A Word Fitly Spoken

July 21, 1996


A Word Fitly Spoken

It’s no secret, I suppose, that I am never happier in the pulpit than when I can talk about language — the greatest of all human gifts. The human brain, of course, is a marvel, but without language it loses much of its power. On some dim level it might direct the hands to make a tool, or play music on a pipe, or paint a bison on a wall, but without language it could not explain what it had done, it could not create a book or discuss with a friend the meaning of life, it could not prompt the vocal cords to say the most important of all human words: “I love you.” Perhaps it could keep some memory of things it had seen, so that one could close her eyes and visualize an image of a lake or a mountain, but they would have no names and they could not be talked about. Students of speech differ on just how it happened, but there is no doubt about this proposition: when words came, the human soul expanded into something never known on earth before — and with it came a new capacity for both good and evil.
From my own lifetime I can give you famous examples of words used to betray and crucify humanity, and words used to rally people to hope when they had lost hope. On the side of evil there was Hitler and his propaganda boss, Goebbels, spewing the hate rhetoric that would lead to the holocaust and to 50 million deaths in World War II — the most malignant use of language in modern times. But I also remember words of hope that gave a desperate nation the will to keep going. I was only a child during the Great Depression, but I sensed the deep anxiety in my father, and the sorrow in my mother that she could not buy better food and better clothes. There was no television to chronicle those dark days, but sometimes we saw the 10-cent movie on Saturday afternoon, and there was always a newscast on the screen to show the breadlines and soup kitchens and the long, sad lines of men waiting hopelessly for work. Mom and Dad and my sister and I sat quietly around the living room radio and listened intently to those fireside chats of President Franklin Roosevelt as created hope in a country that had very little. I had no concept of political differences between Democrats and Republicans, but I can still hear the majestic reassurance of those famous words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.,” Despite what was around us, that simple declarative English sentence lifted our spirits. We believed.
But suppose the President had betrayed the language by using jargon? What inspiration would we have taken if he had said, “My fellow Americans, the sole personality disorder which may be inimical to our social wellbeing is that harmful emotion characterized by students of the mind as panic”? “A word fitly spoken,” the old Biblical proverb says, “is like apples of gold on plates of silver.” FDR’s words were fitly spoken: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I had the good fortune to be in Royal Albert Hall one night in London when Winston Churchill spoke. He was a master of the English language. No convoluted rhetoric, no doublespeak — just short, strong English words…..the kind that only a great man, with full confidence in the weight and power of language, would have dared to use. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” And when he turned to us in America for help, there was none of that silly and pretentious twaddle that dishonors language. Like: “Supply us with the necessary inputs of relevant equipment and we shall implement the program and accomplish its objectives.” What he said was: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
Is integrity of language proper topic for a Christian pulpit? I have no doubts when I remember what Jesus said about lack of clarity and directness and honesty in speech “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” “Do not rattle on with vain repetitions.” “You are not heard for your much speaking.” What would he think of much of our pulpit and political rhetoric, and the ingenious verbal deception of so much of modern advertising? All of us who believe in the miracle of language regret the ways in which we make words cheap — when we say, “O, words, words! What are words? Anybody can talk. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” Cute little proverb. Only one thing wrong with it — it’s false. No stick or stone has ever done me graver injury than some malicious word.
Still, somebody says “Words, what are words?” and I think of one day when I had driven out from seminary on a preaching appointment at a small church in Tennesee, and was having lunch, afterwards, with an older couple who had been married for many years. We talked pleasantly through the meal, but when the woman served dessert, a single word ruined everything. She went to the refrigerator and came back with some kind of gelatin dessert in a bowl unlike anything I had ever seen before. When I complimented it, she apparently just meant to be modest when she said, “Oh, that’s just an old piece of junk we’ve had around forever,” but the words were barely out of her mouth before the husband stood up suddenly and flung himself out of the room, obviously hurt and angry. It was an awkward moment among strangers, and after an embarrassed silence the woman said, “I can’t imagine why I said that. When Jim and I were married, this bowl was the only memento he kept after his mother died. I never cared much for it, but I forgot what it meant to him. Excuse me, please; I have to go and apologize.” Even an unintentional wound can go deep. J-u-n-k…somehow it was not just a word but a painful knife in the heart of memory.
When two kids in love stand over there by the kneeler on a Saturday evening and say “I do” to one another, the words create a new family. Words create institutions: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” Words create sacraments: one night in a cramped little room a man said to his friends at supper, “Pass me that butt end of bread,” and when they did he broke it and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” Just words, but they turned a supper into a sacrament and the world has remembered for two thousand years. Simple words….because we speak simply when we feel deeply. A day or so after I saw that wonderful movie, Sense and Sensibility, I had a passing conversation with a woman in this church who had also seen it. She had enjoyed the elegant language people used with one another, and only half in jest she said of her husband, “I wish he would talk to me like that.” There wasn’t time but I wanted to say to her that most English people did not converse with each other in that sophisticated rhetoric Jane Austen gave her characters, and that if her husband said a simple “I love you” as if he meant it, she could count herself blest.
Because I remembered being in a restaurant one day when a man at the table next to me handed his wife a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers. I had no notion of what their lives were like, but I heard her say “Thanks” — and then, teasingly, “But I’d like it even better if you said, ‘I love you.’” She must have chided him before about not using romantic language, because he chuckled and said, “Just smell your flowers and eat your candy.” He didn’t seem a bad sort. I just got the feeling that words about deep emotions came hard for him. Oh, words are easy, we say; anybody can talk! But it isn’t true. I know guys who can shout, “Has the mail come?” or “Hey, quit driving your motorcycle across my lawn!” or “Is my shirt ironed?” but who can’t choke out “I love you” to save their lives because the feeling runs too deep. Try telling them that talk is cheap and anybody can talk.
A man asked me a few years ago to go out to a country cemetery to say words at his brother’s funeral, because even people who think words are not important wind up wanting someone to say something at the last moment. I never find it easy coming up with words I think are right, but on this occasion — because of an ancient quarrel — the man who asked me had not said a word in over 20 years to his only brother. I have no idea now what I said that day, but I do remember the poignant moment when all of us realized the tragedy of words that should have been spoken and never were. I had just said “Amen” to a closing prayer, and a very efficient man from the mortuary had just lifted the family wreath off the casket, when the living brother suddenly made a terrible cry of pain and lunged forward to fall to drape his arms over the casket.. We were so few and so close that we heard him call his brother’s name two or three times in a paroxysm of grief, and we heard him say — though I think we all wished we hadn’t — “I wanted to tell you…..I meant to say….” and then the sobs left him speechless. If you have something you need to say to someone……say it!
And how can I talk about language without reminding you of the power of certain words in the history of the church? How much of male chauvinism in Christianity has been due to its overwhelmingly masculine language in describing God? I don’t care for some of the tortured solutions, but I do everything I can to use inclusive language from the pulpit because words have an enormous influence on self-concept. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison said it best: “Be careful how you talk….it is that way!” I still remember the Sunday years ago at another church when I told a joke current at the time about an astronaut who claimed to have seen God on one of the flights into space. People were fascinated and begged him to go into detail about what he had seen. The astronaut was a little reluctant, but they pressed him. “Well,” he said, “first of all, she’s black.” It bombed. No one even chuckled. And after the sermon one of the pillars of the church asked me if I really believed God was a black woman. I said, “Of course not. No more than I believe God is a white man. But as long as we’re using words carelessly, we may as well use them with some of the wideness and balance of creation itself.”
Language may be a miss when it comes to the divine, but it needn’t always be a masculine miss. I would never advocate the neutering of language — there’s too much richness in both masculine and feminine imagery. But there is no reason why, when we don’t know the gender of someone, we should always use a masculine pronoun….yet that’s how most of us were taught to write, and therefore to think. New inclusive language versions of the Bible, and of our hymnbooks, have not always been inspired in their efforts but I am absolutely in favor of most of the changes. One of my favorite hymns, Be Thou My Vision, has a line which goes “Thou my great Father, I thy true son” — which if I were a woman singing it would make me feel rather left out. The new UCC hymnbook reads: “Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one,” which strikes me as a good way of encouraging a feeling of equal worth in both sexes. I grew up in a church where God was Big Daddy in the sky, defined by masculine and military images, and by a hierarchical structure ruled by kings. There would probably be more women present than men on any given Sunday in that childhood church, but the sermon would make references only to the “sons of God.” I understand the need to say “children of God,” and that is not a trivial change. Words alter our understanding of ourselves and our relation to others.
We also should care more than we do when politicians sin against the greatest of all human gifts by speaking muddled nonsense. One of them said not long ago, with a solemn face: “Things are more today as they are than they have ever been” — a bizarre form of gobbledegook that was meant to be comforting And then there was Brent Scowcroft who said to somebody, “That’s a good question, and let me state the problem more clearly without going too deeply into the answer.” Forgive us, Lord.
And finally, in this collection of comments about the weight and worth of words, a story I heard from Fred Craddock who has taught more students how to preach better than anyone living. I may have told it years ago, when we were downtown, but more than half of you were not with us then and it’s too good to leave out of a sermon about the power of language. “I went out to a rural church one Sunday,” Fred says, “and after I preached an elderly woman invited me to lunch. She lived alone in a huge old white house, but there were pictures of a long-dead husband and some kids and grandkids on the walls, so I knew there had once been a big family with running feet and shouts of laughter and everybody trying to talk at once at the long dining table.
“She told me to go into the den and read the paper, and in a minute I heard her opening some linen drawers and wondered if maybe I could help. I walked into the big dining room where a dozen could eat easily and saw her pull out from a chest a beautiful tablecloth with creases about two inches deep. It had obviously not been used in years, but she was putting it on the table. I wanted to make it easy for her. I said, ‘Oh, we just eat in the kitchen at home.’ She paid no attention to me, and got out some cloth napkins and silver napkin rings. I said, ‘Oh, we just eat in the kitchen at home.’ She reached up into a massive old china closet and took out her finest plates and glasses. I started to say, ‘You know, we just eat in the kit….’ but she cut me off. ‘You go sit down till I call you.’ I had sense enough at least to know she meant it, so I went back into the den and tried to read the paper, feeling guilty at having caused her so much trouble for a single guest. In a little while she called out that our meal was ready, and when we sat down she looked happily at the table and at me, and said something that explained everything: ‘We have twice as many for dinner today as we have had in years.’ She had observed the rituals of long ago, when the house was full of people and talk in hope of the blessing of language one more time. So we gathered at the table, she and I, and had a banquet, and she drank words like someone at an oasis after days in the desert.”
Do you know that sometimes just a simple hello breaks the silence of somebody’s world? That a child may remember all of her life a few words you took the time to speak? Do you know someone right now to whom, if you said the right words, it would make a real difference?
How long do you plan to wait?

Keep us mindful, Eternal God, of the way Jesus thought of words:
that we are accountable for careless and hurtful language, and
for failure to speak words of encouragement and comfort….in His name. Amen.