Let’s play a word association game. When I say hospitality, you say…a clean house? flowers and fresh linens? an open door and an open bottle? Now let’s get a little less sanitized. What do you imagine now…a loud house? muddy dogs and grubby hands? a crowded line and a crowded pot? What I bet you didn’t say – what I wouldn’t have dreamt of saying some months ago – is that hospitality is also an honest house and a well-timed “f-word.”
You should know that I am, as a general rule, very amenable to swearing. “There are no bad words; only bad uses,” is my proudest parenting truism to-date. It came to me quicker and clearer than any teaching previously including those on sharing (you don’t have to), showering (you do have to), and salvation (oh, Lord.) Words, like people, I tell my girls, are never unredeemable. Each has a purpose – to teach, to remember, to describe, to shock – and with them we have the power to create life or deal death.
It wasn’t long ago that I thought my swearing was becoming rather uncreative. The last straw dropped when I dropped the f-word while leading a small group of church friends in my home. And it wasn’t just the f-word. It was the holy f-word. No one criticized me in the moment but my inner critic came on like clockwork at four-thirty the next morning to chastise me. How crass. How careless. She made me swear to change my ways, and I told her that Lent was just around the corner.
So, on Ash Wednesday, I vowed to give up what I called “small words” – words that made me and potentially others feel small – and take back my tongue. It wasn’t a remarkable feat at first. When I cut myself on a stack of papers, I said “dip it.” When I was tired of my partner’s tone, I called him “insensitive.” When the same small group of church friends showed up at our house the next month, I told them they were “cool as eff.” The eff sound must have gotten tousled in my throat because Eleanor turned to me and said, “I can tell that was hard for you to say.” I explained to them about my recent reformation and prepared myself for gentle nods. Instead, Matthew said, “It was your holy f*** that made me feel at home!”
Now there was a particularly Millennial idea: swearing as a cipher for authenticity. I had experienced it once before when leading a retreat for young clergy my age; it wasn’t until I admitted to being “f-ing bored” with my life that they began to warm up to me. I resented the fact that somehow all the others words I had used to speak my story weren’t viewed with equal authenticity. And yet the evidence was mounting that a swear word, especially an unexpected one, can put people at ease.
It turns out there is research behind the power of swearing. In her book Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, Emma Byrne shows how swearing can be a tool for team building, pain management, and stress relief. She also studies who swears and how it’s understood. For instance, men swear only slightly more than women but women are seen as less trustworthy when they do. What’s true across swear words is that they are understood to be “(a) words people use when they are highly emotional and (b) words that refer to something taboo.” I could see, then, how the use of profanity by a Christian could be an effective short-hand for communicating that we can be our emotional and embodied selves together. It was like putting a welcome mat out for the human experience.
In the months leading up to Easter, I have noticed more and more how swearing, in the right context, can build Christian community. In February, an Instagram post from Artist Scott Erickson popped up on my feed showing an “F Cancer” graphic he made in response to a friend’s recent diagnoses. Many celebrated the move. Others criticized it. Scott responded, “My intention is the work of wholistic integration. We are only as sick as our secrets.” Likewise, at this year’s Why Christian conference in March, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber read from her forthcoming book, Shameless, in which she calls for a sexual reformation that is more interested in human healing than narrow theology. Rather than handing down a new sexual doctrine for the church, Nadia shouted to a chapel of people in pews, “I say let’s burn it the f*** down.” People were weeping next to me.
It was around that time that I abandoned my Lenten practice of giving up small words. It turns out that for me, and many in my community, swearing does not make us feel small but seen, heard, human. What better way to celebrate the Word of God made flesh than to speak words that show we have skin in the game? The lesson of Easter is, after all, the lesson of a God who profaned God’s holy house to make space for us.