Small Talk [1]

Let’s imagine I have this friend who’s a doctor – the kind who heals sick people, not the kind who writes books – and he’s telling me about this patient he’s treating who has a rather unique problem which is not “private”, if you know what I mean, but it’s interesting because it requires a good deal of technical knowledge to grasp the problem in the first place. There is a lot of testing involved, and the tests require a good bit of comparison to see what characteristics are showing up in common.

And he tells me these things because I’m a good listener, and I don’t blab. I seem interested in his stories, and in this one as he tells it. But I realize as I’m listening to him that what I am hearing is the brassy voice of Miss Othmar, Charlie Brown’s teacher. The things my friend is saying have stopped being interesting not because this is not about the life-and-death medicine he is obviously practicing, but because he’s using words which only appear in medical textbooks. He is obviously very excited about what he is telling me – he might win the Noble prize for medicine, I guess – but he might as well be speaking in Mandarin Chinese to me.

And he stops to take a breath, and he’s looking at me very intently. And then he looks at my hands, and then at me again.

“I’m sorry, Othniel,” I say to him, “I think I missed that last part.”

“Your hands, cent!” he says somewhat urgently. “Your hands!”

So I look at my hands, and they are clearly my hands. I recognize them. They feel a little cold to me because of the weather we’ve been having, but yes – they are my hands.

“What about my hands, Othniel,” I say to him, a little perplexed.

“Cent: your hands are just like his! You need to vacuate your clavicle before trombosis of the chestwood sets in!” I don’t know what he says, actually – that’s what it sounds like to me. Seriously – that may sound very serious to him, but to me it sounds, well, like Miss Othmar: wah wahwah wah, wah wah wah.

Othniel may have a good point – one upon which my life depends. But I have no idea whether or not I can vacuate my clavicle, or if trombosis of the chestwood is good or bad. It sounds bad, to be sure, but maybe it’s only bad for some people.

See: my doctor – the guy who looks at me and gives me diets and tells me that I should eat better and exercise more doesn’t talk like Othniel: he talks in small words that people who are not certified medical professionals can get their brain around. My problem is not that my diastolic return is elevated: my problem is that my blood pressure is too high; and the solution is not to relieve arterial distress, but to get the numbers on the collar to come down with medicine and exercise.

When he says it like that, I don’t feel like a science project. I feel like somebody who is receiving an important message which involves me. I’m not just a chassis they rolled in for a 10-point inspection. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I believe I am receiving love, but at least I am being treated like I am a living, breathing animal.

And let’s be honest about something: I have a 100,000 word vocabulary, which is pretty good for a guy who only speaks one language. If my doctor started talking to me in medical speak, if I didn’t know what he was saying, I could go find out – because he’s a doctor, and specifically my doctor, so I’m going to take particular interest when he starts talking about the thrombosis of any part of my body.

But what if he was just some guy at work? Seriously – what if some guy at work was talking to me and I started complaining about some ailment or other and he started gibbering medicalese at me? What does he know about trombosis or the difference between it and artichocosis? And why does he use words like that? Who’s he impressing? The next thing you know, he’s going to use the word “bifurcated” in a sentence and I’ll know he’s just a pompous windbag.

Personally, I’m not impressed when someone in the break room starts talking like Cliff Claven. Reading the Encyclopedia Britannica is a hobby for early-teen boys who can’t get girls to take an interest in them – and no, you cannot find out how I know that for a fact. My point is that big words don’t make your point in a conversation. You can’t win someone to your point of view by towering over them with vocabulary or jargon.

You have to demonstrate something else to them when you are talking to them. Like some indication that you are talking to them and not at them or toward them or about them. They are not a chassis parked at your tech station waiting for a read-out from your social or personal tri-corder.

They are human beings in the image of God.

Just to make sure I say this, let’s be clear: someone like me, who has elevated systolic and diastolic blood pressure and is receiving active treatment for hypertension needs to get involved in his treatment – that is, he needs to pick up some of the vocabulary in order to be a decent patient. If you have a beater car, and it needs parts, you probably should pick up some vocabulary so you know the difference between the wiper motor, the alternator and the gas cap. And if you are a Christian, you probably need to know the difference between atonement and justification, or the difference between repentance and regeneration – because you ought to be involved in being a Christian at least to the extent that you are involved in repairing your own car.

But for someone who’s new to any of these things, should we expect them to go get the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms by Donald K. McKim to get up to speed when we start talking to them about this God who we say “loves them”, but what we say is, "God demands repentence for sin, and offers atonement by the substitutionary sacrifice of the Christ"?

Think about that this weekend as you go to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s day to be with the Lord’s people. And try not to think about whether you have artichocosis or not -- it'll kill you before you recognize any of the symptoms anyway.