I hardly ever used profanity until I became a church elder. Why the change? Because I realized how subtly dangerous personal piety could be. As an elder I thought I should look the part and so I thought it best to hide what didn’t fit the part. I watched my words and my actions in an effort to be a mature person of faith. The problem is that when you start covering up the rough edges, you actually start believing you don’t have them anymore. I still had the doubts and fears. I had unkind thoughts. I could be impatient or judgmental. And in my effort to be a spiritual leader, I hid all of them.
It is important to distinguish discernment from authenticity. Certainly situations warrant keeping thoughts to oneself. The woman whose outfit I found atrocious didn’t need to know that I thought so. Not saying something to her was an act of good discernment on my part. But hiding my cattiness to everyone meant I wouldn’t be held accountable for it. If I was to be an effective spiritual leader, my fellow leaders needed to know who I was and how I was doing, cattiness and all. And so I decided to trust that the people who had asked me to do the job were already aware of at least some of my imperfections.
Up to this point, I would periodically use profanity in my thinking process but rarely said those words aloud. Perhaps I didn’t because I wasn’t allowed to while growing up. But it became clear to me that in my head, profanity had a place and a purpose. And so in my desire to be authentic I decided to share my thoughts without attempting to sanitize them. I quickly learned that I like this kind of honesty. If I thought something was shitty it felt good to say so rather than substitute a more socially acceptable word. The experience was empowering. I liked that I could gather my neighbors, friends, and fellow elders into the same room and didn’t have to decide which version of me to be. My honesty gave my co-workers a real look at who I was and the opportunity to hold me accountable. I took my job seriously as an elder, and my authenticity seemed like the right thing to do.
My use of profanity increased when I began classes at seminary. I think the increase occurred as my way to offset the christian-speak I encountered daily. What is christian-speak, you ask? It is the use of theology in everyday language that has seemingly nothing to do with everyday life. For example, I might be greeted with “God bless you, sister-in-Christ.” Or when I would ask, “How are you?” the response might be something like, “God is good all the time.” I love a good theological conversation, but this kind of talking feels very disconnected from real life. Theology is meant to be practical in everyday life. God is meant to be accessible. A life of faith is not meant to be a list of words and phrases that make no sense outside its circle of followers. Your biggest secrets? Your worst fears? Your most embarrassing mistakes? God already knows. A life of faith is about learning to live with what is true without being held back by what is true. For example an elder who uses the word shitty might actually be an effective spiritual leader.
It is important to also distinguish authenticity from effort of doing better. I am not addressing the part of faith that causes one to strive towards being a better person. Of course I want to be more disciplined, kind, gentle, patient, and I need to practice those things into being. What I am referring to is a life of faith that appears sterile, void of what is difficult or real. People have become good at sterilizing even their blemishes. It’s all a facade, a bubble of sorts, that families and communities perpetuate through an intolerance of the undeniable messiness of life and people. If we don’t deal with what we are struggling with in self or others, we think maybe it will go away. And perhaps most tragic of all, the sterilization replaces the work of good, hardworking theology – the theology of a God that meets us right where we are.
So back to profanity. Here are my rules for its use:
- You must be 16 or older. If you are younger, you lack both the vocabulary you should have and the discernment you need.
- You should not use profanity in anger towards another.
- Profanity is best used when serving a purpose. If you cannot articulate its purpose, then you should reconsider its use.
- Words only hold the power that you give to them.
- If profanity offends you, I will do my best to not use it around you. But I think there are much greater tragedies in the world by which to be offended.
I am not sure what my fellow elders thought of my honesty. By their frequent deer-caught-in-headlights looks, I assume they often didn’t know what to say in response. I frequently asked for accountability, but was never challenged or corrected. I think it is easier to ignore what makes us uncomfortable. We don’t want to be reminded that life is sometimes profane, as are people. We would rather believe that somehow the bubble we have created really does exist, and that if we do and say the right things, life will be good and God will be predictable.
In reality, we are surrounded by what is profane, and I am not referring to four-letter words. Words, thoughts, and deeds that hurt or divide are profane. When I am selfish, I am profane. When I am catty, I am profane. When I lack love or grace, I am profane. And what I believe to the core of my being is that my use of four-letter words is actually the least profane part of me. Maybe someday God will convict me to clean up my language. But for now, four-letter words are a declaration of sorts that life isn’t neat and tidy, that sometimes being uncomfortable is good, and that in spite of all that I might accomplish I am still flawed.