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Power of words among most enduring lessons

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: September 25, 2013 6:06AM



My day job as an educator routinely involves critiquing and correcting others’ use of words. Students may imagine otherwise, but few teachers consider this the most satisfying part of their work.

Over the years I have often repeated a former colleague’s line, “I teach for free. They pay me to grade papers.”

On weekends, especially in summer, when pastors in the region take vacation time, I dust off my clergy credentials and fill an empty pulpit here or there. In that venue, the shoe is on the other foot. Folks in the pews listen to my rhetorical offerings and respond with their critiques.

Last Sunday I unwittingly provided a few moments of amusement for congregants in an area church as I read one of the day’s scripture lessons. I didn’t recall having done so, but apparently, when reading a portion of the Letter to the Hebrews, I said “prophet” when the text read “prostitute,” thereby transferring Rahab, the Bible’s most famous harlot, from the ranks of sinners into the company of saints like Isaiah and Jeremiah.

This wasn’t my first misreading, nor will it likely be the last. In fact, unbeknownst to those who heard me rehabilitate Rahab, I deliberately engaged in a bit of textual emendation later on in the service. Sunday’s liturgy concluded with an old favorite among close-of-service hymns in my denomination. It begins, “Lord, dismiss us with your blessing,” and the first stanza concludes, “Oh, refresh us; oh, refresh us, trav’ling through this wilderness.”

By the time I was 4 years old and my sister 3, we knew that hymn by heart. However, since we’d learned what we heard, not what we read, our little voices sang out, “Holy fishes, holy fishes, trav’ling through this wilderness.” What a magical, miraculous image this created in our minds! The fish of the sea somehow navigating a desert landscape and making it safely to the promised land, or some celestial ocean as the case may be. If such things were possible, we had nothing to fear.

Then, of course, we learned to read. Mostly we delighted in how this newfound skill could take us to countless places where literacy served as the only necessary passport. But alas, it also wrecked our favorite hymn. “Oh, refresh us ... ?” How utterly banal. Adults who could settle for such tedious poetry were more pathetic than we thought.

In the rhythms of our culture, we have come again to the season when young people head off to school, some for the first time, others into the home stretch that will finish their formal education.

Instead of new crayons, today’s students purchase extra jump drives, but like every generation, they will enter the world of words and discover all the capacities words have for astonishing, exhilarating and transporting us, but also the power they hold to disorient and shake us to our foundations.

The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know. Questions always outnumber answers. What once seemed miraculous proves mundane, while the simplest matters become inexplicably complex.

It’s an endless journey, once we’ve begun it, into a world where wonders abound but at so many turns we find ourselves lost, like fish out of water. Which is why on Sunday, at the end of the service, my eyes read the words, “Oh, refresh us,” for I know that come November, I’ll surely need refreshing.

My voice, however, as always when joining that hymn, sang, “Holy fishes, holy fishes,” because I know one thing for certain. We never escape the wilderness, and only the mercies out there sustain us.



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