The Power of Words
James 3:1-12, September 13, 2015
Last summer I taught a class at Synod School called “Humor: Tool or Weapon?” This topic was recommended by someone who took my class the summer before, which was called “Laughter’s Healing Art.” This person wanted some guidance and instruction in how to use humor well. She’s seen leaders who could use humor naturally, but in her case, she found it just wasn’t one of her skills. I got to thinking about that. And, it’s probably no surprise that I use a lot of humor in everyday situations. I’m certainly comfortable laughing at myself…and yet I can also tell a lot of stories about times when my attempts at humor have not been welcomed, effective or, to be honest appropriate. I identified myself as a “recovering humor addict,” in the course catalogue.
At the first meeting of the class I asked what people were hoping to learn and most of the students told stories about how they had hurt people with humor and been hurt by humor and wanted to understand its power better.
I believe one can say the same thing about words—that words can be tools or weapons. James makes that point as well, about our tongue, “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” There is enormous power in what we say, and even more power in how we say what we say.
Last month at my Rotary meeting the speaker was talking about mediation and how people communicate. He reminded me of something I’d heard before: only 7% of what we communicate is the words we use. The other 93% is conveyed by our tone of voice, intonation and body language. I need to repeat that, because it’s amazing 7% of our meaning is communicated by the words we use.
Sometimes when I’m coaching someone who’s getting ready to preach I share this fact. What it means to me is that a preacher should give a lot more time and attention to delivery than content. And yet, the words are what we have the most control over. I can remember spending whole Saturdays pouring over the text of my sermon, changing commas to semicolons and back to commas, when I should have been spending time on presenting, delivering my message.
Have you noticed how blunt email is? I feel like every email message I receive is inmyface! That’s because all email sends is the words, stripped of body language and intonation, the words just feel like blunt instruments. That’s why people add emoticons, to soften the harshness that words alone convey. I find that I usually write a very short response to the question someone has sent me, and often have to add a little “shrubbery” at the start or end of the message, something like, “I am so glad you remembered this…” or “It was kind of you to remind me…”
When I lived in Chicago there were posters on the el cars that I rode in that I will never forget. I looked for them on line this past week and couldn’t find them. I’ll have to describe these public service announcements, I cannot remember a more effective, more memorable poster. It showed a blackandwhite photo of the face of a child, about 7 year old, with tears streaming down his face. The message simply said, “Words hit as hard as a fist—watch what you say.”
We talked about words and their power to build up and tear down at Bible Exploration on Tuesday. Here’s one of the reasons words have so much power—we can recall them and re-experience their impact forever. Compare that to physical pain. I remember times when I have hurt myself badly and suffered serious physical pain…I can remember those times, and I can say, “I was in a lot of pain then,” but in remembering that pain, I do not re-experience it. That’s different from words that have hurt us, insults someone has thrown at us. I grew up saying “Sticks and stone will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but I know now that that simply is not true. Words can be recalled, memories of humiliation can be relived. James is absolutely correct, our tongues are very small, but like a tiny spark can start a forest fire, the words we say, and how we use those words, can do great damage.
Some of you may remember Faith Robertson, she was a member of this church who died almost two years ago. She told me a story about a time when she was hurt by words as a child that really made me see the power of words—and also to change the way I use words. When she was about 10, Faith took piano lessons and her teacher said that a student should sit down at the start of the lesson and play the piece they were assigned the prior week without pauses or mistakes. Sit down and play perfectly was the teacher’s expectation. One week Faith worked really, really hard and nailed her practice piece, she played it perfectly, no pauses, no skips, no mistakes. And her teacher said, “You could have been doing that all along if you’d applied yourself.” That was Faith’s last piano lesson. And more than 60 years later, the teacher’s comments still were painful.
I’ve been that piano teacher. I’ve been that piano teacher to my own sons. I put myself in the piano teacher’s place, and imagine saying instead, “That was marvelous!” “I knew you could do it!” “I can tell that you worked really hard!” “I am so pleased with the progress you’re making!” And the first thing you say is really, really important.
A woman at my last church used to be a counselor for troubled middle school and high school students. It was demanding and stressful work. I’ll never forget the one unbreakable rule she used in her work—always be sure that the first thing you say is positive. Even if that means you say something like, “I can tell by the way you’re swinging from the light fixture that you’ve got really strong arms.”
Sometimes I say, “What a great start!” instead of “Look at what you didn’t do.”
I know no one is always at their best. Every one of us has said things we didn’t mean to cause pain, and every one of us has said things we regret. I don’t think I need to make that point again. You can recall things you wish you hadn’t said. You all know that your tongue can curse and diminish as well as bless and praise.
So I’m going to spend the next few minutes describing the positive power of words. Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Have you ever given someone a compliment and have them turn it away? We’re modest and humble in the Midwest and the last thing we want to do is to look vain or arrogant, so it’s our natural tendency to deflect praise. Generally, that’s a good, healthy approach to take, the star quarterback thanks his blockers, the award-winning actress thanks the people who supported and encouraged her. But one-on-one, in face-to-face encounters, I believe there’s a skill, maybe even an art to accepting a compliment. And when compliments are accepted, everyone feels better. When my appreciation for someone else’s attention or good service is dismissed by “it was nothing” or “whatever,” I am diminished. So there are times when I’ve been intentional, or insistent or even forceful, in getting my praise to penetrate someone else’s bullet-proof Midwestern modesty. I start playfully, but there’s a much deeper intent—I want my words to make this person feel appreciated and recognized—and their acceptance of my praise honors me as well.
At breakfast at the last day of Synod School I was talking with a couple other pastors about self-deprecating humor. I wondered aloud, what’s the opposite of being self-deprecating, or really what do you call it when you deprecate someone else. And I realized there’s a word for that: “mean.” Now close friends can tease one another, and use more sarcasm with one another than strangers, but even among friends there are limits.
But I want to close with this thought, and this is the part about the power of words I hope you’ll wrestle with this week: Many of us are so self-deprecating that we talk ourselves down. A woman in my class this summer told about how a friend of hers said, “Don’t talk about my friend that way!” after she had said something self-deprecating. See, the notion that the words we use, which have the power to curse and bless, also applies to the ways we talk to ourselves internally.
Do not forget that you’re made in the image of God. Do not forget that you are precious in God’s sight. And let those compliments that fed Mark Twain feed you as well. Amen.