Burning Labels and Building Bridges

Tuesday Re-mix –

I recently pulled up to the Starbuck’s drive-through thinking about how to say what I want (it’s important in this culture to sound knowledgeable when it comes to coffee–after all, what barista worth his/her salt would be at all impressed with me if I stepped up and just asked for a cup of coffee?).  Here is how the conversation went:

Blake:  I’d like a Grande Two-Equal Skinny Latte please.

Barista:  What flavor?

Blake:  No flavor.  Just the Skinny Latte.

Barista:  So, you just want the Latte with Non-fat milk, but no flavor?

Blake:  That’s correct.

Barista:  Just so you’ll know in the future, “Skinny Latte” means a flavor.  “Non-fat Latte” means no flavor.

Blake:  Whose rule is that?  Who made that definition?

Barista:  I don’t know, sir.  I’m just trying to help you say it right.

Blake:  (humiliated)  I’ll have a medium-sized coffee with steamed non-fat milk and two Equals stirred into it, please.  Call it whatever you like.

As a peacemaker, both by temperament and by profession, I have never liked labels.  I do understand why we use them.  For communities who all use the same vernacular, labels can provide important short-cuts to having to use long explanations for things.  I get that.  If I learn Starbucks’ language, my orders will go a lot faster.  Still, there is that tension between the barista and me, especially when he/she “otherizes” me by pointing out that I’m not saying it right.

So it is with Christians and their communities.  They come up with short-hand phrases and labels to describe Biblical concepts and theological positions, and those terms are useful in most situations within that community.  But over time, we sometimes lose the fact that they are just short-hand for other, more accurate descriptions and we begin to treat the labels as gospel.  Moreover, if we are not mindful of our audience, labels can actually miscommunicate more than they actually communicate.  For example, “conservative” in one camp may mean something altogether different in the next camp.  So, labels, even with all their advantages, can be awfully destructive.

Each “camp” has their own labels.  In my particular flavor of Christianity, labels and phrases like “evangelism” and “praise & worship” and “personal relationship with Christ” and “Sunday School” all have meaning.  To us.  But maybe not so much to other Christians outside our community…and maybe not at all to the “unchurched” (there’s another label).  Did you know that NONE of those labels is in the Bible?  All of them are words we use to describe larger concepts, but none of those words or phrases are translations of any original scriptural texts.

The peacemaker, “bridge-builder” in me wants to point out to all of my Christian brothers and sisters that the only hope we have of communicating openly and honestly with one another without risking the “baggage” associated with our slang labels is to return to scripture and to stay focused on the vocabulary we have there.  Mind you, that will not alleviate all miscommunication–indeed, there are plenty of words and phrases right out of scripture we can argue about–but it will go a long way toward building bridges and allowing the Spirit of Peace to prevail among us.

So, when I am communicating with someone whom I suspect may not be completely familiar with my churchified vocabulary, or who may not otherwise appreciate it, I make an effort to steer away from it.  I go back to scripture…because God’s Word has been communicating just fine for 2,000 years now.  Hard to improve on that!

As for my Starbucks stresses, you’ll be happy to know it has been months now since I’ve felt that tension.  I guess I’ve finally made it as an “insider”.  Woo hoo!  I am so very cool.

© Blake Coffee
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2 responses to “Burning Labels and Building Bridges”

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  2. […]  Insiders, We: I recently posted here on the problem of having our own “denominational vocabulary” and how that tends to disconnect us […]

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