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.

24 January 2011


When the devil counsels Jesus to turn stones into bread after those forty days in the wilderness without eating, Jesus remarks that “People do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 TNIV). Or, in the King James Version—which I’m trying to make a habit of visiting this year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of its publication—“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”

It’s such a strange and, for me, unsatisfying statement, especially when I consider it in light of the physicality of the description—wilderness, stones, bread, hunger, mouths. It’s hard for me to imagine not eating for forty days. I’m guessing that long of a fast in a rocky wilderness would make every stone a loaf in one’s imagination. How can mere words allay such a hunger?

For us, the meaning of Jesus’ temptation story may be largely symbolic—or, in any case, not directly applicable to actual hunger, actual rock-fantasies, actual bread, but rather temptations of a more general and less physical nature. After all, who among us is likely to end up starving to death in a desert littered with stones? If you are like me, you have probably never experienced genuine hunger, and, even if you had, your temptations would not lie in the realm of feeding yourself. But, for Jesus, who was 100% man—emptied out of his divinity, if I understand Philippians 2:7 aright—and actually in these circumstances, without food for forty days in an actual wilderness littered with stones, this sentence means differently.

So, I was thinking about that. About words from God’s mouth assuaging the direst hunger, feeding a person—indeed, engendering and nourishing and sustaining life itself. And so I got to thinking about the whole concept of words as food—specifically, the detail of our original design that words exit from the place where food enters—and the startling image of being fed directly from God’s mouth. Mouth-to-mouth feeding, so to speak, a method of nourishment that mothers of small children practiced in prehistoric times and still do to this day in some cultures but that, in contemporary Western culture, many find disgusting (even though, interestingly, we have no objection to kissing and other mouth-body exchanges).

In any case, the first thing that came to my mind in reflecting on our food coming from God’s mouth was not mothers prechewing their babies’ food but, of course, the mouth-to-mouth feeding that I witness every spring and summer in my yard. The barn swallows that build their nest in the eaves of our house feed their young in exactly that way. The little babies sit waiting all day with their enormous mouths wide open, while both parents bullet back and forth across the yard: foraging frantically, racing back to the nest, dropping a bit in each mouth, going for more. This goes on for weeks, right up until the fledglings swoop down from nest themselves and fly away.

I often see male cardinals feeling full-grown female cardinals. It’s called mate feeding and is a common practice in many bird species. Scientists disagree about its purpose. Some suppose it provides food while the female is too preoccupied with the activities of childbearing—building a nest, brooding, and raising her young—to have much time left over to get food on her own. Others say it provides needed additional nutrition as her body prepares to produce offspring. Still others argue that, since mate feeding occurs not only when the female is nesting but throughout the breeding season, it may help the female decide on a mate: the male that provides for her, or perhaps finds the delicacies she likes best, is the one she will choose. It may, on the other hand, be a courting ritual that keeps the two birds together longer—and thus likelier to produce more and healthier offspring. And it could also simply be in certain male birds’ genes to feed others in general—babies, eligible girlfriends, mates, whoever.

I once saw a male cardinal feeding a full-grown female brown-headed cowbird. The weirdest thing ever. She just sat there on a branch while he went back and forth to the feeder, got her another bite, and another, for close to an hour. If they hadn’t kept it up for so long and if I hadn’t Googled and found others describing the same amazing event, I would have thought I imagined it. (The explanation, in case you aren’t up on your birds, is that cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, so females—and, presumably, pairs—grow up thinking they’re of the same species and thus viable mates. As far as I know, though, cardinals and cowbirds can’t produce offspring together.)

Back, though, to being fed words from God’s mouth. To summarize, the notion of eating anything that, as the KJV rather graphically describes it, “proceedeth out of” another’s mouth is a bit repellent. But the birds have shown me the implicit caring—love even—at the root. God’s Word—or God’s words, as I like to undo this expression for the Bible—becomes actual nourishment that enables me to grow and leave the nest and, eventually, share words with others.

In the passage from scripture that Jesus is quoting from while he is being tempted, Moses, having just issued the Ten Commandments (words), reminds the Israelites of an important connection between wilderness, hunger, bread, and words. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years,” he tells them. “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that people do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:2,3 TNIV).

Although Jesus quotes the passage using a word for “word” common in the Greek of the New Testament, the same word in the original Hebrew passage (מוֹצָא, motsa—it rhymes with matzoh, the Jewish unleavened bread, but is not the same word) is relatively rare, appearing only twenty-seven times in the entire Old Testament and translated as the English word word only in this one instance. Everywhere else it means something along the lines of “that which comes out.”

We don’t live from bread—or mannah or matzoh or any other nourishment we think essential to life—but from that which comes out of God. God’s breath, originally. God’s words, thereafter, which culminate in God’s son, the Word.

The prophet Jeremiah previewed what should be our response to this mystery. He says to God,
When your words came, I ate them;
they were my joy and my heart’s delight. (Jeremiah 15:16)
Like those baby swallows in the nest, he sat open-mouthed, hungry, desperate to be fed.

17 January 2011


Every so often I start out on a new plan of reading the Bible daily. Usually, such resolutions last a couple of weeks or months and then peter out. Then follows a spiritual dearth, eventually jolted into vibrancy by some close-by tragedy. Then a renewed resolution to read daily.

I can never seem to get the bookness of The Book out of my head, and I always start at the beginning. Consequently, I have read the first chapters of Genesis probably a hundred times, always with the same desire for new enthusiasm. And the story of the beginning of everything never disappoints me. I cannot exhaust this book, not even the first chapter. I always find something new and important in it.

Today it is this. God rests on the seventh day only after he has completed his work of creating. Rest, in other words, follows directly from the completion of work. Here’s the passage: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:1-2 TNIV, my emphasis)

It would be nice if I could argue the causality evident in this and a few other translations—that God was finished working, so he rested. Unfortunately, however, most translations that I have looked at translate that so as a mere and. Also, I did some research on the word used here—actually the ubiquitous Hebrew morpheme waw, which, added to a verb, links it to a previous verb—and I discovered that Hebrew linguists (read: biblical researchers with agendas) fight wrathfully over whether the word actually implies causality or mere sequentiality and they use their theories to argue such hot theological topics as evolution vs. creationism and what, exactly, God's promised rest is and other questions of importance to them. In this particular passage, for example, the waw-question is whether God ever finished resting and moved on to some other work or rather, as a passage in Hebrews suggests, having finished his work, continues to rest to this day. I don’t want to get into that waw stew, nor am I equipped to do so.

Let me say this, though, from my entirely unschooled reading of the Genesis writer's overview of the creation story (which for me begins in the first chapter and ends with the third verse of the second chapter): God only rested when he had finished his work.

This is a totally new idea for me. Revolutionary, even. And worth looking at closely.
Not having finished my work is my main resting deterrent. I wake in the night worrying about some part of my current work that I have yet to do or that I forgot to do or that I was in the middle of doing when I went to bed.

Also, I have an abiding sense of never being finished with my work. Never. As soon as I have finished some consuming project—grading a pile of essays, for example, or writing a chapter of my current book—I am suddenly overwhelmed, it seems to me, with all the other things I wasn’t able to do while I was working. Exercising. Grocery shopping. Taking my mother-in-law grocery shopping. Buying Charlotte a steamer so that she'll feel more motivated to eat vegetables (her idea). Patching the pair of jeans Lulu wanted me to fix for her. Gardening (spring is on the horizon, and for spinach and peas, it's now or never). Spring cleaning. Soon, within minutes, I think, I am making to-do lists and seized with stress. How will I ever get it all done?

Judging from the number of books out there on the subject of rest, I suspect many share my problem. Not long ago I read one such book called Sabbath Keeping, by Lynne Baab. It was a good how-to book on the Sabbath: inviting, rather than prescriptive, for the most part, with exercises at the ends of the chapters that really made me examine the stress of my life and desire opportunities for respite. I found it particularly challenging that the sort of activity Baab recommends against doing on the Sabbath was accomplishing anything—that is, getting something done, even if it’s something you enjoy. If you find yourself thinking, I just need to finish..., then whatever would finish the sentence is a bad choice for the Day of Rest. Sabbath keeping, for the most part, became another job, of sorts: the daunting task of sacrificing one’s desire to get done.

I don’t know and honestly don’t care if God has finished his rest and moved on to another project—although my guess is that, in the spirit of Ecclesiastes, God’s rest and work come in spells, seasons, a time for each. But I do know this: God did not get stressed immediately upon completing the creation of the world and everything in it. He rested. Ceased, as the word is translated in some versions of the Bible. He stopped working. Stopped thinking about it—about the plants and animals and creatures of the sea and sky, each according to its kind. Stopped looking at it. Stopped talking about it. Stopped blessing it and calling it good, probably, since those actions appear to be key elements of God's creative work.

God could have taken naps here and there throughout the process. He could have slogged through it, as I often do at the computer, making himself a cup of tea with which to pretend to rest while he continued working. Instead, he finished his work completely. And then, for some unknown period of time, he stopped. Totally. Entirely. Gloriously.

Think of it. Stopping. It is hard for me even to imagine. I envision a sensory deprivation tank, in which I am forcibly prevented from accomplishing anything, and the thought nauseates me. Not just the forcible part or the nasty microbes and fungi that probably live in those tanks. Not the claustrophobia or the metallic smell of the water or the dark. Simply the inactivity. The helplessness of it.

Some part of me longs for it, though. For resting that comes as a natural consequence of being done, rather than as an artificial or sacrificial activity of its own. Resting that is not something I do, but something that just happens, like how, when we were first married, Kris and I used to sink into the most refreshing sleep at night after a long day of weaning calves and trucking the bulls to the sale barn. Or after raking and baling a field. Or after spearing the bales, one by one, onto the bale trailer, then toting them off to wherever we were storing them that year and, one by one, lining them up in tidy rows for the winter.

Something about farming was conducive to the kind of rest I’m thinking God takes. Getting done. Perhaps it’s because the tasks of farming are so much like God's work in the first place. Globbing everything together into a formless dark mass of cattle or cut grass. Separating them into male and female, young and old, fescue and good clover, windrows and bales, square bales and round bales, each according to their kind. Looking at them. Blessing them. Pronouncing them good. Getting our check at the end of the day, or knowing the cows would have plenty to eat when the weather got cold.

Getting done, totally done, I'm thinking, is the key to rest. Not just stopping. Before we can honor the Sabbath—an act of holiness so important in the old law, mind you, that not honoring the Sabbath was punishable by death—we have to actually finish what we're doing. How to do that is my next struggle, in the area of rest. But for now, it’s just good to be finished thinking about it.

12 January 2011


I have been marveling over—which is to say, doubting—a bit of recent health news: 59% of people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who knew that, as part of a study, the doctor was merely giving them sugar pills for their condition reported relief from their symptoms. There are so many ways to interpret these findings. That merely being paid attention to by a doctor has a curative effect. Or that taking action about a medical problem—even if the action is merely participating in a study in which one is given sugar pills—tells the body to heal, and the body pays attention. That, by extension, taking action about any problem, no matter what the action is, has a potential curative effect. Or, the doubting side of me says, maybe Irritable Bowel Syndrome is not a physiological condition at all but a psychological one. Or maybe it's indeed a physiological ailment that tiny amounts of sugar somehow addresses. The only real conclusion I have so far come to is that the brain is a mystery. Such a mystery.

Somewhere in the course of my ponderings, though, I looked up the etymology of the word placebo. Whoa! It is the first word of a response in Latin that mourners repeat in a traditional Catholic service for the dead and came to refer to the whole service. The response itself is the Latin Vulgate translation of Psalm 116:9, “Placebo Domino in regione vivorum,” which in English is “I will please the Lord in the land of the living.” This is also how the line was translated in the Douay-Rheims, a Catholic Bible translation based on the Vulgate that was published around the same time as the King James Version. In most other translations—all Protestant translationsi as well as the New American Standard version currently popular among Catholics—the verse reads something like “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”

How the word placebo came to mean what it means today is a curious tale. Apparently, people crashed funerals in medieval times, and these people came to be called, derisively, “placebo singers,” because they sang that repeated response in simulation of mourning in order to get at the food the mourning family provided. From there, with help from Chaucer, the word came to be used more generally in reference to flatterers and freeloaders and eventually to any pretence designed to “please” someone else—which in medicine would mean, as placebo is defined in my American Heritage Dictionary, “A substance containing no medication and given merely to humor a patient.”

I’d like to commit a semantic anachronism—a bad habit of people who preach, for example, that since our English word hilarious comes from the Greek word for cheerful, hilaron, then it must be that God loves a “hilarious giver” in 1 Corinthians 9:7—and read that weird Douay-Rheims translation of Psalm 116:9 as “I will humor God in the land of the living.” Such an odd idea, putting one over on God, but I kind of think that’s what I’m often trying to do. Singing placebo. And God knows it. And, incomprehensibly—as incomprehensibly as knowingly taking a placebo can cure Irritable Bowel Syndrome, as incomprehensibly as our brains work—God interprets my song as all the righteousness I’ll ever need.

Indeed, singing placebo is the essence of the verse on which I sailed into faith—“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 TNIV). As in this verse, when one knowingly takes a placebo, hoping and knowing become synonymous, and—inexplicably—we are cured.

03 January 2011

choose, choosing, choice, chosen

Last night my 17 year old daughter Lulu and her friend and I discussed wealth. I had heard part of an NPR broadcast on the subject and was intrigued when some wealth scholar discussed historical differences in how wealth worked. Previously, people used to amass wealth and then live from it. So, as I pointed out, in Jane Austen novels, people were routinely described in terms of how many pounds a year they lived from. Their base income defined them, but they seemed to live pretty nearly the same lives as those with less. The broadcast went on to say that the wealthy these days, by contrast, must keep buying more and bigger houses and yachts and so on. These things—not the money they live from—define them. These things also place them outside the life of ordinary people. They live a life removed.

Another expert on the broadcast pointed out that, though the U. S. is so wealthy that even our poorest would be seen as rich by global standards, nevertheless, no matter how much money they have, Americans generally consider, not themselves, but only those who make twice as much as they do to be wealthy. Thus, none would refer to themselves as "wealthy."

I told the teenagers that from now on I was going to regard myself as and call myself rich. After all, I enjoy a house, daily showers in hot water, virtually any food that I can think of (and find ingredients for, here in the Oklahoma countryside), the leisure to run 21 miles a week, a gorgeous vista of fields and trees and birds from my living room (aka office) window, several dependable sources of income (jobs, husband's job, savings), and so much more that I can’t begin to list it all.

To my surprise, Lulu—who, like most teenagers and many adults in my acquaintance, seems frighteningly acquisition-minded—ardently agreed. In her Western Civilization class—which she disparagingly referred to as her “Bible study,” because her Christian professor often discusses matters of faith—she had studied what she called the “seven cardinal virtues,” companions to the seven deadly sins. One of them, she said, referenced just such views on wealth as I was expressing (who knew?!) but she couldn’t remember the word for it, so this morning, while she slept, I did some research.

Temperance was probably the word she was looking for, and it’s a good one. But my research brought me to a broader expression of the notion as one of the more encompassing “four cardinal virtues,” prudence. The word has a history as meaning not caution but something more like practical wisdom and was seen by Greeks as well as medieval Scholastics as the root of all virtue: the ability to choose wisely.

Choose is such an interesting word. It is about what we take from what is around us. It speaks of lesser and greater options, of freedom. Things that are especially luxurious are called choice. And, beneath the surface of all chooosing lies rejection. In the context of faith the word choose references all those meanings and more.

I think of Mary’s stressed out sister Martha versus Mary herself, listening and resting at Jesus’ feet, having, as Jesus said, “chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Mary was certainly prudent, a good steward of her wealth.

But then there’s the term “God’s chosen people” and how offensive that sounds to any who do not regard themselves as such—the rejected. Also, there's the whole concept of election—a fancy theological word for some Christians' belief that the saved are "chosen" by God and cannot choose God for themselves, sort of the spiritual opposite of seeking—and Jesus’ cryptic parable of the king’s son’s wedding banquet which those who were invited were all too busy to attend. So, the king sends for the people of the street, “the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matthew 22:10). Everything sounds good up to this point, but then, of these new guests, one forgot to wear his wedding clothes and is bound hand and foot and thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). For, Jesus explains, “many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). I get really worried about what I'm wearing (at this moment, still, to my shame, my nightgown and housecoat—more evidence of my great wealth!) whenever I think about this story.

“I chose you,” Jesus is always reminding his twelve main followers, emphatically reminding them in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” The rest of the followers, though, seem to choose Jesus on their own, by my reckoning, sometimes going out of their way to do so. Zacchaeus climbs a tree. The Roman centurion (an officer in charge of one hundred soldiers, in case you’ve always wondered, as I have, what that word meant exactly) sends a servant. The Canaanite woman with the demon-possessed daughter runs after Jesus and wails, so embarrassing and outraging the disciples that they want to send her away. Even after Jesus himself rejects her, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), she kneels in the dirt before him and begs and reasons and counters his own arguments and eventually gets what she wants. And Jesus describes her behavior—the wailing and begging and reasoning and arguing; in short, her persistent choosing—as “great faith” (Matthew 15:28).