“How y’all doin?”
On a trip to Tennessee and North Carolina, my wife and I heard that line again and again. It reminded me of being in Boston, only there it was “How-ah-ya?” or “How-ya-doin?”
I love languages and dialects and so, while we were in Boston, I told my wife I just had to try “How-ah-ya?” on somebody. It took me awhile to work up the nerve - I was afraid of ruffling some New England feathers - but finally tried it out on a clerk in a store. “How-ah-ya?” I asked. My son, who was living in Boston, said I got it wrong. It sounded like I was from the Bronx.
In North Carolina I never did get up the nerve to try “How y’all doin?” I wasn’t sure what the penalty is for impersonating a Southerner and I didn’t want to find out. I certainly didn’t want people thinking I was making fun of them.
There was a young woman who grew up in our church in Michigan, took a job in North Carolina, fell in love, and wanted to get married. She asked if I would come down to officiate at the ceremony, which I was honored to do. When she moved to North Carolina, she talked like any other Michigander but within a few months, she sounded like she had lived in the South all her life. She can say “How y’all doin’?” with the best of them.
At her wedding in North Carolina, I met another Michigander who has acquired a southern drawl. When I mentioned it to her, she said when she meets a real Southerner it only takes about 30 seconds before he or she says, “You’re not from around here, are you? Where are you from?”
There is nothing wrong with a Michigan girl picking up a Carolinian accent; it’s even charming, in a way. But it is a problem when a follower of Jesus, a citizen of the kingdom of God, picks up the mannerisms and attitudes of what the Bible calls the “kingdom of darkness.”
It is God’s intention to use the distinctive character of his people to woo others to himself. The Bible speaks of differences in a Jesus-follower’s language, desires, dress, and, more broadly and more importantly, openness to others in an attitude of love. God intends to use these differences to stimulate people to say, “You aren’t from around here, are you? Where are you from?” Then the Jesus-follower can tell them about God’s kingdom and its good king.
St. Paul drives this point home in his letter to the Romans. He writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world..” Paul understood that constant exposure to the behaviors and, more importantly, the attitudes of the culture around us can have a negative effect. We can pick up the accent. Without knowing it, we can begin to think like the people around us - people who do not acknowledge the reality of God’s presence nor submit to his authority.
So Paul says, “Do not conform” or, as J. B. Phillips famously paraphrased it, “Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” Its mold turns out people who are angry, frightened, greedy and God does not want his people to be so molded.
The trouble is that we do not know when we are conforming. Our vision blurs when we try to look at ourselves. We adopt attitudes that belong to what Paul calls “this present evil world” without trying and without realizing we have done so.
That’s why Christians need one another’s help. They need people who can speak truth in love - and both parts are critical, truth and love. The man or woman who has friends who love him or her enough to (gently and graciously) point out when he or she slips into the world’s accent is blessed indeed.
Such people are almost never just Sunday acquaintances, they are confidential friends. People who desire to live the Jesus-way need those kinds of friends. They help their fellow Jesus-followers recognize when the accent they have unconsciously adopted does not fit what they truly want to say.
Everyone should have such friends.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.