Not all speech has to be sombre by any means. There is a place for humour and wit and remarks of many types and tones. Speech may convey all varieties of comment, information, opinion, and emotion. It is admirable if it is clean, thoughtful, well meant, non-platitudinous, and original to the moment and the topic addressed. The cliché is a lazy and boring means of expression and ought to be “avoided like the plague”. Some persons insist on communicating stereo- typically until the cows come home. News items, political speeches, and popular drama can consist of little else than a string of catchphrases that require no deliberation or creativity. By the time the speaker has touched base, given us the bottom line, completed the update, and brought us up to speed, we are equipped to think outside the box and adjudge as to whether or not something is at the cutting edge, cool, great, or whatever. Whatever it might be, it is what it is, and we are given the heads up to ascertain as to whether it’s a no-brainer, as clear as mud, or as plain as the nose on your face. We are well able to give our take and give others a handle on it. Politicians, scientists, economists, journalists, all produce their time worn, old hat, as ancient as the ark, terminology. And so, too, do we Christians. The value of speech is easily depreciated. Familiarity, repetitiveness, glibness, imitativeness eventually cheapens everything we say, and the message bounces off our auditors if we become casually “sloganistic”. Pausing and pondering in conversation or discussion are far better than pre-programmed contributions or replies.
Texts can be too hastily quoted, testimonies too readily given, and affirmations of faith and witness can be ill-prepared and premature. It is easy to spout and say nowt, and oft times such things are said under some kind of over enthusiastic pressure from friend or foe. The mouth needs to be monitored by solid conviction and understanding. We are to share with care towards the Word and our listeners. Sects, cults, and sceptics also possess “the gift of the gab”. Fraudulent folk also can master the popular phrases of the godly and what is sometimes called the language of Zion. Our words should aim for personal integrity in accord with our reverence for God. Holiness and humility should attend our speech with respect for the fact that our audience has brains, background, and conditioning that may or may not make them favourable to the presentation of Christian truth. And in the end, try as we may; only God has access to the heart and power to persuade it. Much of what we declare to an unbelieving world may be scoffed at and scorned – the gospel gives offence to human haughtiness and self-will, but our hack phraseology can fuel the mockery of the faith. If something is to be of profound meaning to others it must be of profound meaning to us. A (sad) comment sometimes made to officiants at funerals or weddings by non-churchgoers is, “You say it as if you mean it”. Folk are wearied and disillusioned by the volubility of religious utterance, especially in cultures where Christianity of some kind has had a strong and enduring presence. Ancient Israel is an example of gabby religiosity: “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4). Here was an expression of false piety. As Dr. Johnson has observed, we all talk and write in a manner that is better then we really are. We are never as good, reasonable, charitable, impartial, and sincere as we like to present ourselves, but the believer, by God’s grace, ought to strive to speak word and witness worthy of him for the real wellbeing of our fellows and in the longing for their grasp of the hope of a joyful resurrection. There are terms we need to rethink, and truths we need to restate, for ourselves; to check out the authenticity and earnestness of what we say and to find our own genuine idiom of faith, even if it is only thinking through the language we borrow and making it ours. Words without weight are as counterfeit as coins of cheap metal (mind you, these now have replaced coinage of real mineral value).
Clichétic speech is irksome, though sometimes difficult to avoid. But it is too over-used to stir or stimulate the mind. It causes folk to communicate like automata. It means we listen like dummies. It is dehumanizing. However there is one cliché that certainly has a noble and holy derivation.
John Donne, poet and preacher, in a sermon on Genesis 1:26 (And God said, Let us make man, in our Image, after our likeness) speaks, “of that man who has taken hold of God by those handles by which God has delivered and manifested himself in the notions of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”. He has, “his being, and his diet, and his physic there in the knowledge of the Trinity; his being in the mercy of the Father; his physic (healing) in the merits of the Son; his diet, his daily bread, in the daily visitations of the Holy Ghost”.
May God in his mercy give all his folk a firm handle on the deep realities of the faith we possess, a fast grip on all the blessings he affords, and enable a faithful account and recommendation of his infinite goodness and generosity to those who trust him.
The Lord has given us many ways by which we may gain a handle on him: his Word, all the concepts of God that Scripture imparts, his ordinances and sacraments, prayer, association with the people of God in holy gathering, friendship with fellow believers. And the seasons of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany have shown us how God may be handled by us in the fact of the Incarnation. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1 and see vv2-3). In addition there is the beautiful hymn on the Lord’s Supper written by Horatius Bonar that reminds us of the solemn tryst and joy to be experienced in the sacrament: Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face; here would I touch and handle things unseen; here touch with firmer hand eternal grace, and all my weariness upon thee lean.