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The Hidden Grammars We Live By

The following is the gist of the sermon I delivered yesterday, in St. Michael's Church, Anderson's Bay, at the baptism of my grandson, Theo.
 We have rules in English about how we use adjectives. Most of us know that adjectives come before the noun, well, most of the time, anyway. We say The large mountain but other languages do it differently. In Maori, for example, we have the word maunga meaning mountain and nui meaning large and these combine, with the adjective last, to form maunganui. I'm not sure why the word order varies from language to language. It seems to be an arbitrary accident of history. But the rules about adjectives don't finish with whether or not they precede the noun. Consider the following two sentences:

Look at those two, beautiful, little, red, French, sports cars. 
Look at those sports, French, red, little, beautiful, two cars.

The second one sounds odd, huh? That's because  because it breaks a fundamental rule of English grammar. In English when we have a string of adjectives in a sentence they always follow the same order:
  1. Quantity or number
  2. Quality or opinion
  3. Size
  4. Age
  5. Shape
  6. Colour
  7. Proper adjective (often nationality, other place of origin, or material)
  8. Purpose or qualifier
Let's not get too bothered by what all those terms mean, but consider this interesting fact: you all  follow this rule exactly, every time you speak. Some of you have been using this rule for 40 or 60 or 80 years, and yet, I bet until a couple of minutes ago you didn't know the rule existed. It is, in other words, completely unconscious to most of us, yet it shapes the way we speak and even, the way we think. In, I'd guess, a year or so's time, Theo will learn this rule, and when he breaks it he will be gently corrected, because we want his speech to sound "correct" and "proper".  But isn't that a bit odd? What is correct or proper is decided by a rule which hardly anybody knows exists! For many years Theo's parents lived in the Middle East. If, by some easily imaginable accident of fate, they had decided to stay there, Theo would grow up speaking Arabic and he would be learning a whole different set of unconscious rules, and forming an entirely different notion of what "proper" and "correct" speech sounded like. 

Of course, speech isn't the only area of our lives where we are subject to sets of unconscious rules. There are all sorts of things which we do or avoid doing in order to be correct and proper. We have rules for the way we relate to other people: how close we stand to them when we talk, and when and where we touch them, for example. We have rules about how we conduct ourselves in public and in private. We have rules about who is important, and why, and these rules will affect all sorts of things, such as how we stand or the tone of our voice or the vocabulary we use. We have rules about what it is proper to eat: we don't generally eat horsemeat here in New Zealand, but in a nation so enthusiastic about eating cows, you have to wonder why. 

These might be thought of as grammars of behaviour, and thought, and they are often as complicated as the ones relating to language, and they are all, mostly, unconscious, and they are all, mostly, arbitrary, arising from the accidents of our cultural history. But there are some grammars which are less arbitrary, in that they seem to be shared by many different cultures, or even, in some cases, by all of them. These are the moral rules which seem so ubiquitous we can accurately call them human values rather than cultural ones. We might differ in detail from culture to culture, but the general principle remains constant. So, for example, different people might have different ideas on what things are brave and what are not, but all agree that courage is a good thing. We might have differing ways of defining family relations but we universally value constancy, and faithfulness, and loyalty. And underlying all these human values is one which I believe goes deeper and wider even than the human race: the way of love. I think this is a value which is universal; that is, it is about the very way our universe was brought into being and how it holds together.

Love is what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about. Love is extending ourselves for the good of another. Jesus, in all he did and all he taught, tried to lead people into a life characterised by this: a life in which we extend ourselves for the good of others.  What Jesus knew was that extending ourselves for the sake of others is is all well and good until we actually try to do it. 

Sometimes, of course, it's easy to love.  In January Bridget and Scott brought Theo home from the hospital for the first time and Bridget handed him to me. I looked at his little screwed up face and in 2 seconds flat I loved him. This is no credit to me. It's got nothing to do with having a relationship with him, or with him being a nice person (which, incidentally, he seems to be) but it's about some deep inbuilt instinct we have to love our children and grand children. It takes no effort at all to love Theo, and in fact it would be pretty much impossible for me not to love him. 

And 46 years ago I sat in the library of the University of Canterbury. Near me was the prettiest girl in my English class. She looked at me and I quickly looked away. I looked at her and she quickly looked away. Sparks flew, and I left a note on her desk and today she's through that door looking after the children. Why her?  Why not one of the other 5,000 women at the University of Canterbury at the time? Who knows? We don't really choose these things they happen to us. Sometimes extending ourselves for each others benefit has been hard work, but mostly, for me anyway, it's been easy to love Clemency. 

Then I think of my oldest and dearest friends. These are the few people to whom  I know I can say anything. These are the people with whom there is deep sharing and absolute honesty. We may not see each other for months, or even years, but in each others company we find again a deep level of connection. These connections aren't always easy, as sometimes the honesty of the relationship can be painful and costly. And these are the people to whom I would do great and troublesome favours if asked. I have these long and deep friendships because I have chosen to, as have they.

But Jesus asks us to follow a path of even more difficulty. He asks for us to love everyone, even our enemies. Being asked to love all people doesn't necessarily mean we have to like them but it does mean being prepared to extend ourselves, that is, put our selves out, for their good. This is so difficult that Jesus called it the way of the cross. It costs and is hard to do, but we are called to walk the way of the cross not to diminish us, but because by  walking it - in fact ONLY by walking it - can we become the people God intends us to be. We walk the way of the cross and find ourselves in a way not possible anywhere else. We are promised the strengthening of Jesus companionship on this path, and we wouldn't be able to walk it otherwise. 

So today Scott and Brids bring Theo to this place to set his little feet on the path of love. Of course he doesn't understand: how can he? Of course he doesn't choose this, any more than he chooses the language he will speak or the social codes he will obey, or the morality he will live by. But as he grows, this act this morning will set him learning the grammar of love, as he learns, simultaneously, all those other grammars. One day I hope he will be able to make the conscious connection between Jesus Christ and the way of love that he is going to be taught from his infancy. 

So welcome Theodore Peter. Your name means Gift of God which you are proving to be, to us all. Today we return you this gift: a heavy and difficult gift of entrance on the path which many of your nearest and dearest are walking; which is at once the most difficult and the most blessed thing that we do. We do this because we love you, which means that in bringing you here  we are making the commitment to  extend ourselves for your good. For on this path you will find yourself: the boy and the man God knows and intends you to become. 


Kathryn said…
God bless little Theo, may he always know God's love in his life.

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