Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

25 July 2010


I am usually under stress, I discovered years ago when I went on sabbatical. It took the experience of rest to make me recognize its opposite.

In all of the jobs I have had, most of the women I have known have figured out when they are going to retire. They know the exact year, without having to figure it up when you ask them. Perhaps the men do as well, but it is the women who talk about retiring. They fantasize about it—fantasies I like to call job-icidal ideation, the primary symptom of a mental illness whose name I have not yet invented. It is a common mental illness, I think. Perhaps the most common of our culture.

Once, in a meeting of other professional women, I mentioned a sick fantasy I have about lying in a hospital bed, rendered suddenly stress-free by cancer or paralysis some other act of God. Probably some of my listeners were struggling with loved ones laid low by illness, I thought as I spoke, and I was regretting the words even as they emerged from my mouth. I often do this. Especially under stress. But the response of my listeners surprised me. They nodded. Vigorously. Several women said that they had had the very same fantasy. The hospital bed. The silence. The IV drip sustaining one effortlessly. Visits from family and friends only during visiting hours. The hushed messages of encouragement.

Perhaps the stress of reconciling the demands of home and work is not a gender thing, but I have read somewhere that working women, contrary to men, typically eat at their desks, still working, or else don’t lunch at all, and I have noticed that this is true of most of the women I know. They can’t stop working long enough to sit and joke around in the school cafeteria with our male colleagues and eat a decent lunch. I also don’t see them walking around with gymbags, as the men do. A few women work out, of course. They give up lunch to fit in aerobics or body pump. Or they get to school early early to join the morning class. I know because I have joined them, lunging and thrusting half awake through driving songs about love and power. What’s love got to do with it, do with it? Often I would find myself singing it as I rushed to class and then a core curriculum meeting and then back to my office to be there for the two hours we are required to set aside for our students each day. By then I am starving, so I make some microwave popcorn and eat it as I grade papers or prepare class for the next day.

Two of my female colleagues do go home for lunch. Both are about to retire. They go home for lunch, I like to imagine, in anticipation of the time when they will be able to rest and enjoy life every day.

While I was on sabbatical, I ate lunch. Outside, if it was nice weather. A salad fresh-picked from my garden, most times, dressed with the merest teaspoon of olive oil, a scattering of salt and sugar, and vinegar. I could see our dogs in the outer reaches of the yard, lounging in the sun.

“Here, Tessi! Here Erica! Moe dog, come here!” I called to them. But they just lay there, or loitered a bit nearer to my iron table and dozed off again.

Who knew that dogs spent the day sleeping? It’s true that all the aphorisms say they do—a dog’s life, let sleeping dogs lie—but I knew our dogs, before that year, only in attitudes of frenzy. Jumping up at me. Wanting fed. Tripping me in their excitement at getting to accompany me to the mailbox. In my year at home, I learned the secret of their perpetual good nature, and it is this: Dogs spend their days AND their nights at rest. They live, I have come to think, as God would have us live. At rest. Worry free. Not waking at 3 a.m. to write an essay, as I am at this moment, or fantasizing about having terminal diseases, but at peace with the world, saving their frenzy for something worthwhile. Fellowship. Food. A walk in the sun.

Kris and I have been reading Isaiah. It is a grim book, mostly, hard to enter first thing in the morning, which is when we typically do it: a list of bad things that will happen to this people or that, to us, if we don’t live the way God wants us to.

For the first twenty books or so, I understood this living right as the usual sort of righteousness we are called to follow: not worshipping idols or intermarrying with idol-worshipping foreigners, not staggering from wine or reeling with beer or being “heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks” (5:22—it’s really in there!), not making widows our prey or robbing the fatherless.

It was hard to get convicted by anything Isaiah said, I found. This is nothing new, though. Isaiah’s own listeners had the same problem. Even after Isaiah took to preaching in the nude, which you’d think would make anyone perk up and pay attention, his listeners just mocked his words.

Then we got to this electrifying passage in Chapter 28. Isaiah’s listeners are mocking him, babbling his words back to him like little children, just words in meaningless-sounding streams:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule,
a little here, a little there.
In Hebrew, the jumble of words sound even more mocking, like the meaningless sounds we make when we are mimicking someone we think a fool, as indeed some scholars think is what Isaiah is recording in this passage:
sav lasav sav lasav
kav lakav kav lakav
The passage is evidently difficult to decipher, as the various English Bibles come up with wildly different translations—but Isaiah’s response to his audience’s mockery clears it all up, to my view. “Very well then,” he tells them,
with foreign tongues God will speak to his people,
to whom he said,
“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”;
and, “This is the place of repose”—
but they would not listen.
So then, the word of the LORD to them will become:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule,
a little here, a little there.
So that they will go and fall backward,
be injured and snared and captured. (28:10-13)
And that is precisely what has happened. Here was genuine prophecy. Having rejected God’s offer of rest and repose, we do and do and do and do, following our rules, adding a few more tasks and a few more rules each day, until we are injured and snared and captured in a web of doing, no longer even capable of rest, despite our best intentions. In lunging forward, we fall backward. Our best attempt to grasp the old promise becomes a dream of hospital beds and then death, the ultimate rest.

22 July 2010


The other day, on a bus trip, I sat down next to a chatty man in his sixties who had just been dumped by his third wife.

“Is someone sitting here?” I asked him, and he said, no, he was as alone as a person could be.

He had an unusually loud voice, and the people sitting around us all laughed. We were all on our way back to the Orlando airport to fly home after grading Advanced Placement exams for a week at a cavernous Convention Center in Daytona Beach with six hundred other professors and teachers. When the man asked me the inevitable question about where I taught, I lowered my voice and told him the name of the school, and then, when he didn’t recognize it, I said it was a private Christian university in Arkansas.

I waited for the usual pause that had followed this announcement all week whenever I got into conversation with someone new. I’m guessing many of my fellow academics there regarded Christian higher education as an oxymoron. Or perhaps it’s that something about me—my clothes or the way I talk—failed to prepare them for the fact that I might be a Christian, and they needed a couple of seconds to realign their thoughts. Everyone was too polite to tell me what went on in their heads in that pause, and afterwards, they typically changed the subject.

This man, however, went straight after it.

“You mean, evangelical?” he shouted. He twisted in his seat to stare at me—sternly, it seemed to me—and to see my face when I answered.

I have always been uncomfortable with the term evangelical, I have to say here. The adjective it used to be has been bandied around in the media so much of late that the noun Christian that it used to modify has been knocked off. Now it’s one of those attributive nouns that means something different to whoever uses it.

In the mouths of the people on NPR and on the pages of Time and The Atlantic Monthly, my primary sources of news and information, the label evangelical appears to be synonymous with politically benighted or bigoted or stupid, depending on the context. At best, ridiculously naïve. Time has taken to capitalizing the word, which makes it look even more embarrassing, somehow. Admitting I am one is tantamount to revealing that I am married to a man who spends his free time, together with a bunch of equally besotted men in his model railroad club, decorating expanses of plywood with spray-on grass and watching in glee as miniature locomotives pull empty cars around a circular track to return to where they started out. Worse yet, although I teach at an evangelical college and attend what most would call an evangelical church, whenever I meet fellow Christians who go out of their way to identify themselves as evangelicals, I find myself disagreeing with them on most of their pet subjects. To say I am an evangelical, in my mind, is to be the kind of push button believer my most arrogant inner self scorns any association with at all.

But, when this stranger asked so directly, so stridently and sternly, some vestige of [my] old dedication to godly embarrassment rose in my throat and demanded that I admit the truth.

“Yes. Evangelical Christian,” I said, in my softest possible voice above a whisper. I was sure all of my unseen colleagues around me on the bus were overhearing every word of what we were saying, and I sent up a little prayer, which the Holy Spirit no doubt edited out of my daily offerings to the Father, that the man would dismiss the topic and move on to something less threatening, such as what essay question I had been scoring or whether this was my first time at an AP conference.

“That’s great!” he said at the top of his voice and pounded me on the knee. “I’m an evangelical too.”

~excerpt from Confessions of an Amateur Believer (Thomas Nelson, 2007)

11 July 2010


In the early days of my adult faith, . . . I saw God everywhere. I spoke of God all the time. I bored and alarmed others with my preoccupation with matters of the spirit.

Soon, though, the business of living—which has its own jealous demands—resumed. I had two toddling daughters, a widowed mother-in-law living on our farm, a new teaching job at the local school followed by another new job at a nearby university, an additional part-time job helping my husband with big seasonal farm chores—haying, weaning, selling animals, calving assistance—and all the claims on my attention that attend such responsibilities. Soon, . . . I stopped noticing God’s presence as much, stopped looking for it. I read the Bible less frequently and nodded off at church.

Before I knew what had transpired, I found myself in another place, spiritually speaking--. . . a place of spiritual oblivion. I simply stopped perceiving all the evidence of God’s presence that I had come to cherish. Gradually, unintentionally, I began to live from one day to the next in just about the same way as I had lived before I became a believer, except that now I tacked a little prayer onto this or that worry. Father God, I prayed, help me know what to do about Charlotte’s thumb-sucking. Holy Spirit, please speak for me when Lisa and I have our talk about class scheduling. Oh, Jesus, let Kris not be so stressed all the time. As soon as I had prayed my little prayer, I was done with God. Most times, I didn’t even notice, or rejoice, when my prayer was answered. By then, another worry had already laid claim on my relationship with God, and the old one was forgotten.

I forgot not only yesterday’s problems and prayers but the very core of my own faith history: the longing, the relentless seeking, the daily discoveries of God’s involvement in my life that had made me a believer in the first place. Somehow, my faith, over time, shrank to empty habit, something I should be doing or feeling rather than the daily fulfillment of my desires and hopes.

. . . Sometime during this period of oblivion, . . . I came across a journal I had briefly kept back when my faith was still new. A fellow teacher named Mitzi—younger than I was but a lifelong believer—had given me a blank book for Christmas. Its cover was a field of watercolor wildflowers—lavenders, pinks, greens—and Mitzi had labeled it “A Blessing Book” on the first page. Although I found the book was a bit cutesy, I nevertheless used it to keep a detailed account of three weeks of my life from that time. My disagreements with my husband. Our money troubles as farmers. Childrearing difficulties. Conflicts at work. My night worries. Eleven entries just like those in the diaries I had sporadically kept as a teenager, but with one big difference: I repeatedly compared the events of my days to what I was reading in the Bible. The entries were about as far from blessings as they could be. Rather, they recounted struggles, worries, discord—doggedly accompanied by strangely peppy-sounding efforts to see meaning in my grievances. Or, more exactly, to see the direct intervention of God in the everyday details of my life.

In one entry, I interpreted my boss’s micromanagement of a program I administered as evidence of my own unwillingness to submit to authority, and I found hope in Peter’s promise that “the God of all grace” would “restore” me and make me “strong, firm, and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10). The word Peter used for restore, I noted—I’ve no idea where I found this out—was the same Greek word he would have used for mending the holes in a net. In another entry, I considered how best to confront a coworker’s misbehavior in light of Paul’s counsel to “restore”—the same word Peter used!—fellow sinners “gently” (Galatians 6:1). Meanwhile, my husband and I were having one of those convoluted early marriage fights involving potty-training issues, his mom’s constant involvement our day-to-day routine, and whether or not to get out of farming entirely, and I blithely wrote, “I should be wanting to do God’s will in this. I still too desperately want God’s will to be the same as mine.”

If there were no record of this admonition to myself, no record of those three weeks of living by faith, they would be gone forever. In the period of spiritual oblivion in which I found myself in the years that followed, I could not even recognize the earnest person who wrote those eleven entries. Time had transformed me into a person inexplicably unaware of my constant need for God and incapable of desiring God’s will over my own. Incapable, even, of recognizing God’s ongoing involvement in my life. Although more mature in every other way—older, wiser, and by then the conscientious moral coach of my own children and whole classes of befuddled students—I was a spiritual adolescent at best. I lived in the moment. My life was too hectic to admit much of a future beyond a scribbled to-do list, and I had not yet cultivated one of the primary skills necessary for distinguishing the presence of an unseen, unheard, untouchable God: remembering.

~excerpt from A Field Guide to God (Guideposts Books, 2010)

05 July 2010


I'm still thinking about genealogies today. My Bible’s notes say that Noah's name sounded like comfort in ancient Hebrew and was thus likely a reference to his father Lamech's hopeful—or prophetic—remark that his son would “comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). It seems a stretch to me, even for the ancient Hebrew reader. In any case, if Lamech was prophesying about his own future comfort, it was a limited sort of comfort at best. The comfort of the survival of his lineage, despite his own inevitable death and, in this case, the death of everyone else in the world.


Almost every time a name is mentioned in the Old Testament, the biblical writers go out of their way to impress upon us the rightness of that name to that story. And then the study Bible note writers and commentators give us their take on the name. Biblical scholars say Methuselah meant either “man of the dart” or else some grammatical permutation of “when he dies, someone will send it”—the latter leading some to think that, Methuselah’s death coming at the same time as the flood, the “it” might have meant the destruction of humankind. Or maybe—if you're a glass-half-full kind of reader—"it" might refer to the comforting survival of Noah and his crew.

There is, in other words, much meaning to be found in biblical names, and also much confusion. Focusing overmuch on them can hang you up in the kind of biblical research that makes me nervous—the kind involving totting up the years between Methuselah’s birth and the flood or the generations, corrected for the unusually long lifespans of the ancients, between Adam’s birth and our times and figuring out just how old the world is. This kind of biblical research does not seek what the actual words and sentences and paragraphs have to offer as much as what we want to find there: the sort of certainty that passes for knowledge in our half-darkened world of science and reason. Numbers. Data. Answers so tightly crocheted that you can build a house with them, a whole worldview. This is the sort of research that mires us in denominational debates and in that murky smudge in the text that lies between how liberals and conservatives vote. I will not go there.

That said, just for fun, and perhaps to get something of the flavor of how scripture may have read back when names were still direct products of their language of origin, I would like to offer here a rewriting of the genealogy in Genesis 5 with the names' meanings (insofar as they can be ascertained by biblical scholars) substituted for the actual names. Here goes:

This is the written account of Human Being’s family line.

When The Gods created human beings, he (or they?) made them in the likeness of The Gods. He (or they?) created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he (or they?) called them “human beings.”

When Human Being had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Granted. After Granted was born, Human Being lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Human Being lived a total of 930 years, and then he died.

When Granted had lived 105 years, he became the father of Man. After he became the father of Man, Granted lived 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Granted lived a total of 912 years, and then he died.

When Man had lived 90 years, he became the father of Sorrow. After he became the father of Sorrow, Man lived 815 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Man lived a total of 905 years, and then he died.

When Sorrow had lived 70 years, he became the father of Blessed God. After he became the father of Blessed God, Sorrow lived 840 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Sorrow lived a total of 910 years, and then he died.

When Blessed God had lived 65 years, he became the father of Shall Come Down. After he became the father of Shall Come Down, Blessed God lived 830 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Blessed God lived a total of 895 years, and then he died.

When Shall Come Down had lived 162 years, he became the father of Teaching. After he became the father of Teaching, Shall Come Down lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Shall Come Down lived a total of 962 years, and then he died.

When Teaching had lived 65 years, he became the father of When He Dies, Someone Will Send It (also called Man of the Dart). After he became the father of When He Dies, Someone Will Send It, Teaching walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Teaching lived a total of 365 years. Teaching walked faithfully with The Gods; then he was no more, because The Gods took him away.

When When He Dies, Someone Will Send It had lived 187 years, he became the father of Strength. After he became the father of Strength, When He Dies, Someone Will Send It lived 782 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, When He Dies, Someone Will Send It lived a total of 969 years, and then he died.

When Strength had lived 182 years, he had a son. He named him Comfort and said, “He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.” After Comfort was born, Strength lived 595 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Strength lived a total of 777 years, and then he died.

After Comfort was 500 years old, he became the father of Name, Hot, and Enlarged.

The meaning of Shem, the name of the son of Noah through whose lineage Luke will later trace Jesus’s own pedigree, is name. God's human self, in other words, derives—as, in some sense, we all do—from all the names in the genealogy: from Human Being and Granted, from Man and Sorrow, from Blessed God and Shall Come Down and Teaching. From When He Dies, Someone Will Send It. From Strength. From Comfort. From Name.