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Friday, May 6, 2016

The whole nine yards...of what?

Friday, January 18, 2013

The other day I was listening to a fascinating radio program about the etymology (or origin and meaning) of different common phrases. Well, it was fascinating to me, anyway. They discussed the phrase "the whole nine yards" and all the various myths and rumors about where "the whole nine yards" came from. There are lots of ideas about this, spanning everything from sports to tailoring to even some blush-worthy myths. Well-distinguished language and rhetoric scholars have different theories, but none are completely agreed upon. The fact of the matter is that no one really can prove where the phrase actually comes from. This is true for many of our common figures of speech.

Although we don't know the actual etymology of some of these figures of speech for certain, we do know that they are cultural phenomena. And they each became a phenomenon the first time someone handed on the phrase without understanding what it meant - the first time someone repeated "the whole nine yards" without having any idea what the original person who said "the whole nine yards" was referring to. From there on, the phrase continued to be repeated over and over by countless other people who have no clue what the original "whole nine yards" meant.

It may seem strange for us to repeat a phrase without knowing its meaning or origin, but we do the same thing in many other arenas of life, too. This phenomenon is present every time we participate in a family tradition and we don't know how or why it started - we just do it. We are involved in this phenomenon every time we do something in our church or faith community without knowing or understanding why. We even participate in this phenomenon at our jobs, every time we file papers a certain way, perform a task a certain way, or hold to a schedule a certain way, all without knowing how or why that process of filing, performing, or scheduling became the norm.

I recently came across a picture of a church sign (whose authenticity I cannot completely verify) that said, "A free thinker is the Devil's slave." Someone, if this sign was real, apparently did not want their church members asking questions or thinking for themselves. But God created us with an intellect for a reason. God gave us the gift of Reason for a purpose. And we are to use them. We are intended to think, to investigate, to search, and to understand. We are not supposed to be people who mindlessly perform tasks or simply follow along without thinking. An ancient Psalmist wrote with passion about wanting to understand the things of faith and to pursue a deeper understanding of God, saying "...teach me your statutes. Make me understand the way of your precepts" (Psalm 119: 26b-27a, NRSV).

It is true that there are many things in life we will never understand. There are many components of faith that are a mystery. And it is even true that sometimes we have to trust God and do the right thing, even if we don't understand. But that never means we are to surrender our God-given intellect and go along without thinking. As you encounter those things in life you have always done without knowing why, may you be free to think, free to ask, free to understand. As you encounter the habits and rituals of your church or faith community, may you be blessed with the freedom to seek understanding and pursue a deeper appreciation for the ways of God.

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