All of us live in a world filled with words. For academics, words are the tools of our trade. Even for introverted academics such as I am, the tendency both verbally and in writing is to think that the more words one uses, the better. One of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn during the decade-plus of writing this blog is how to be concise and how to introduce, develop, and complete an idea in no more than 1500 words. Academics usually are just done clearing their throats after 1500 words, so it’s been a challenge.
There are times, though, when less is better in the words expressed arena (probably more often than not). And then, on rare occasions, one single word expresses a complete sentence of meaning. Here are a couple of examples.
NO: In the first episode of her new podcast “Wiser than Me” which focuses on gleaning the wisdom of older women, Julia Louis Dreyfus interviews Jane Fonda. Jane has a host of wise things to say, none of which are more important than this: No is a complete sentence. In our society with patriarchal roots and structures, it is undoubtedly much more difficult for women to say “no” without explaining and apologizing and have it work as a complete sentence. Yet over the years I, a privileged white male, have often found it next to impossible to simply say “no.”
Actually, that’s not entirely true. When I was the director of the large four-semester interdisciplinary course required of all freshmen and sophomores at my college, I earned the nickname of “Dr. No” among students because of my refusal to overenroll students in a full section of the course as long as there were other sections with room in them, no matter how eloquent and passionate their arguments were.
Complete sentence “no’s” are very helpful in child raising, pet training, and defining oneself at work. I have found them to also be a central part of becoming more and more comfortable in my own skin as I get older. Despite my extreme introversion and a strong, inherent streak of contrariness and independence, I was taught to be a people pleaser—something that never fit me very well. If it is the case that only those who love themselves can truly love others, then practicing “no” as a compete sentence can be an expression of love.
YOUR NAME: At Rachel Held Evans’ funeral following her untimely death at the age of 37 in 2019, the gospel reading was from John 20, including this excerpt:
While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. As she wept, she looked in and saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber was the homilist at the funeral and gave perhaps the single best sermon I have ever heard.
Above all, Nadia Bolz-Weber gave the packed church of grieving people the permission to own and embrace their grief. Rachel Held Evans had been one of her closest friends.
So maybe, for just this moment, we choose to not bypass the real truth of our sadness and ask one another, what’s the thing under the thing.
I myself am crying – because I feel robbed – I am crying because death is a thief we cannot put on trial and punish.
I am crying because I assumed we would all have a future in which Rachel raised her babies and kept writing books and grew old with Dan.
I am crying because Rachel’s death makes me realize that not one of us is promised one more day and that just terrifies me.
I am crying because this grief has opened the door and let in so much other grief and I don’t know how to un-invite it’s friends to this party.
And selfishly I am crying because there was a part of me that only Rachel seemed to see and I don’t want that part of me to go unseen in this world. I’m pretty sure Rachel, like everyone else living in this century, had some form of caller ID. But you’d never know it. I’d call, she’s say hello, I’d say hey Rach, it’s Nadia and she say Naaaaadia. I’m crying because no one says my name like that.
When Rachel said Nadia’s name, it was so full of love and recognition that nothing more needed to be said. It was a complete sentence. Which leads back to John 20.
When Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside his tomb, looked in, saw angels and was asked, Woman, why are you weeping, I wonder if maybe she was crying because to Jesus she wasn’t “that crazy lady” like she was to everyone else. To him, she was just Mary and when Jesus said her name, “Mary” . . . it felt like a complete sentence. And now she wondered who would ever see her as whole, who would ever call her by her real name.
And it isn’t until Jesus, whom Mary does not recognize, simply says her name—”Mary”—that she recognizes him. Because he knows her by name.
In When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that once at a workshop, an ordained minister seeking guidance once told her that “all I want is to hear God call me by name. I would give anything just to hear God say my name.” Taylor does not reveal how she responded to the minister, but her reflection in the next paragraph is not particularly promising.
In Gethsemane, Jesus asked for bread and got a stone. Finally, in the most profound silence of his life, he died, believing himself forsaken by God. . . . In the silence surrounding his death, Jesus became the best possible companion for those whose prayers are not answered, who would give anything just to hear God call them by name. Him too.
And yet we know that from this mysterious silence, a silence rooted in love, transformation and salvation emerge.
The promise of monotheistic faith is that God seeks relationship with human beings, a promise that works itself out in all sorts of ways—usually unexpected. And every once in a while, the promise of Isaiah becomes a reality.
But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, And He who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine.”
And when God calls you by name, it is a complete sentence.