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More on That

We humans play with words: it’s part of the way we live in the world with freedom. We can imagine alternatives; we can use that amazing word “not”; we can regret what might have been; we can celebrate what has been avoided; with many emotions we can anticipate what perhaps shall be.
    I think this is one way that we imitate God. It’s not a mere equivocation that we use “word” to speak of our language and also to speak of God (as the second person of the Trinity). Some sort of analogy is going on. God’s playfulness in creation—his speaking and things come to be—is imitated by us, in a minor yet important way, when we use words.
    Words can of course shape reality. The Lord of the Rings is not “just” words: for instance, it has encouraged people to be brave and loyal; it changes the way we can think of the world. We know there are not Ents, but knowing about Ents can affect how we think of trees, of the length of life, of the joys of drinking deeply of cool, refreshing water.
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    Here’s another one you have to hear to get the play (and you have to be of a certain age). “What’s black and white and red all over?” The answer is “a newspaper”: you heard “red” but the paper is “read” all over (and back then there wasn’t color in the paper).
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    I was a small boy, maybe 8 years old, and my grandfather, a farmer, took me into town on the front seat of his truck. (No seatbelts! Those were the days!) We had to stop at a train crossing, and he read the sign aloud. “Rail Road Crossing / Look Out for the Cars.” (The old signs said that.) He went on: “Can you spell that leaving out the Rs?”
    We had moved on, and I tried: A, I, L, O, A, D, C, O . . . My grandfather was smiling broadly. When I stopped, he said: T, H, A, T.
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    He also had a puzzle-story in which the money didn’t add up. Fast-forward with me to a generation later. Father Sergei, a Russian Orthodox priest, is our house-guest for a weekend. Our children are young, perhaps about the age of his children (who were back in Russia while he studied in New York). He tells our children a riddle that has the exact same structure as the one my grandfather told me.
    Here’s the Russian version:
    There was an old man who was going to the bazaar to sell his hat. On the way, three soldiers stop him and ask him what he is doing. He says, “I am going to sell my hat.” “How much do you want for it?” they ask him. He answers, “Twenty-five rubles.” The soldiers see it is a good hat and they want to buy it, but they have a problem: it is impossible to divide 25 into three parts equally. So they say to the old man, “Here, please take 30 rubles for your hat.” The old man took the 30 rubles and sold his hat to the soldiers. But as he walked back towards his home, he thought that it was not right for him to take so much. Seeing a boy nearby, he gave him the extra five rubles and asked him to run back to the three soldiers and give them the money. The boy does so, but when he has explained his errand to the soldiers, they ask each other, “How can we divide five rubles amongst the three of us?” They decided to keep one ruble each, and to give the boy the two rubles for the job he had done. Now we may count up all the money. The soldiers each paid nine rubles for the hat; that makes 27 altogether. They gave the boy two rubles; that makes 29. But the soldiers originally paid 30 rubles. Where is the other ruble?
    Change the hat to a horse, and the rubles to dollars, and you have the version that my Oklahoma grandfather told me decades ago when I was a boy.
    Think of it: Half the world away, in a different language, the same puzzle but in different dress, the same delight at telling it. I felt like the red-dirt peanut fields of Oklahoma had become outskirts of Moscow.
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    The words that are spoken in the kingdom of God must be delightful in every way.

Spelling Words

    This would be harder if I were speaking to you, but we’re stuck with print. It’s a dinner party and a clutch of clergy are standing around. He says, “What’s stressed backwards?”
    I said with delight: Dessert!
    Fortunately I mumbled; the correct answer is plural. But it’s a neat discovery: lots of people are stressed out because of desserts; they can’t not eat them, they feel guilty, and so forth. And then to discover: the connection is right there, in the letters themselves.
    Another proof that English is the best language.
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    Well, maybe it’s not, but it’s my best language. Not that there’s a lot of competition.
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    I was the guest of a retired Church of England priest who lived in Monaco. Entering his apartment building, he left me to speak to the attendant, in Italian. I asked him how many languages he knew; I think he said eight. “My Urdu is a little rusty,” he said.
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    What does it mean to say the Word became flesh? Is the way we play with words and turn them around and mix them up some sort of analogy of God taking on DNA and dirt under his fingernails?
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    Susan loved crossword puzzles, and so when it came out in 2006 we went to see the documentary “Wordplay” in the local theater. There were cameos from Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, both of whom are ace crossword solvers. (Clinton starts in the upper left and moves diagonally down, finishing about as fast as he can fill in the squares.)
    The director was being driven around. The driver said—see that store? “Unkind Donuts.”
    Just move the D in the first word.
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    I was going under for a procedure, and my doctor asked me to spell “metaphysics” backwards. (He does that to see when the anesthesia has kicked in.) I said: M, E, T, A, P, H, Y, S, I, C, S, B, A, C, K, W, A, R, D, S . . . He gave me a sidelong glance. “Okay,” he said.
    I should have asked for dessert.
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    Out & About. I’m starting “Good Books & Good Talk,” a seminar discussion series that will take up a different book each time it meets. The first is Sunday, October 14, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. We’ll discuss Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot; anyone who reads the text is welcome to the conversation. Registration is not necessary, but it would be helpful to have a rough idea of how many people might come: .

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."