would never attempt to try and catch it in a jar like I did the lightning bugs. Bright flash or gentle glow, you couldn’t mistake one for the other but each was part of creation and played the part it was intended to play. And each had its own beauty.
People who work with words, journalists like writers, preachers, motivational and other public speakers, etc., know the importance of having the right word rather than the almost right one. What if Patrick Henry had said, "Give me liberty or give me another option" or Rhett Butler had said, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a dime." It wouldn't be quite the same or have the same impact as the original lines. Imagine what the difference would have been if Jefferson had penned, "... the inalienable right to longevity, options and the pursuit of good humor"? We might then be searching for the Fountain of Youth or an ice cream truck as an ultimate goal. If Jesus had just chosen a few less vivid words, Matthew 23:33 might have come out as "You nasty people! You boogers! How can you elude being sent to the compost pile?" instead of "You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?" Or what if he had tried to calm the storm on the Sea of Galilee with, "Cool it!" rather than "Peace, be still!" I wonder how people would have responded if he’d told them that they were going to be cat herders instead of fishers of people?
There are always old jokes about people learning other languages and then trying to practice them in meetings or sermons on native speakers only an inflection is wrong or the person uses the wrong term and ends up insulting the listeners rather than impressing or flattering them. It's about knowing the right word, the right way to say it, and then actually being able to do both at the right time. In high-powered negotiations or in attempts to tell people the good news, it's not enough to use an almost-right word.
Choosing the right word can be an exercise in frustration at times. No matter how delicately I want to put something, sometimes I just can't come up with something that will convey what I want to say in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental, non-hurtful way. I’ve begun trying to think before I speak but it doesn’t always work. I think I need more practice at it. Or perhaps I need to sleep with a thesaurus under my pillow. I cringe when I think back to times when I’ve been at funerals and heard someone tell the family of the deceased that “Now they’re in a better place” or “Now you can get back to normal.” They undoubtedly mean it to be comforting or reassuring, but somehow it just seems like the wrong words. How do they know the better place for that person wasn’t being alive and in the arms of the family or that “normal” covers a lot of territory, including taking an indefinite, indefinable period of time to adjust to not having someone around? I don’t want to be guilty of being that kind of Job’s comforter, meaning well but perhaps sticking a spike in the heart instead. At times like those when there are so many wrong words sometimes a silent hug or a “How are you?” is better. Or in the heat of a discussion a “This is what I hear you saying…” is better than a quick-witted rebuttal that doesn’t reflect what the first person was really saying.
For me, the “right words” are “Jesus loves you.” Period. Full stop. No “Jesus loves you if…” or Jesus loves you but…” Changes might be necessary for other people to love me but I don’t think God puts that kind of restriction on me. In this case, less is more and the right words don’t need any embellishment. “God likes you” is nice, but how much more emotion or depth of feeling is conveyed with “God loves you.” Love covers a lot of territory and a bunch of sins. If you love someone you can forgive a lot more than if you just like them. Love is commitment, like is attitude. Do I want a God, or a Jesus or a Spirit with attitude? Not really. In this case, I want love, not like.
Both lightning and lightning bugs have their own place in nature’s order, the brilliant flash or the gentle glow. The right words can be either one or anything in between the two – at the right time. Determining when is that right time and what that right word is becomes a daily challenge.
I think I’ll have to remember to use “God loves you” more often, both to others and to myself. If I have confidence in that maybe the right words will come and the almost-right ones will fade away. It’s worth a shot, anyway, or maybe the right word “try”?
at Episcopal Café Sunday, July 8, 2013.