Laboring under nouns
John McWhorter’s latest essay was all about verbs. I was happy to have his brilliance confirm my general resistance to how “nounal” Americans are. Like Adam wandering around Eden, we like to wall off a garden and name everything in it. Nouns feel settled and powerful, I think.
I am still healing from a rash of labeling which has been clinging to me for a couple of years – still finding negative nouns stuck on me like a stubborn tag on a piece of plastic from the dollar store. McWhorter wishes we’d get over being nouns and labelling others and move onto verbs, move on to something else, something deeper. He writes:
[L]ife is about much else, and what ultimately conveys this “else” is verbs. What makes all those animals [Adam named] interesting is when they do things like walking, drinking and looking. Verbs can be said to be the core of what language is, Human Expression 1.0.
Although this might seem a revelation to English speakers, it would be intuitive to speakers of, for instance, many Native American languages. In some of them, names can be verbs, as in “Dances With Wolves” with Lakota, a language I wrote about here not long ago. The Lushootseed language of Washington State takes this concept beyond mere names, such that some specialists think it doesn’t have nouns at all, just verbs: The word for “coyote” is the phrase “is a coyote.” In other languages, it’s adjectives that are elusive, with verbs taking over their jobs. In Japanese, today’s cup of tea “hots,” and yesterday’s cup “hotted.” In Fongbe, a language spoken in Togo and Benin, all the adjectives are actually verbs except for a mere 18.
McWhorter’s essay was one in a series of encouragements to live into crucial verbs I’d like to share with you.
Clinging to movement
I got started on the Bible study below because, while I was praying, I was hit by a snippet of Romans 12: “Cling to what is good.” I’d been labelled a few unwelcome things and I was dwelling on them. I was complaining to God about my feelings. God’s apparent reply was, “Cling to what is good,” or where did that even come from? How did a snippet invade my wound licking?
I did not immediately go to the Bible, since I carry a lot of the Bible with me — and the actual text does not always match what the Spirit is saying to me. So I delayed a bit and heard what I needed to hear, which was, “Cling to what is good in you.” That was important, because I was clinging to what was bad in me, as far as someone else was concerned. And in some cases I was clinging to the bad they did to me which had sunk into me.
What’s more I heard, “Cling to what is clinging to you.” That felt good, too, since I’m not always a good clinger. But my good God is clinging to me, coming right next to me and putting his arm around me in Jesus, and is nearer than my own breath by her Spirit.
Call it a coincidence, but I then came across a song by Lauren Daigle, about whom I know very little, and it was just the right thing to sing. I listened. Then I learned her song and sang it into my Smule collection to solidify it in my heart.
Living in verbs
I finally visited Romans 12, in which I have spent hours of meditation over the years. I followed a hunch I think McWhorter planted in me. Although I am not an expert in Greek, I was taught how Greek verbs are formed back in college. They are complex and evocative. They are also central to what amounts to Greek sentences — sometimes they are a whole English sentence in one word.
I thought my precious clause, “Cling to what is good,” might be part of a string of verbs in Romans 12:9-21. I was right. The passage is mostly a string of participles, almost like a bulleted list, which English translators turn into a bunch of sentences that often obscure their meaning. They make paragraphs out of little explosions, sentences out of expostulations popping off the page, much like I imagine God speaking the world into being out of nothing. Those verbs are better to be experienced than analyzed, as if they were a bunch of nouns.
I would not want to present this interpretation to my college Greek professor (she was tough!), or to my seminary Biblical theology prof (he was tougher!). But I think I am getting to the meaning and movement of this wonderful section of the Bible better than the New International Version! This portion said a lot to me. Maybe it will move you, too.
If we are living out our new life in the Spirit
as members of the body of Christ, we will be
- Loving authentically
- Detesting evil-sowers
- Clinging to what is good
- Nurturing family love in the Body
- Honoring others with the first place
- Working with diligence, not slothfully
- Letting our fervor boil
- Serving the Lord
- Rejoicing in hope
- Enduring affliction
- Persevering in prayer
- Contributing to the needs in the church
- Pursuing hospitality
- Blessing those who persecute us
- Blessing and not cursing
- Rejoicing with those rejoicing
- Lamenting with those lamenting
- Protecting community
- Maintaining equality
- Practicing humility
- Refusing to repay evil for evil
- Living out what everyone can see is good
- Dwelling in peace with everyone, if possible
- Reserving vengeance for God’s discretion
- Sharing resources with enemies
- Providing warmth and light in the cold of night
- Repelling the attacks of evil
- Overcoming evil with good
I was kind of thrilled to see, after I put this together, that the section begins with clinging to what is good and ends with overcoming evil with good. Cling to the good at work in you, it is overcoming evil and seeding the creation with renewed life.
I remembered that the good in me is able to overcome whatever I think is evil or whatever might objectively be so. Cling to the good at work in you, it is overcoming evil and seeding the creation with renewed life.
I remembered that the work for me is finished; I received the goodness of God and I have experienced it. I am living in it now and can be assured I will find it wherever I go next. But that work of good in me has a multiplying and dying creation pulsing all around it. It is alive and completing its purpose wherever I live. Cling to the good at work in you, it is overcoming evil and seeding the creation with renewed life.
If you go back to the bullets above, try, at least for the first round, to experience the good work of the Spirit all those verbs represent. Jesus is alive. Don’t turn them all back into nouns that label who you or others aren’t or what you or others don’t do. Cling to the good at work in you, it is overcoming evil and seeding the creation with renewed life.