”All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’"
Matthew 5:37 (NLT)
”Simplicity is an inward reality that can be seen in an outward lifestyle. We must have both; to neglect either end of this tension is disastrous.”
—Richard J. Foster, Quaker (Freedom of Simplicity, p. 8)
English class always came easily to me. Fill out the workbooks, take the tests, and let all that grammar jargon stay in my short term memory just long enough to get a good grade. I didn’t care about grammar until I got into college level French and couldn’t remember the parts of speech beyond what’s needed for a good session of Mad Libs.
Earlier this year I was looking into new approaches for language study in our homeschool. Yes, I wanted to make sure that my kids know to type “aw” instead of “awe” when they look at pictures of cute animals on the internet. But I was searching for a purpose to the study of grammar, beyond the (admittedly attractive) result of my children being able to laugh with me at grammar joke memes.
Surprise, surprise, I found that grammar does have a purpose beyond elementary school workbooks and elitist indignation. Grammar has developed so that the thoughts of the speaker can be communicated clearly to the listener. Grammar reduces the likelihood of being misunderstood. You’ve heard the joke about the importance of the comma — “Let’s eat, Grandma,” has a vastly different meaning than “Let’s eat Grandma.” This clarity of meaning is the gift grammar gives us. It is an indispensable tool to the practice of what Quakers call “plain speech.”
Earlier this year, a text message between two of my friends went nuclear. As a bystander, I could see clearly that all the fuss was over a misunderstanding. By day three, my hopes that they would reconcile had faded. In a last ditch effort, the person who had written the original text message stayed up all night and wrote a 16-page, single-spaced letter, detailing, emphasizing and clarifying the original message and intent. The story ends with reconciliation, but as this is a human story, things are not as comfortable and safe as before. In the volatile and messy world of interpersonal communication, where there is a cavernous gap between what is said and what is heard, a person can only take responsibility for two things: intention, and how that intention is communicated.
Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter: Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ Mean what you say and say what you mean. Per usual, however, it may be simple, but it is rarely easy.
In the current culture where everything is the “best” or the “worst” or “awesome,” plain speech can involve making an effort to use words that are specific, which will help clarify and enrich our communication.
Exclamation points cover a multitude of falsities. Small deceptions. Slap on an exclamation point and voila! Cheerful! Excited! Enthusiastic! Friendly! Likable! The exclamation point has become an unwitting accomplice to inauthentic communication. (Along with its bestie, the happy emoji.) Resist the allure of the easy exclamation point and find more honest ways to communicate.
Let your “How are you doing?” be accompanied by genuine interest and enough time to listen to the answer. Choose other words for greeting. Let your compliments contain adjectives more specific and more truthful than “awesome” and “amazing.” Let your threats or promises be few and accompanied by faithful follow-through. Let your expectations be stated clearly; forgo subtle beating around the bush and hoping they’ll get the point.
“May the inward and the outward man be as one,” said Socrates. Isn’t that the basis for authentic communication and authentic community? Authenticity has a relative with higher moral value: integrity. ‘Authentic’ means that something is genuine. ‘Integrity’ goes beyond honesty and adds doing what is right. Integrity has overtones of something that is whole and undivided. Janet Hoffman, also a Quaker, puts it this way:
Integrity for me means my outward actions line up
like a plumb line to God who is present
in my deepest Center.
The days leading up to Easter are a time to listen carefully to God in our deepest Center, to check that plumb line, and to engage in the discipline of lining up our outward actions with our inward reality. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts also be places where we work at faithfulness and integrity.