“Oh, They’re Just Words “

July 18, 1999

Summary

“Oh, They’re Just Words “

Do you remember when you were a child, and some playmate called you by a teasing nickname, like tomboy or sissy or coward, for all the neighbors to hear, or announced to the class that most terrible judgment of all, that you were “Teacher’s Pet” — and you stuck your tongue out and retaliated with one of the few proverbs you had managed to memorize: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” It had that kind of pompous and pious sound you were used to from the pulpit on Sunday mornings — maybe it was even Scripture you were hurling at the enemy. I can remember how delicious those words tasted in my mouth and sounded to my ears, smug and superior, with a nice little rhyme and a pinch of rhythm— some-times, if the boy was bigger than I was, the only sensible defense I could come up with.
The only problem, as I found out later, was that my cute little proverb was false. Sticks and stones may break your bones all right (I had my head split open in a rock fight once) but words can totally destroy you. I think that by the time we’re grown, another proverb makes more sense — this one from Hebrew Scripture: “Many have been killed by the sword, but not so many as by the tongue” [Ecclus.28:18 ] The tongue, in that old proverb, is seen as a weapon which has maimed or killed more people than the weapons of war — all those millions in the human past who have been wounded by hateful talk, ruined by careless gossip, crippled by deliberate slander.
But it would be just as true, I think, to say that more of us have hurt ourselves , by our own careless words, than have ever been wounded in war. I was away in a war for three years, and a few times at risk, but no enemy soldier ever hurt me as much as I have hurt myself by careless words. Surely some of you now listening have said more than once, as I have, with a rueful smile or a hurting heart, “Oh, how I wish I had never said that!” I would make new resolutions: print the letters KMS, for “Keep Mouth Shut,” on the back of my hand, hoping they would help me remember — and would make me careful for a few days. One day, in a Latin class, I saw a phrase I thought might help, while still hiding my resolution from others, so I wrote VIDEO ET TACEO on the back of my hand a few times: “Look, but keep quiet.” The gimmicks would work for a while, but it helped much more just to get older, although for somebody who has had to talk as much as I do, no solution has been perfect.
The Bible, by the way, is intensely interested in the power of language. Another Hebrew proverb says, “From speaking, come both glory and disgrace” [Ecclus 5:13]. Think how true that paradox is. there was Jesus, who spoke so well people marveled at his words, and followed him into new lives of love and compassion. But there was Hitler, whose words inflamed his disciples with such diabolical fire that six million Jews, 20 million Russians, and another 25 million of assorted other human beings, died int he wars he started. It is one of the glories of speech that the Bnglish people were rallied in the worst days of World War 2 by Churchill’s ringing promise of what they might win for themselves and their children through blood, sweat, toil and tears. But we can always match the glory of language with its disgraces. The air around us at this very moment is filled with the voices of demagogues and religious fanatics, provoking people to hatred and violence every single day with that same instrument, the tongue. Words have power over our lives in ways too many to count.
I believe that so much that I used to ask Freshman classes at the University to do a rather old-fashioned thing. They had to keep a vocabulary-building notebook, and I used every trick I knew to convince them that language is power, that times would come when they would give almost anything to be able to say exactly what they meant, to find the perfect word without hurting someone irretrievably, without offending a partner or a boss, without messing things up so terribly they woulc never be put right again. Unfortunately, there is so much idle chatter in our culture, such a torrent of trivial talk on television, at parties, on the street, that we learn before we are conscious of it to regard language lightly.
If someone frets that the language is being cheapened or vulgarized, someone says, “Oh, they’re just words,” as if words are no more than floating strands of spider web. Over and over, language is disparaged. “Anybody can talk “ — “Oh, I know she said that, but…..” “What we want are deeds, not words.” We play down the power of language, that extraordinary miracle that makes us unique among the other creatures that creep and crawl and swim and fly. We fail to feel the weight of words, some heavy, some light. We downplay how sweet or bitter they can be. Deaf to their music we let them die in monotones or run our eyes past them on a page as if one were no different at all from another.
The Bible never forgets how crucial it is to take words seriously. Listen to James, warning people like Gary and me and many of you: “Not many of you should become teachers; you should know that those of us who teach will bear a greater responsibi-bility than others.” He doesn’t have to tell us why. We know. Because we talk. Because we use the tongue. And because the tongue has that enormous potential for doing good or evil. It’s one thing to ship grain or sell cars or build boxes; it’s another, and fearful thing, to spend each day of our lives using words to build bridges, to transport ideas, to comfort or inform others. What if a careless word destroys somebody’s hope, somebody’s fragile grip on self-respect? There lare days when you fret and worry for hours about words that fluttered in the classroom, floated around in church, took on a life — when they entered someone’s mind — you had not predicted.
Fortunately, although James doesn’t mention it, there are also great rewards from using words well. You meet someone in a strange city. “You probably don’t remember this,” he tells you, “but you said sometehing to me one day, 20 years ago, and I never forgot it. It changed my life.” I look at someone who says that to me on occasion, and I have to shake off an impulse to shudder at the sheer terror of living, as I have lived my whole life, in the world of words — the ones I sent into print, the ones I launched from the tongue, that organ mostly hidden, anchored so firmly at one end, not especially attractive, just a few ounces of muscle…..but O, what power it can have.
It’s when he thinks about this, that James really lets himself go. He tells us how a small bit can control a huge Clydesdale horse, how an ocean liner is guided by a relatively small rudder, how the tiny tongue, too, has power out of all proportiont o its size. Just think, he says, what a roaring fire is kindled with one tiny match, and how the tongue can be a flame, setting the world afire with mischief. I’ve wished at times that he had stressed the positive a little more — how just a handful of words can commit to a lifetime of caring. A nervous young man says, “I do,” and a nervous young woman says, “I will,” and a new family is born. Or a single word changes the climate in which someone lives. A man I know was making hospital calls one day, and ahead of him there was another man walking down the hall. If he saw a door open, he would stick his head in for a second, then walk on and to it at the next room. My friend said, “I got close enough to hear him. He was saying, “Hello.” That’s all. Each time, “Hello.” I was curious, so when he went on by, I stuck my head in to see what that did — and I saw how it went in, that single word, and straightened the covers and plumped the pillows and brought a smile to a face — just one word that said, “You are not forgotten.”
One night Jesus sat with his friends. They ate and talked, and at one point he said, “Pass me what’s left of that loaf of bread.” They handed it to him. “Is there anything left in that goblet?” They passed it around the circle. He said some words, very quietly I would think, and a supper, a very ordinary supper, became a sacrament. Because he said so….because the words he spoke were so poignant that they have been engraved on hearts and on communion tables ever since.
And there was another night, in a certain family to whom I know some of you can relate. She was the only girl, lovely and bright, just beginning to date. They were going to a basketball game in a small town only ten miles away. She said to her folks, “We’re not going to be late out. We should be back by…..well, let’s see, we’ll stop to get a Frosty at Wendy’s….we should be home by 11:30.” Who could blame her for taking every last minute before the curfew kicked in? “All right….but we will expect you here by 11:30.” 11:30 comes….and no daughter. 11:45. Mom says, “You suppose there’s anything wrong?” Dad thinks it’s best to be casual. “Oh, you know how kids are; they’ve forgotten to look at the clock.” He pretends to go back to sleep.
Midnight. “You think we ought to….to call the highway patrol?” she says, out of the tense darkness. ‘No, no,” he says, “there’s no need to get hysterical.” “Should I call the other set of parents?” “No, let’s stay off the phone; she may be trying to call us.” 1:30…..nothing. The phone rings. It’s one of the other parents. There’s a quick exchange of mutual worry and an agreement to get off the phone quickly in case the kids call. 2:30. Dad isn’t casual any longer. “If they don’t call soon, I will call the police.” His voice is unsteady; he’s up and walking the floor. 2:45. The phone rings. “Daddy……” Do I have to tell you the power of a word? “Daddy, our car broke down. We’re at this farmhouse, and a nice man’s fixing the car. This lady has fed us a bowl of soup. She wants you to talk to her so you’ll know everything’s OK.”
Just words. “Daddy, we’re here at this farmhouse.” Just words? If you’ve been there, you know better. They may not be worth anything on a stockmarket tickertape, but they’re worth $500,000 at 2:45 in the morning. Nothing is ever “just words.” Words create whole new world, change lives. “Reach out and touch someone” — the person who came up with that slogan knew where we live. “Reach out and touch someone” — with a word — and the ad shows us a pair of grandparents, the whirlwind of homelife only a fading memory, hoping for a call. shows us a girl lonely in her first big city job. Shows us a young soldier away for the first time from his wife. We watch the ad and think of the silence in which so many live, the silence of having no one. We know suddenly that when we speak, even over the phone, we throw a stone against the clear glass of silence, we interrupt someone’s world with our voice, with our presence, with the blessing of our life and our love.
I was one of those things called a “boy preacher” when I first went off to college. I think they probably should be banned, but I was one of them. I remember going out on Sunday appointments, and then after the church service going home for lunch and a long afternoon with a stranger. One day it was an old lady living alone who invited me. She showed me the pictures of her children, and grandchildren, in that big old house once filled with family, ringing with laughter. She said, in a while, “You go sit in the library and read, if you like. I’ll set the table.” I was in no mood to read. I’d been cooped up all morning. I wanted to move around. I walked in to help, and found her in the big dining room, not the kitchen. She’d opened the big china closet, gotten out the best dishes an her finest table cloth.
I wasn’t very smart, so I said, “Why don’t we just eat in the kitchen?” I thought it was the correct thing to say, so I would not be so much trouble to her. But she went right on, getting out the cloth napkins and the silver rings. “Please don’t go to all this trouble,” I said, still being a fool. A nice fool, maybe, but still a fool. “You go sit down,” she said, “till I get it ready.” And finally she called. “It’s ready.” So we went in together, and sat in the big dining room, and she said…….”I have twice as many for dinner today as I have had in months.” I caught on then to what a special day it was for her, and we had a banquet, she and I, and we talked until the middle of the afternoon. I hoped that night, driving back to college, that somewhere in the torrent of words I had managed to say a few that were right.
Isn’t it strange how many put-downs we have for language? “Anybody can talk….O, they’re just words…..” A judgment we make because so much of the time we do make language cheap. And some talk is easy. “Quit riding your bicycle across my lawn.” “How about throwing the paper on the driveway instead of the wet grass?” “You said you’d iron my shirt.” But what’s hard is talk with deep meaning. Feel things enough, and it’s harder to find just the right word. You are counseling a young woman in desperate trouble, and both of you begin to lose your voices. You shuffle your feet, move your hands helplessly. “Have you talked to your folks about this?” “No.” “Why not?” “I can’t…..I just can’t make the words come out.”
Why do we say talk is cheap, when it’s so hard, so profound, so difficult? “Hi, nice day! Think it’s gonna rain?” — that’s not hard. What’s hard is that day when I walked into the hospital room and a fine, decent man said, “Well, doc tells me it’s cancer of the pancreas, and there’s nothing he can do. I have a few weeks.” I’m a man of words. I live and die by the word. But I’ve never learned the perfect thing to say in that moment.”
I was with a family in the surgery waiting room, all of us pretending to care about our routine conversations, playing with a child who is blissfully ignorant of our deep worries. But we’re all really watching for the brain surgeon to appear with his report on the tumor. We know the word we hope for: the single word that will fill us with hope and joy. Just one word: benign. What pleasant synonyms go with that word: good, kindly, healthy. Then he’s there — the man who wears the green gown. He calls us around, starts to talk. None of us a day later could have agreed on exactly what he said first, but none of us will ever forget one word in the midst of many: malignant. It weighed a ton! It changed lives in an instant. The power of a word!
.Perhaps we begin to understand the passion of James in that famous middle section of his letter. The word that can start a quarrel, destroy a love, break up a home, begin a war…..the word that can save someone from despair, arouse a sleepy nation against prejudice and injustice, start feet marching on the way to peace and brotherhood…..the word that breaks the silence of somebody’s lonely world. Someone said to me: “You people talk so much in church. You think you’re going to change anything by talking? It won’t work. You have those conferences, you preach all those sermons….talk, talk, talk. It never amounts to anything.”
Well, not quite true. A card came to the house the other day, from a woman who wrote that some words spoken in a sermon had changed her husband’s life for the better….and therefore, hers. And somewhere, someone could be waiting for one of you to speak a word of comfort, forgiveness, reconciliation. Do you plan to do it?
The tongue, we know, is an instrument that can only play the music the mind
makes. Help us, Lord, to speak words that sing and heal and bless, this day and every day.

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