She stands just on the other side of the bar as Kevin and I wash dishes, reading aloud to me from a book. I’ve suggested that she read to herself, but she says she just likes reading to me. The truth is, it’s easier for her to remember what she hears aloud. Somewhere, that fact about her is written down, clinically tested, typed in black. I filed it in the thick binder I have with her name on the spine, the one with all these years worth of documentation.
So, Kevin plunges his hands into the soapy water, lifting a shiny, silver pot, bending over it to scrub; and I take a knife from the drain board and wrap it in a cloth, carefully avoiding the blade; and Riley reads, her voice all sweet music to my mother ears. Effortlessly, I slide into the story.
I sit in the back of a canoe, holding a paddle, a bright orange life vest belted tight around my waist. Rapids rush and splash and tug. Eddies froth white around vehicle-sized rocks half-hidden. The water thunders loud as I listen to two teenage boys argue about who should look out for another boy, a kid about Adam’s age with red hair and freckles who appears to be ignoring both of them and getting into trouble. The older boys point at each other, faces twisted, clearly unhappy. And then,
“Mom, can I just skip this word?”
“This one.” She points. She refuses to say it.
I lay down the towel and walk around the bar, wondering. Her finger rests hard on the page, just below the word fat, italicized just like that, italicized because one of the boys spat the word like something rotten. I look at her face, and I see determination there, her brow all knotted.
“Yes, you can just skip that if you want to.”
“Okay,” she says, and starts reading again. I look up at Kevin, whose face registers a question, though he says nothing.
“Fat,” I mouth, and Kevin smiles, still silent, bending back over a metal pan, working on a stubborn stain.
I’ve never made her a list of bad words. I’ve never even had to explain to her about the words most of us consider curses. But we’ve talked about what makes a word awful—not the word itself but the reason it’s spoken, the ugly thought that hurls it. And my daughter draws a thick line, setting a boundary against hurting others, against tearing down, against poisoning this world with more pain. Of course, for her there’s no complicated stance, just a simple choice, a rule she’s made for herself. She only knows that most of the time when she hears the word fat, it’s not used in a nice way. So, she won’t even read it aloud from a book when the characters aren’t real, because they intend to use that word to bruise.
The boys and I sit limp around a small, sputtering fire, roasting stale marshmallows and eating bits of a smashed cinnamon bun one of them stole from the mess hall at summer camp a few days before we all made our escape. The bread tastes sweet, sticky with white icing. We made camp just as the light waned, having spent the day chasing each other down the rapids, pushing away from rocks with our hands. The red headed boy happens to be an expert at rolling himself when his canoe capsizes into the froth. He amazes me—just ten and so adept. The food seems to energize everyone, and the boys start talking about the days before we left, the counselors, their chores. One of the boys is clearly exasperated. His eyes flash as he speaks of all the things he sees as injustice. ”I mean, I…”
“Mom? Can I skip this word too?”
I put down my towel and the pan I’m holding. No use asking. I walk toward her until I can see that she points at the word hate, again wearing that determined expression.
“Hmm,” I press my lips together, thinking.
Hate is a strong word, but no one really thinks of it as a curse, unless its trajectory is angry and personal. For just a moment, I consider lowering her standards. For just a moment, I actually think about dulling her sensitivity, realizing that her purity of heart will not likely gain her much respect in this world. People will judge her naive, and that can be dangerous. That can hurt.
But before I can open my mouth, holy hands steal the words away. Hasn’t our hate always been a curse? God only directs that word at evil, injustice, oppression, and it slices like a knife. Should the word hate really be thrown around lightly? I can remember the way my mom used to stop me and say, “You don’t mean hate, so don’t say that. Say strongly dislike, if you must, because that’s what you really mean.” And I have been telling my daughter to think about what she means, to care about what she means.
“Yes, you can skip that one too. Or, substitute really don’t like, because I think that’s what the character really means anyway.”
Kevin and I look at each other, shaking our heads, both thinking we’ve become numb where perhaps we should still be stinging. Most of us feel so justified in our anger, so justified by what we’ve all accepted as the norm. We’ve forgotten to fight for pure, forgotten to strive for holy. Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for it is written: “Be holy because I am holy (1 Peter 1:15,16).”
The campfire slowly dies as the boys continue their rant about summer camp, about their parents. ”My parents only sent me here because they’re too busy working to take care of me,” one of the boys says, kicking a pine cone with his foot. I am getting cold, and I feel too old for all their angst. I feel like telling the boy he should try having a real conversation with his parents before—
And then she rolls right over a phrase that really is one I consider horribly crass, but it’s become so common in our vernacular that it hardly raises eyebrows anymore.
Knowing how she feels about this, I stop her. ”Okay, Riley, that phrase isn’t one you want to say. It’s usually not appropriate, and it’s not a good way to speak.”
She looks up, stricken, but nods immediately. Her eyes fill with tears, and she raises a hand to her head, pushing back the stray hairs from her forehead. ”I didn’t know,” she says softly, hardly able to breathe for her grief.
“Oh honey, it’s okay,” I tell her, moving to her side, wrapping my arms around her shoulders, my heart aching with hers. But as I reach for her, I’m thinking, “Oh to have a heart so pure as to grieve even the shadows I embrace unknowing.”
“We’re not upset with you,” Kevin says, shaking his head. ”We just knew you didn’t know, and we knew you’d want us to tell you.”
“Oh Riley. We’re so proud of you,” I tell her, wrapping her up tight.
“So many people at my school say things they shouldn’t,” she says, letting her tears go unhindered. All the trouble she’s had with words, with comprehending, and she grieves our collective misuse of language. She grieves the outpouring of our hearts. The mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Luke 6:45).
“I know. And I’m so proud of you for choosing not to say these things. You choose not to say words most of us don’t even think about much anymore. You make me want to be more careful, to be better.”
I wipe her tears, my thumbs moving across her cheeks, while the Spirit whispers words I read just days ago sitting with Him in the early morning hours, my heart bare and open. …distinguish between the holy and the common, between the clean and unclean (Leviticus 10: 10). Law after law I read, hearing the message beneath: Be holy because you’re mine and I dwell with you. And I know that His grace isn’t cheap, and I’m not robed in blood so I can live without regard for purity.
And it’s time we held each other accountable to a thicker line drawn clear between our living and speaking and breathing redeemed and what’s common. It’s time we care so much about reflecting His heart that our failure to do so brings us real grief. It’s time to decide together that yes, the heart in which He dwells really is a sacred place. What we read, what we say, what we watch, what we allow ourselves to think about matters still, right now, even as our culture blurs the lines and makes concessions and the water froths and the rapids whirl and life thunders and rages around us.
It’s time—not for our judgement and condemnation of others—but for our uncommon choices to live holy, to live as children of light, to refuse even to flirt with shadows that offend His glory.
Dear ones, do you know that I pray for all our walking with the Spirit, our walking together? So, maybe you want to do this too, but you need a place to start? Colossians 3. Won’t you memorize it with me? Won’t you let the Spirit write this truth on your heart too? Maybe we could choose to be together uncommon?