Cheryl Stenson

There’s a great older lady at St. Bartholomew’s United, the congregation I’ve been serving in Brampton. Her name is Jan but I call her “Two Bits” and she calls me “Shave.” Some time ago I said something in a sermon that prompted her to share that, in times past, phrases like the one I’d used would be followed with “Shave and a haircut – two bits!” It was a popular tagline and I was familiar with it. Ever since, we’ve been “Two Bits” and “Shave” occasionally prefaced by the stamp of a foot and thrust of the arm.

Wikepedia tells us: “Shave and a Haircut” and the associated response “two bits” is a seven-note musical call-and-response popularly used at the end of a musical performance, usually for comedic effect.” None of which makes any difference to the fact that, for Jan and me, it’s a verbal touchstone, a personalized greeting: a shibboleth.

I had never heard the word “shibboleth” until a few years ago when a friend introduced me to it and I realized that my life was full of lovely shibboleths. Shibboleth is one of many words that the English-speaking world has borrowed from the Bible. In modern contexts, a shibboleth is any identifying word, manner of speaking, or behavior that has come to refer to a catchphrase that is shared by people of a common mind, heart, or experience.

Shibboleth is a Hebrew word that means “ear of corn” or “flood.” Unfortunately, the history of shibboleth as we know it is not exactly heart-warming. It comes from the biblical story in the Book of Judges, chapter twelve, which recounts the battle between the Ephraimites and Gileadites. The Ephraimites had invaded Gilead, but the Gileadites, who spoke Hebrew, had cut the Ephraimites off from their home base. When the Ephraimites sought to cross the Jordan River to return home, each was asked to pronounce the word “shibboleth” – not for the meaning of the word but for the sound of it. The “sh” sound did not exist in the Ephraimite dialect, and so, the Ephraimites pronounced the word in a way that, to Gileadites, sounded like “sibboleth.”

Judges 12:5-6 reads: “Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.”

So the word “shibboleth” distinguished group from group in a negative way, a prejudicial way – a deadly way.

Some United States soldiers in the Pacific theatre in World War II used the word lollapalooza as a shibboleth to challenge unidentified persons, on the premise that Japanese people would often pronounce both letters “L” and “R” as rolled “R’s”.

Today, the potential downside of using shibboleths can be the same as how unexplained in-jokes can shut people out, can make them feel like an outsider. On the other hand, with no intention of rejecting or “othering” anyone, a shibboleth can be a warm greeting, a human touchstone, and can evoke a warm memory of shared experience. It can serve to bond rather than exclude. Married couples have tons of shibboleths. They’re like a shortform where one or two words will get one’s point across.

A “furtive” shibboleth is a type of a shibboleth that identifies individuals as being part of a group, not based on their ability to pronounce one or more words, but on their ability to recognize a seemingly innocent phrase as a secret message. For example, members of Alcoholics Anonymous sometimes refer to themselves as “a friend of Bill W.”, which is a reference to AA’s founder, Bill Wilson. To the uninitiated, this would seem like a casual remark, but other AA members would understand its meaning and know that they were with one of that very particular group.

Deb and I have a shibboleth derived from the old Mary Tyler Moore show. We were both major fans.  If you recall, at the beginning of each show as its theme song was being played, it showed Mary in various scenes ONE of which was in a grocery store. Mary is shopping for what looks like some sort of fresh meat in a package and she looks very unenthusiastically at the package in her hand – maybe the cut or the price isn’t to her satisfaction – but she tosses it into her cart anyway with a look of “Oh, well” on her face. From then on, when Deb and I refer to settling for something rather than happily choosing it, we say, “meat in the cart”. “Are you happy with the dress you got for the party?” “Meat in the cart.”

Music can function as a kind of emotional shibboleth as well. Mentioning a song or piece of music that suggests a certain memory and feeling for you and someone else brings you together in that moment of shared recollection.

Before every service at St. Bartholomew’s , I go a lovely woman named Lorraine and ask, “Am I o.k.?” This evolved from my early days when I wasn’t familiar with the microphone and how it sat on my head. I’d ask Lorraine to check me at the back to make sure my hair wasn’t sticking out wildly over the bar of the mic. I’m much more adept now at getting the mic on properly but I won’t begin a service without the “Am I o.k.?” shibboleth with Lorraine. It’s a little thing but it’s a happy thing. It’s one method – or, conversely, one demonstration – of human connection. Of human communication.

Viggo Sogaard writes:

“Communication is deeply rooted in God’s nature and it is this nature He imparted to humanity when He created us in His own image. Communication is therefore not something accidental or supplementary for human beings, but it is the only way to be fully human. Furthermore, God has given us a mandate to communicate a message to others. When we look at God’s Incarnation [in Jesus}, we are looking at the center of communication…By this action God was bending down to disclose himself through ordinary situations of human life…He taught us to seek relationships …God achieved his communicational goals through love.”

Certainly, the words that the disciples used to spread the news of Jesus Christ and his mandate of love and justice had to be – and were – right and powerful.

Acts 4:4: “[M]any of those who heard the word believed…”

Acts 20:32: “And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.”

If you remember the musical, “My Fair Lady”, you might recognize these words from a song which the lead character, Eliza Doolittle, sings: “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words.”  Well, that’s unfortunate for Ms Doolittle because words are vital tools for carrying out God’s will here on earth which is to build relationships, to love and care for each other.

Emmanuel Ayee writes in his essay “Human connection revisited – a biblical perspective,

“Communication…is the most common everyday activity and it is at the core of all human contact.….. The ability to communicate is a gift from God to enable us to develop relationships with others and to create culture.” 

I think we can find a message in the story of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit breaks down the barrier of language by giving the gathered people the ability to speak in each others’ mother tongues. Words are crucial to our understanding of each other. Just as the wrong word can hurt a person or a situation, the right word can revive and rectify. Words can both wound and heal. It behooves us to choose carefully and think before we speak. In fact, the word “THINK” is useful as an acronym for choosing words wisely:

T – Is it thoughtful?

H – Is it honest?

I   – Is it intelligent?

N – Is it necessary?

K  – Is it kind?

Proverbs 12:25Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up.

Dr. Romeo Barrios writes,

“Relationship, love, unity, cooperation, and salvation are the ultimate goals of communication.”

Our choice of words is generally not going to result in anyone’s salvation, nonetheless, it can make a difference in someone’s day, shift someone’s perspective, lift someone’s spirits, or make a connection that alleviates loneliness.

Words that acknowledge someone’s pain bridge the gap between us. They may not have the power to change a circumstance, or even someone’s reaction to it, but they can bring comfort in acknowledging that we are compassionate witnesses, by carrying the needed message of “I see you and I care.” For a person experiencing homelessness and being bypassed by a city sea of humanity, that can be as easy and simple as looking into their eyes and saying “Hello.” For a person in emotional turmoil, it can be sharing your own similar experiences in comradeship. (Misery often does love company.) Or your words can provide the blessed relief of distraction by talking about everything and anything other than what’s causing the pain. I have benefitted from that version of words as a life raft many times since my husband’s passing.

Words of appreciation should never be left unsaid. A few years ago, Deb called me to tell me everything she thought and felt about me that she would normally save to share at my funeral. I know it sounds funny but it was very moving and affirming and I understood what she was doing. So often we leave unsaid the words that might make the world of a difference to someone. When I first attended Glebe in 1996, I wrote an e-mail to Maria telling her how much I appreciated her choice of music for the service, how beautifully it complemented the minister’s words, and how clear was her dedication and passion. I’ve always been glad I gave words to my thoughts and feelings then and they continue to be true today.  

Proverbs 31:8-9: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

John 7: 53 gives us a lesson in the value of finding the courage to speak up in defense of the underdog.  In this chapter, the scribes and the Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery and demand of Jesus a response to the law that commanded that such women be stoned. Famously, Jesus says to them:

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 

Needless to say, no-one qualified.

My Grade 6 teacher, Mrs. Wheeler, was the meanest and scariest teacher in our school. Or, at least that was true from the perspective of an extremely shy and fearful eleven-year-old. One day, Mrs. Wheeler was, to my mind, picking on one of the kids in our class and, despite being enormously intimidated by her, I put up my hand and, when called on, told Mrs. Wheeler in no uncertain terms – albeit in a small, quavering voice – that I felt she was treating the other student unfairly. If I remember correctly, Mrs. Wheeler was quite taken aback as I certainly didn’t have the demeanour of a kid who would stand up to her. I don’t remember her response or if it changed her attitude towards her young victim but I do remember feeling so brave and right about doing that. And no-one had to know that, as I was giving Mrs. Wheeler what-for, I had lost control of my bladder. Courage at its … wettest. I would deal with that later. Courage and fearlessness are two different things. Courage I had. Fearlessness I would never know.

Equally important to our choice of words is how to say them. Difficult truths can be delivered, using the same words, in such a way as to gentle the blow or, conversely, in a manner that makes the message all the harder to hear. I think the “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” rule of thumb applies here. Consider how you would best receive similar news and guide your delivery accordingly. Even the most benign topics can benefit from a wise choice of tone:

“Nice haircut!” [enthusiastically delivered]

“Nice haircut!” [sarcastically delivered]

We can look to today’s reading from Luke in this regard. It says, ““[I]t is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” If our hearts are in the right place, our words will carry the right meaning.

Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”

About this verse, Karla Hawkins writes:

I really like this verse, because it is a beautiful picture of the value of the right word spoken at the perfect time. Words do not only lift up and encourage others, but they have value. They can be precious and so meaningful when spoken at the opportune moment. As Christians, we should not only ask for our hearts and words to mirror the Lord’s, but also that the timing of those spoken words be right on cue as well.”

We all know the expression “timing is everything”. That certainly applies to words. Even the most thoughtfully chosen, heartfelt, compassionate, and well-meant words can go astray if delivered at the wrong time. And, certainly, angry words should be bridled till they can be edited. Hence, the need to know when to stay silent. Much can be said with respectful silence. And much can be saved.

Psalm 141:3: “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.”

Of course, there can also be pain in silence. But God’s gift of words and language is not restricted to verbal use. When silence is deafening, the written word can fill the mind and heart. One Valentine’s Day when my husband – then boyfriend – and I were newly together he gave me, written in his beautiful hand on parchment paper, a list of 111 reasons he loved me. There were many shibboleths on that list and there would be many more after it was written. Those words have been my mainstay over the last four years and I am eternally grateful for them. The pages are dog-eared now but all the more precious for it.

Our choice of words, verbal or written, represent us and reveal us. They speak of our minds and hearts, our values, our loves and hates, our beliefs, our estimation of others and ourselves. The shibboleths we share speak to shared perspectives and experiences. They are borne of tears and laughter.  They keep fond memories alive and our loved ones close. They serve as a language of the heart. Thank God for the gift – and power – of words.


Categories: Sermons