File this under one of my most embarrassing moments: 15 years old. I’ve spent the past 9 years of my life homeschooled and just recently entered public high school. I got my first real job working at a local farm stand. Like most local shops we were made up of working class managers who had lived in the area their whole lives and young high school students working for minimum wage. I don’t know what it is but that combination seems like the Holy Grail of gossip mongers and drama queens. One manager in particular (I’ll now show my snobbery by noting he was a forty-year-old man with a mullet) loved being the cool manager. He flirted with the teenage girls and told dirty jokes out back with the boys. My first week there he was doing something bizarre to get me to laugh. I can’t remember what it was now. I do know I laughed and then said “John you’re so queer.”
How could I, a homeschooler fresh from reading 17th century literature, have any idea about the loaded statement of my words? To me queer was a milder form of weird: meaning eccentric, or slightly odd. However, the minute I saw his face I knew whatever I said did not mean that in this world. He stalked out of the store silently and refused to speak to me for the next two hours of my four hour shift. We were the only two people working might I add. I tremblingly went home and the next time we worked together I pulled him aside and apologized for offending him. Told him I was just joking and had no intention of offending him.
It took me three years to find out the etymology of the word queer, how it was used to deride effeminate men and then turned into hate speech towards homosexuals and lastly the attempted reclamation of the word by the LGBT community. I guess I tell this story to illustrate this point: Words don’t inherently mean things. Or rather the meaning of a word is so intricately connected to the culture in which it resides that they are inseparable.
I wonder if the church sometimes is in that same position as fifteen year old me, using a word or phrase that means something to us but actually means something completely different to those who haven’t been immersed in Christian culture. I wonder how many people we cause to stiffen up, walk out of the room by blithely using words that come with baggage we can’t even imagine. I’m all for reclamation. I like the concept. Taking something old and worn-out and making it beautiful. But reclamation doesn’t occur simply by insisting loudly what you think a word means is what it really means and everyone else is wrong. Reclamation involves hard and thoughtful work. Reclamation is harder work than making something from scratch. Because it involves all the work of creating something new but also involves a transformation. (There’s a reason that furniture made from barn wood is so frickin’ expensive). But I like that idea, I like the idea that the scars we have can be made into something beautiful. I like the idea of taking pain, or hurt or weapons or wounds, things that only seem destructive and using them to make something whole and true and beautiful. I think that it some of the most holy work we can do. But in order to do it we have to speak in a language of love. We may only be able, at first, to speak a few halting words but we will learn. We learn to speak a language of transformation. And it won’t be with loudly shouting the old worn-out words of pain and rejection. Rather they will be “a new song in our mouths”