In Athens, we are quite accustomed to leaving the church house on Sunday morning and being met by beggars, hoping to “cash in” on the generosity of folks who have recently been thinking about God, compassion and the call to care for others. Often, a young girl waits near the church gate, asking for money or trying to sell Kleenex. But last Sunday, something novel took place on the sidewalk in front of the church building.I missed it, because I had to depart early, to make some time-sensitive deliveries and return to pick up Janice in time to make our next Sunday assignment. She was still laughing as she got into the car and said, “Do you see the young man with the rolling cart? He is trying to sell things to the worshippers.” “Yes,” I said, waxing historical and analytical, “that is happening more and more these days. It is another consequence of the hard economic times in Athens!”
“But, did you see the shirt he is wearing?” Janice asked. “No,” I responded. “What’s so special about his shirt?” As I looked closer at the man, I saw it on the front of his shirt; as big as Dallas, were these words: HOLY S**T! The desperate and hungry man had stationed himself in the traffic flow, hoping to make a few coins by hawking several small items. Somehow, the language on his shirt seemed a deliberate turn of phrase, intended to enhance his marketing for the church crowd.It got me to thinking: What exactly is “Holy S**T” anyway? Now, keep in mind: I have an earned doctorate from a reputable seminary; I have done post-doctoral study; I have studied theology and taught it for many years. And, what is more pertinent, I have had much practical experience with S**T, both inside and outside the church, But no one has ever told me what qualifies as Holy S**T.
Was our sidewalk entrepreneur actually trying to target his potential customers by wearing that shirt? I honestly doubt it. Was the shirt his not-so-private estimate of the quality of the merchandise that he was selling? Probably not. Was he using that phrase in the way I hear many use it today, as a kind of Robin-to-Batman-like way to express astonishment and amazement!Or (and I suspect this is more likely the case) did this non-English speaker have any idea what his shirt was “saying”? Perhaps he bought the shirt because of its cheap price or its color. Perhaps, the shirt was a charity item that was given to him. In this Greek language setting, we often see non-English speakers wearing T shirts with messages on them that they themselves are unable to read. My guess is that this is what happened here.
In any event, this T-shirt sermon reminded me of the awful and persistent devaluation of words, these days. In addition to the too-frequent use of profanity and other language previously classified as “dirty words” and the pernicious spread of hate speech, it concerns me that we use words in a most careless manner in this modern day. It seems so easy, in a Face Book sort of way, to be trite and use well-worn expressions, to overstate one’s case or to exaggerate. Some seem only capable of saying what they have heard others say. When we misuse, overuse or otherwise abuse the language, without thinking about it, words always lose their capacity to communicate content and emotion accurately and precisely. When we call ordinary things “holy,” then nothing is “holy.” When we call everything “S**T,” then nothing is “S**T!”