May 2016

I pride myself on the ability to pronounce people’s names, especially Germanic sounding last names.  Somehow I think three years of high school German qualifies me for this.  However, our congregation has presented me with some challenges to this self-understanding.  The first time I publicly pronounced Walchenbach, I dutifully pronounced the “W” using the English sound we ascribe to the letter “v” and the “ach” with the guttural sound one makes when clearing the throat.  Jim let me know that a more anglicized version with a lot less throat clearing would be preferred.  Then I spent about a month referring to Mark and Marin Kaetzel and their sons as the KATEzels rather than the way they pronounce the name, which rhymes with “pretzel.”

Of course in both cases I still contend that I was perfectly justified in my mispronunciation; if we were in Germany, that is.  In the case of the Kaetzel’s, I remember explaining my faux paux to Mark.  I let him know that many German families who came to America transliterated the umlaut over the “a” (i.e. Kätzel) as an “ae” for an English spelling, thus trying to preserve the German pronunciation and this is why I pronounced it the way I did.  When I said this he graciously replied, “No problem, you were just overthinking it.”

Yes indeed, I was overthinking it.  Perfectionists tend to do this.  We like being right; so we learn the rules and then show off by letting other people know that we know them.  But sometimes the rules we have gone to the trouble to learn don’t apply, or different rules apply, and our “rightness” suddenly becomes wrong.  In this case, what might have been true in Germany, was not true here.  The fact that I was “right” was totally irrelevant to the situation here and now.   The way I was pronouncing those names was being controlled more by etymological abstractions  than by my relationship with the people to whom those names belonged.

And there is the moral of this story: relationship often trumps our rules.  And thank God it does.  Being right has certain benefits, but sometimes insisting on being right bears the fruit of being alone.  Insisting on our rightness can actually alienate us from others.  Insisting on calling someone by a name they do not call themselves is not a great way to build bridges.

The word “righteousness” gets thrown around quite a bit in religious communities.  Often we associate this word with the state of being right.  We think of people as being righteous if they know the rules and are good about following them, and also perhaps good at noticing when someone else isn’t following them.  By this definition someone who is righteous isn’t very good at relationship.  The irony here is that this way of using the word righteous is the exact opposite of what the Bible means when it uses the word.  In the Bible, the word righteous means being in right relationship with others.

The way of Jesus is a way of relationship.  He doesn’t hand us a rule book and say, “Here, memorize this, and I’ll be back to test you on what’s here.”  Instead he says things like, follow me, abide with me, and come and see.  He doesn’t set out to teach us how to be right.  He teaches us how to be in relationship.  On the way of Jesus, one rule is the lens through which we see all the other rules: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Dave Rohrer, 5/1/2016