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hill-duh

For the benefit of those who are westbound on the Creek Turnpike Trail near Memorial Drive in Tulsa, there is a warning sign that alerts cyclists and runners to a steep downhill grade.  You’ve likely seen such signs before.  The lower portion bears the word “Hill”; the upper portion features a bicycle headed down the hypotenuse of a right triangle.  A couple of days ago, I noticed that some whimsical, enterprising, athletic, smart aleck had spray painted “Duh!” on the upper portion of the sign.

While lamenting this blatant defacing of public property, I’ll have to admit that I did chuckle when I first saw the vandal’s commentary on the sign.  I could somewhat relate to the mindset of the graffiti artist.  “Thanks for the heads up, Captain Obvious!  I would have never guessed that this was a hill!”  However, as is often the case, further reflection allowed me to see the sign in a more helpful and needful light.  What about first-time riders and runners on the trail who unsuspectingly approached the abrupt onset of the slope?  What about those who cycle before dawn or after dusk?  Not everyone has been on the trail multiple times before.  Not everyone knows the lay of the land.  Not everyone is “from around here.”  The sign serves a purpose, if nothing more than a courteous and cautionary reminder.

In public announcements during our worship assemblies, I try to remember to make references to the Outreach Center instead of the O.C., or to Vacation Bible School instead of V.B.S.  Who doesn’t know what the O.C. is?  For starters, all first-time visitors and most new members at the Broken Arrow church don’t know.  Who in the world doesn’t know what V.B.S. is?  Well, just about anyone who didn’t grow up in a church context or a Christian family, a segment of the U.S. population that continues to grow.  For all they know, V.B.S. might refer to the Venezuelan Broadcasting System!

A newcomer to our congregation would have a lot of legitimate questions.  What’s B.O.B.?  What’s W.O.W.?  What’s Mission Forum?  What’s New Heights?  What’s Take-a-City?  What’s a City Leader?  Are they the people who Took-a-City?  At one level, such esoteric terms, insider abbreviations, and in-house acronyms are naturally to be expected and are quite useful as convenient shorthand in our congregational communications.  However, churches should never lose their sensitivity to the fact that they likely mean absolutely nothing to newcomers and to those uninitiated in our ways.  If we express disbelief at their unfamiliarity or fail to patiently offer explanations, it makes them feel even more as if they just landed on an alien planet, that they don’t speak the local language, and that they don’t belong.

I shared these thoughts in my bulletin article this week.  Each Friday afternoon, an electronic copy of our weekly bulletin is posted on the church’s website, and an email is sent to current and former members with a link to the new upload.  Within 20 minutes of the link being sent out on Friday this week, I received an email from friends who recently moved out-of-state after spending 30 years at our congregation.  It was great to hear from them and to catch up on family news.  She wanted me to know that she had just read the article and offered their full confirmation and complete verification of these realities as they have been settling into a new church home over the last few months.  “We are the very people you referred to as the newcomers,” she wrote.  It’s real, people!  It’s very, very real!

What might seem like a “Duh!” statement to you, may be precisely the kind of helpful and insightful information that is desperately needed by someone else.

Don’t spray paint the signs!!!

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Early one morning recently I was getting ready to give our son Coleman a bath before he ate his breakfast and caught the bus for his summer school program.  Many of you who read this blog know that Coleman has developmental disabilities related to a genetic disorder called Dubowitz Syndrome.  He is also autistic.  Coleman is 18 years old now and can do numerous things for himself.  However, bathing is not among them, as I have previously written.  As I peeled Coleman’s t-shirt over his head before helping him into the tub, I instinctively said, “Skin a rabbit!”  I didn’t think about it; I just said it.

“Skin a rabbit” is a phrase that may or not be familiar to you.  I honestly don’t know how widespread its usage is.  I assume that it is primarily Southern and rural, but I could be wrong.  I just know that it is an expression that was ingrained in my consciousness from childhood by hearing it used as frequent commentary while a shirt was being taken off by pulling it inside out over someone’s head.  It was an especially common phrase on my mother’s side of the family in south Georgia.  I can still hear Mama Lila’s and Mom’s distinct inflection as they would say it.  The expression makes perfect sense if you have ever had the experience of dressing small game after a hunt.  For those of you who have missed out, I will refrain from going into detail here.   

Pondering the potential unfamiliarity of the expression “skin a rabbit” caused me to consider (again) how extremely confusing some of our expressions and abbreviations can be to the “uninitiated” in our worship assemblies.  It’s not just a concern about unchurched people; even Christians from other churches can be left very much in the dark as they listen to our conversations about congregational activities.

“New Heights will be using the O.C. where B.O.B. meets, but it won’t affect B.A.B.I. or VBS.”  That kind of esoteric speech makes perfect sense to members of the Broken Arrow church where I preach, but guests in our assemblies would likely be caused to feel even more like outsiders who do not speak our particular dialect of Christian code language.  While some further explanations would likely still be needed, their understanding would be greatly enhanced if I spoke to them about the Outreach Center, the Band of Brothers Bible Study, and the Broken Arrow Bible Institute.   

Several years ago, I caught some flack for always saying Vacation Bible School instead of just VBS when I would mention it from the pulpit.  The critical individual couldn’t believe that anyone on planet Earth wouldn’t know what VBS was.  In reality, there are millions of unchurched people who have never sung the “Booster” song and who think that VBS should probably be included in their children’s inoculations.

In most of our churches, acronyms, abbreviations, and other sacred shorthand have proven to be extremely handy and beneficial in our “in-house” congregational communications, and they should certainly continue to be used for those purposes.  However, we need to keep a vigilant sensitivity to the needs and understanding of guests and new members who may only hear us speaking in riddles.   

By the way, I recently spoke with someone (an adult) who had just discovered that IHOP stood for International House of Pancakes.  It was quite a revelation to them!

P.S.  When I ran the spell check tool on this post, it caught VBS and suggested that perhaps I meant VHS!      

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