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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Susan Hanson

Sunday, November 1

Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.
—Genesis 11:7

One of the ironies of language is that instead of making things clearer, our words often muddy them up. Such was the case many years ago when my husband and I were preparing to buy a house. 

“Earth tone,” the builder had said when we inquired about the color he intended to paint it. Purchasing the house “on spec,” we had relatively few options when it came to the final touches on the place, such as carpet color and paint. We were happy to have even these.

“Earth tone” sounded fine by me. Gardener and all-around nature lover that I am, I thought it was fitting, in fact. Imagine my surprise, then, when we drove up several days later and found that our soon-to-be-finished house was orange. Pumpkin orange. Granted, the builder hadn’t said what part of the earth he was attempting to portray—it could’ve been the clay of the

Texas Gulf Coast, where I had lived and played as a child; or the duff from under the East Texas pines. In any case, it wasn’t the earth where we lived.

Religious language frequently works the same way. We hear a term like salvation, atonement, or grace often enough and we assume we know what it means. Conversation closed. Equally important, if we use the term long enough, we may also imagine that everyone hears it just as we do. Conversation really closed. 

What are we talking about, for example, when we speak of being “saved”? If we “forgive” someone, is there still some sort of recompense involved? Do we think of the “kingdom of God” as an empire belonging to “winners”?

For the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at some of these terms, not to pin them down like insects in a child’s collection, but in order to imagine possibilities we might have never considered before. Religious language doesn’t have to cut us off from one another. At its best, it serves as a map for our spiritual journey, identifying landmarks, charting circuitous routes, opening up a land that is rich and fertile indeed.

O God, when our language becomes stale and we tire of listening, give us a renewed hunger for your healing words, and for the mercy that lies beneath them.

These Signposts were originally published on in 2005.