Tuesday, 30 September 2014

What's in a word? On debts, sins and trespasses

Words matter. Human life is lived very largely through language. It's perhaps the single most important thing that distinguishes us from the apes. Dennis Potter once remarked that "the trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in".

Now if you're a spiritually-minded person, a key part of any interaction with the Divine, the Transcendent, is prayer: a conversation, a meeting between the individual and God. Some people have experienced this in silence or through wordless interaction: mystics, Quakers, Sufis. But for very many people, their prayer life happens through words. We are told at the start of John's gospel that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".

Over the past year, a church I value (but have never visited), Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been preaching through a series of 12 words which sum up 12 seasons of the spiritual life. The series is based on a book by Brian Maclaren, "Naked Spirituality". I've heard most of the sermons through the year. A constant theme has been the interplay between words and the place beyond words, of a deliberate statement of what we mean by God and how we talk to God, and the total inability of human beings to do that explicitly. It's been a very worthwhile and inspiring series of sermons.

I recently heard the final sermon, and it ended with a single prayer - THE prayer, the one Jesus taught his disciples when asked "how do we pray", and which has since become known as the Lord's Prayer. It's an interesting end-point for an examination of the spiritual life, because it's a set of words which contains all the key themes of any prayer: calling God holy, thanksgiving, asking for things we need, saying sorry and asking forgiveness, seeking protection, and looking towards action in the world. I'm not convinced Jesus necessarily meant it to be spoken word-for-word in every church service (as is the case in very many Christian traditions), but it does serve as a great summary.

There's a word in it (or a pair of words) which I've wrestled with for many years, for cultural reasons as much as theological ones. I learnt them as "debts" and "debtors", and that's how they appear in many Bible translations, including both the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version: "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12, NRSV).

The word in Greek for "debts" is "opheilemata", literally "that which is owed". In the Latin version, prayed in so many Western churches for so many centuries, it's "debita" (the same root as the word "debit" in banking). In the Church of Scotland I learnt the Lord's Prayer as "debts" and "debtors", it remains the standard Scottish use and also that of Presbyterian churches in North America. To the modern ear, it has a slightly financial air, a little too close to the English stereotype about Scots and their over-emphasis on money perhaps, but understandable enough.

But of course in the English tradition, the word is most often said as "trespasses". (This word appears in the King James Version, in a brief commentary Jesus gives on the prayer after it, in Matthew 6:14.) To me it's long seemed an alien word, not part of my tradition. And I still don't find it very meaningful. If the 'Scottish' version is a bit over-financial, this seems to suggest land-rights, going into places where you shouldn't be - not really a metaphor for wrong-doing.

Although I've now lived in England for 25 years, I spent a big part of that time as a Quaker and not using the Lord's Prayer, so it wasn't a big issue. Every now and then when I was in another church and the Lord's Prayer was used, I either mumbled the word or used "debtors". In the United Reformed Church where I'm now a member, we most often use the modern version that renders the word simply as sin ("forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us") and that suits me fine. The Iona Community uses the same version in its daily worship, and I like it there too. Some older people prefer to use the older version, complete with trespasses, and that's their right. But I think 'sins' suits the meaning well, and fits our modern understanding of the words.

However: while on placement last year in my training as a lay preacher, I was in a church that used the "trespasses" version. And as I was leading worship from the front, I couldn't avoid it. So I taught myself to say "trespasses". There was no thunder from the sky, I didn't collapse. It's just a word. I continue to find the word a bit alien, and it was a relief to return to my own church and say "sins" again at that point. Except on a recent Sunday, when we had a visiting preacher who invited us to say the Lord's Prayer in the 'traditional version', so I followed my own tradition, and said "debts"... (It was a few days before the Scottish independence referendum, so I was feeling mildly patriotic or perhaps sentimental.)

There's something to be said for everyone using the same words at the same time - it has a powerful bonding effect. But for me the meaning trumps that. On occasions my wife and I have used the 'modern' version of the Lord's Prayer with its 'sins' standing next to each other while others around us said the version with 'trespasses', and that separated us from others around but was a moment of bonding for us. Our daughter can happily say the modern version from memory but gets little from the old one.

And perhaps for me the key thing is the concentration on the words - that by questioning what words we use in prayer, they become active and aware rather than passive and recitation by rote. So I continue to wonder, continue to examine the question, continue to ask myself each time "will it be debts, or sins, or trespasses"?

So what's in a word, when we come before the Divine presence in prayer? Nothing much, but also everything.

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