When I was little, The Snarky Assbadger and I attended parochial school. On the wall outside the church that I passed nearly a dozen times a week was a portion of John 3:16: Whoever believes in him will have eternal life.
I was the kind of kid who read everything. My mom taught me to read very early (no doubt to get some peace and quiet, because I followed her everywhere; she also bought me a typewriter, but I kept messing up the early drafts of my first novel — Swimming with Gators and Other Fun Stuff My Brother Makes Me Do — and back in the day, when you messed up, you had to basically start over on a fresh sheet of paper, which is why this photo of me dramatically weeping on Christmas night while my mother wishes she’d stopped at one child exists).
I read anything that crossed my path: cereal boxes, labels, shampoo bottles, record liner notes, pamphlets, magazines, billboards…EVERYTHING. (The only thing I didn’t ever get in the habit of reading was directions because I didn’t like to be told what to do. I’m sure this comes as a great surprise to you, but it’s true.)
I knew, because I’m sure it had been drilled into me in church and school, that what was being promised on that church wall, in return for believing in Jesus, was a life that lasted forever. Eternal, I knew even in kindergarten, meant always.
This was fine, except for the fact that somewhere along the way, I got ETERNAL and EXTERNAL confused. The first time my mom tried to give me cough medicine, I insisted on reading the label first. When I saw For External Use Only, I wasn’t having it; no way was I going to take nasty cough medicine for the rest of my life! What if I lived to be really old — like 35 or 40? I knew that, at the age of 5, I wasn’t in any position to be taking on lifelong obligations. I mean, I couldn’t even get the damn typewriter to work…
Back in the 1970s, it wasn’t necessary for things that obviously weren’t meant to go inside you to be marked For External Use Only. It was assumed that, since people managed to keep themselves alive from day to day, they possessed some modicum of common sense. Now, however, this belief has been completely debunked, and it is necessary to mark everything from flip flops to drill bits For External Use Only, lest someone eat them and sue the manufacturer when their lower intestine erupts.
I will say, having seen an episode of My Strange Addiction in which a woman confessed to having systematically chomped her way through each member of the family’s bed mattress (beginning with her mother’s, which I thought indicated some underlying trouble in that relationship, but I may be wrong), that the assumption of complete, rodent-like stupidity in the general population might, in fact, have some merit.
I also thought, until I was about 40, that the words to America’s Ventura Highway were “Venture a highway in the sunshine…” as in, Hey Joe, I see that you’re lost; why don’t you venture a highway, try it out, see if a road trip makes you feel better? My daughter, when she was little, thought the words to AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds were “Dirty jeans, not good jeans, dirty jeans and they’re not good jeans” — which, let’s face it — are actually much nicer lyrics than the real ones.
And then there’s ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down. The chorus, supposedly, is “Don’t bring me down, grooss” – which is some word Jeff Lynne made up to fill the space. But of course, everyone heard it as “Bruce,” and eventually, Lynne himself began to sing it as Don’t bring me down, Bruce in concert. If I was friends with anyone named Bruce, I’m sure I’d drive them crazy with that line.
The addition or deletion or substitution of a word can make a huge difference in how you experience something — little words like please, or the difference between I like you and I love you, or I want you and I need you. Some years ago, I had an interim rector who proved this point every Sunday by adjusting one little phrase in the liturgy.
It’s supposed to go like this: the priest does all the preparation for the Eucharist, filling the chalice with wine and gathering the bread or wafers, and then he or she blesses the bread and wine with a recollection of the Last Supper from the Gospels. After this has been done, the priest who is running the service says: The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.
This interim rector didn’t change much; it wasn’t like he went completely off-script and started riffing the liturgy. Rather, he simply said, “These are the Gifts of God, and you are the People of God...take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”
Not a big change, but let me tell you, after hearing the liturgy at least once a week for more than 30 years, his little change caught my attention! I sat up in my pew and realized, perhaps for the first time ever, that this liturgy was speaking directly to me: a person of God. As I walked up to receive Communion, I felt — also for the first time ever — truly connected to the millions of believers who’d participated in this ritual before me. I knew, because of that small change in the wording, that I was seen, and acknowledged, by God
So the moral of this story is, choose your words carefully. You never know when your word choice will change the way someone sees himself, or his life!