As those who know me will testify, I am fascinated by words, especially their etymology. Take 'companionship', for example. I must have used it a million times over the years but despite my knowledge of Latin, I had never associated it with food until a few days ago. Once it was pointed out to me, the relationship is obvious. 'Panis' is the Latin word for bread and 'com' speaks of 'togetherness', hence a 'companion' is someone you share bread with!
I am intrigued by the way their meaning can change over time too. Take 'bamboozle'. Confusing as it might seem at first, I've discovered that originally it was a Chinese and Gypsy word meaning 'to dress a man in bamboo to teach him to swim'. 'Ping pong' has a fascinating history, too, because as recently as the turn of the twentieth century a 'ping pong' was a jewel fixed to a wire with a long pin at the end and worn at the front of a cap in Scotland!
I couldn't help reflecting on these things earlier this week when I was celebrating St David's Day. Yes, we had Cawl for dinner and we listened to some good Welsh singing, not least while rejoicing at our latest Triple Crown victory. But I couldn't stop feeling just a little bit sad because we seem to have lost our understanding of what it really means to be a saint.
Now, I'm certainly not trying to downplay all that Dewi Sant said and did. He was an amazing character and played a key role in a movement that did so much to strengthen the Christian character of Western Europe following the downfall of the Roman Empire. Dewi was a giant of a believer and has much to teach us as we seek to engage with our post-Christian culture. But I believe we are missing out if we fail to understand that the word 'saint' should be used of every Christian and not of a select and venerated few.
Fundamentally, the Greek word for saint carried the idea of being 'set apart' and 'different'. But of course this prompts the obvious question: 'In what way should Christians be set apart or different?' I reckon the apostle Peter summed it up best when he said we are set apart to be obedient to Jesus. There's an immense sense of privilege in being called a saint of course. Welsh rugby coach Wayne Pivak will pick his most talented players but thankfully God welcomes anyone into His team and gives them the ability to play their part in ways that often go beyond their wildest expectations.
But with great privilege comes great responsibility. God expects His people to do exactly what He tells them to do. The Christian life, then, should mean more than singing beautiful hymns like 'Calon Lan' and 'Cwm Rhondda'; it should be characterised by total obedience, which will inevitably mean living differently. True saints understand this. They know what Jesus wants them to do and they get on with it without any fuss.
Dewi Sant had a simple formula for doing this and it is as relevant today as it ever has been. He was famed for his preaching but he is best remembered for these simple word: "do the little things, the small things you've seen me doing."
St David's monks were expected to remain silent, except for prayer or in emergency. Now I wouldn't suggest we should go that far but it's worth remembering that one of the 'small things' we would do well to focus on is the use of 'the tongue'.
I wonder what you would say if you were asked to give an example of a 'filthy' lifestyle or 'wicked' behaviour? I guess lots of people would immediately think of murder or quite possibly sexual sins; but Jesus' brother James says something very different. He focuses on the things we say to or often about each other. James is well aware that when we are going through difficult times, we can react in ways we shouldn't. Simmering anger, for example, can cause us to say things we later regret, just as jealousy can tempt us to slander someone else.
We tend to speak first and repent at leisure (that is, if we ever do repent!). James turns this on its head because he knows Christians must cultivate a different lifestyle by telling us that Jesus' followers should be quick to listen and slow to speak! I get the feeling that many a relationship would have been preserved and many a church division would have been avoided if Christians had taken James' advice more seriously.
Every one of us will bring baggage with us when we come to faith. What matters is that we put it aside and embrace a new way of living. And this particularly applies to the things we say, in whatever form we say it. This will take humility of course, but the benefits are eternal because 'If you claim to be religious but don't control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless' (James 1:26).
Rob James is a Baptist minister, writer and church and media consultant to the Evangelical Alliance Wales. He is the author of Little Thoughts About a Big God.