From the Newsletter, “What We Have Words For…”

I’m not sure when I first heard my father’s maxim that, when it comes to car horns, “not all honks are equal.”

He has developed a personal lexicon, of sorts, to name many of the differences.

Someone ahead of you hasn’t noticed that the light has changed? “Give him a ‘little toot,’” my father will say.

If the truck in the right lane might not realize that you’re moving into its general footprint on the left, my father counsels, “Give ‘em a ‘hey, I’m here.’”

These are two of what he understands to be “short honks” — the kind you might also give when you drive by a friend you’ve spotted walking on a nearby sidewalk.

Then there are the “punitive honks.” Those are longer. More jarring. These are not about a genuine warning, or sense of urgency. They have names like “The Unh-uh,” “The Whoawhoawhoa” and the “NO WAY.” They’re usually “assessed” after a particularly egregious example of aggressive driving by the other person—weaving through traffic, riding your bumper, coming into your lane without signaling, or cutting the line in a merge. The high crimes of the road. My father has never been one to, for example, speed up and give another driver “the look” —he sees that as foolishly asking for trouble — but even so, “punitive honks” are somewhat in that spirit, and now again seem called for.

To be honest, I can’t really say if the lexicon is all that helpful. That’s almost beside the point. More than instructions for using the car horn, it’s more of a world view. But it’s one I was raised on and share.

So yesterday, when I was walking Grace to school, I was instantaneously shocked and appalled when a driver in an SUV “assessed” the most punitive “NO WAY” honk I have ever heard on a driver, someone who had seemingly misunderstood the merge at Putnam and and Mason, and was blocking the right hand lane. To me, a minor infraction at best—we’ve all been there. But clearly, it wasn’t to the person in the SUV. The response was a car horn so long and loud that the person in the offending car hit the brakes, instantly terrified. Every head turned in that direction. A window rolled down. In that nanosecond, I actually wondered what new vocabulary words Grace was about to learn.

And that’s when the cop on crossing guard duty down the street appeared, like the fury of God’s own thunder.

“Whoawhoawhoa, there, guy,” he said to the driver in the SUV. “NO WAY.” (Yes, really.)

I mean…clearly, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Frankly, I wouldn’t know how.

That’s just it. Because stepping back from it a bit, the moment has reminded me that the lexicons we have for what angers or frustrates us, and for what violates our sense of fairness and by precisely how much, are often quite sophisticated and quite deeply-ingrained. By contrast, our lexicons for what delights and strengthens us often are not. We can be strangely inarticulate when it comes to joy and hope.

Maybe the rosy moments are more mysterious to us, somehow. All the more reason to study them more deeply—to find ways to name those experiences, to spot them so that we can be on the lookout for others. I feel like I need to do that more. Or maybe it just shows that what delights us isn’t as central to our actual worldview as it should be. I hope that’s not true.

Certainly, joy is central to the Christian worldview. From Jesus’ own teaching to the church’s ongoing reflection on what it is to be faithful, joy and hope, delight and strength are at the heart of our lives—and of our life together.

A strong faith teaches us to see the world as it is. But important as that is, if faith only teaches us to see the bad, to have words for what’s broken in the world and in ourselves, then it isn’t doing its job. Such half-formed faith hasn’t taught to see the world God has made in all its fullness, or the hope God has for each of us. Because our final hope is in the world that God is bringing into being, and our call is to join God’s work in making it so—to be the people who name what hope, peace, love and justice look like, here and now, even in an imperfect, unfinished world.

God calls us to be people who say “whoawhoawhoa” in the face of wonder, and “NO WAY” in the presence of joyful abundance, generosity and kindness.

As we learn to watch our language, may we be on the lookout for the emergence of that kind of lexicon.

Those are the words worth knowing, worth sharing, and worth writing on our hearts.

See you in church,

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