I am a person for whom words are very important. I was an English major in college, received a masters degree in Rhetoric, the art of language and argumentation, and did advanced graduate work in that field. I’ve worked as a reporter, editor, writing instructor, writing program administrator, tutor, and freelance writer. My Catholic LGBTQ ministry has primarily been involved with words: writing letters, giving talks, producing blog posts, developing written resources, speaking with people from all sorts of backgrounds.
But beyond my education and professional experience, language has always been a primary way for me to understand and relate to God. We are coming up on Trinity Sunday in a few days, which reminds me that God created the world by speaking it into existence, redeemed the world by the Word made flesh, and continues to inspire the world through a Spirit who is imagined as tongues of flame and who speaks diverse languages.
Because of my obsession with language, the closing of the epistle reading (2 Timothy 2: 8-15) from yesterday’s (Wednesday, June 3rd) liturgy made me sit up take notice. After an exhortation to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to remain faithful to this reality, St. Paul writes:
“Remind people of these things
and charge them before God to stop disputing about words.
This serves no useful purpose since it harms those who listen.
Be eager to present yourself as acceptable to God,
a worker who causes no disgrace,
imparting the word of truth without deviation.”
“Stop disputing about words. This serves no useful purpose since it harms those who listen.” I thought to myself, “How can I do that? That is my life!” I think this reading is a good reminder to all of us involved in Catholic LGBTQ ministry and advocacy that we should monitor how we conduct our disputes and how we should be careful not to use our words to harm people–even, or perhaps especially, those with whom we disagree or whom oppress us and others.
But I think this passage tells us more than that. While the first three lines tell us what NOT to do, the last three lines offer instruction on what we SHOULD do. These lines tell us that it is not our words, and not even necessarily our actions (which we sometimes think of as the powerful opposite of “words”) that are the most important way to live the Christian life. Instead, we are told to “present yourself as acceptable to God” and we should go about “imparting the word of truth without deviation.”
What these latter lines tell me is that my primary concern should not be about finding the right words and arguments to persuade other people. Rather, I should be looking inward at myself and working on making myself a better example to others. BUT, I should also stay faithful to what I know is true and not be swayed that what God has told me is wrong. I should continue to speak truth. That sounds like a nice message, and even a mentally and spiritually healthy one, but is it a strategy for making change? Can it help to reform church and society?
Don’t look to me for an answer! I’m the man who’s all about words. Yet, I do know that again and again, and from time immemorial, the single-most powerful factor that has caused people to overcome their homophobia and transphobia is by coming to personally know people who are LGBTQ and to see that their lives are ones that we recognize as “acceptable to God.” The personal encounter, more than any words or arguments, is what ultimately persuades people.
I also know that it is a good practice to not let others’ words harm me or force me to deviate from the path to which I trust God has called me. That does not mean I have to be loud or verbose about it. I simply just have to be. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” says the bumper sticker, in a message often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.
Because it’s Pride month, we are going to hear and read a lot of words about LGBTQ people in the coming weeks and days. In fact, I confess that you are going to see a lot of those words right here on this blog. If the words are communicated with charity, they can affirm, encourage, and bless people–and those are important things to do with words. We should remember, though, that if we want to see a world and church that values LGBTQ people, the most important thing we can do is not ingest or express more and more words, but to live a life that is “acceptable to God” and to offer our “word of truth without deviation.” Those are the ultimate persuaders.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, June 5, 2020