My subject today is swearing. And cussing. I am writing not about profanity in general but my own too-personal relationship with four-letter words. Of course, my church weighs in decidedly against profanity, and my parents reinforced this teaching in our home. Not what goes into my mouth defiles me, but what comes out of my mouth. Jesus taught this truth one thousand nine hundred and ninety-five years ago, thereabouts. Defiles . . . and defines. I grew up knowing that swearing was bad, and I did not want to be bad, so I did not swear. Then one day my twelve-year-old self just could not suffer the strain of that particular moment of life (whatever that moment was, I don’t remember) and I let loose a loud “Damn!” I was alone in the front yard, and the New Jersey sky draped over, cloudless and blue, and I felt suddenly scared. I squinted and cringed and searched the sky for dark thunderheads. I was certain a lightning bolt would lance forth from heaven and strike me down. I had cursed, and I wondered if I were bad, now. But the sky stayed a steady bright and cloudless blue, and I wondered where God had wandered off to during my moment of sin. I felt more astonished at the absence of punishment than I would have had the punishment come.
Many years of epithets later, I have learned that God does not work that way. God is not a retributive Redeemer, but a consequential Creator. God preserves for me and for you unfettered freedom to choose, but having chosen to act we have chosen the react, or, having done the deed we have determined the corresponding consequence. The consequential price of exploding my “Damn!” into the world was an instant new habit of damning this and damning that as the tensions of life built and sought escape and blew out through the cracks in my character. And 45 years later when I drop my keys or hit my bald head on an open cupboard door or slap at a maddening mosquito or forget where I have set my reading glasses, my riled spirit races along my cavitated cracks and geysers out a steaming expletive. Oh, I am careful no one is around to hear, because I do not want others to know my weakness, to see the power I have yielded to the angry word that I cannot seem to hold back, to see my lack of discipline to find another way through trying moments.
Two years later I heard Dad cuss one day when I was helping him wallpaper his bedroom, meaning he was wallpapering and I was watching incompetently. He plunged the wide course bristles into the bucket and brushed thick pasty glue on the wall, beginning at the ceiling joint and making his way down to the baseboard. He had stepped off the chair and was kneeling to smooth the last of the wallpaper strip when the top peeled away and fell in a crumpled rumpled gooey sticky mess all over him. From this predicament there was no possibility of graceful extrication, and he let fly a justified juicy “DAMN!” Part of me—an old small part—wondered Is Dad bad too? But I knew this was not true. He was good, as good a man as walks planet earth. And I wondered whether the Lord Jesus himself might well have uttered a wizening curse had the oozing wallpaper plummeted onto him.
I read about a preacher who sometimes cussed in church, from the pulpit even, and rebuffed his critics by declaring, “The Good Lord won’t send me to hell for cussing in church, because I repent too damn fast!” The truth is less sensational. J. Golden was plainspoken and blunt about the peoples’ sins and shortcoming because he loved them and wanted them to be their best and righteous selves. He confessed his flaws humbly and penitently and trusted that God would forgive him because he repented as fast as he sinned, and that sincerely.
Pinned to the church bulletin board I saw a quote attributed to Mark Twain, relevant to my subject: “Profanity is the sign of a weak mind attempting to express itself.” At the end of the day, I do not want to have a weak mind. I want to have a strong, healthy, humble, kind, contributing mind. And when I hear men driveling rubbish, f—ing this and f—ing that, I think of my first “Damn!” and Mark Twain and weak minds and lightning bolts, and I repent of it all. I want to be better than that.
(Photograph note: In 2013 I was camping in a tent at the Boy Scout National Jamboree in the mountains of West Virginia when the pictured thunderstorm hit us. I was one of 40,000 campers. Another staff member managed to snap this photo.)