“It’s just a matter of discerning which students really understand the concept and which are just nodding along because they don’t know the right questions to ask,” I said.
He paused. “Did you just say ‘discern?’”
My cheeks flushed. “…Yeah? Like, to think deeply about? To evaluate? To decide?” (Yes, I’m an occasional victim of upspeak. Shoot me.)
“Oh, I know what it means. I just don’t think I’ve ever heard someone use it in real life. Great word.”
And so goes the life of a Calvin College graduate. I’m sure you’ve all experienced this. Sometimes there’s just no better word than “discern” or “redeem” or “vocation,” and it slips out. Maybe you embrace it, or maybe, like me, you cringe. Those words are almost feel tainted now, so overused in the course of those four years that all of their spark and meaning is extinguished.
Enter my chief offender: shalom.
Granted, this is a word I wouldn’t use in everyday conversation unless I knew my audience well or was at a bible study, but it’s still one that gives me trouble. The thing is, I love the word. I love each and every one of its many meanings and translations and the way that it seems to fit any situation. Let me digress for a moment.
Shalom is peace and goodness and restoration and justice and wholeness all in a brown paper package tied up with string. It’s perfection with a cherry on top.
Shalom is the way things are supposed to be. What an answer to evil that is: things just aren’t quite the way they should be. What a testament to God’s good intentions: God wanted things to be perfect. What a promise: someday they will be.
This is a world where someone is killed in the street and we decide to make it about ourselves. It’s a world where thousands are struck down by disease and we worry about whether vegetables are organic. It’s a world where we buy gifts for each other while wondering what we’ll get in return. Everything is not quite the way it’s supposed to be. O Come, Emmanuel, and bring that shalom with you.
Back to the point: as I wax passionate on how much I love the word shalom, I’m already getting nervous. A sort of uncomfortable tightness forms in my chest as my cliché-o-meter cranks up. My real confession here, the reason I love shalom but hate talking about it, is that I’m embarrassed. I’m self-conscious that someone will think me overzealous or biased or ignorant when I talk about “the problem of evil” and how “God’s perfect kingdom of shalom” is here “already but not yet.”
This embarrassment probably stems from an initial desire not to offend anyone or turn anyone off to faith, but I wonder if at some point it becomes wrong. What’s the difference between being sensitive and hiding your faith? Does that shudder I feel when I say “love your neighbor” or “God is good” or “I’ll pray for you” (I admit: I literally cannot say that last one out loud) mean I’m a bad Christian? It’s frightening to think that maybe I’ve become so cynical about “traditional” religion that I’m ashamed of loving some of it.
I don’t know the answers. I do know that since this tugs at my mind, there’s probably something wrong. It’s another instance, I suppose, of good shalom intentions gone off track. Our world—my world—is looking for meaning, but I can’t speak up.
I can walk the walk, but I can’t talk the talk.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.