Two weeks ago fourteen-year-old Karthik Nemmani won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. This caught my attention as I breezed through the news and reminded me of an incident that occurred during my own childhood.
When I was growing up and attending public school, our junior high classes gathered one day to have a spelling contest where everyone had to participate. As I recall we were given little to no preparation for this exercise in which each one of us had to take a turn standing up front before everyone, be given our mystery word, and then attempt an accurate spelling. Talk about trauma.
To the surprise of the teachers and my fellow students (and myself), I actually came in second. I was beaten by a stereotype, a studious looking girl who wore glasses, which didn’t bother me at all because it meant that I could return to the safe anonymity of my desk.
But there is another reason that this years National Spelling Bee caught my attention. The word that Nemmani successfully spelled to clinch the title was koinonia. Generally, words that are chosen to test the mettle of the contestants are words that are obscure, within the common vernacular but dwelling in the alleys of public discourse rather than the thoroughfares.
Koinonia, as you might recall, is the Greek word for fellowship though the idea goes much deeper than that. Koinonia means “life together.” I have been revisiting this vital dynamic of our faith lately and was both glad and sad that it surfaced the way it did in our national news.
The glad part was based upon a hope that many believers would be struck as I was that our word was in the spotlight and perhaps many would talk about it and return to a deliberate focus and sacred community. The sad part is that both the word, its meaning, and its practice, is presently obscure to not just the world but also the church as well.