I shared this on July 16, 2017 in the sermon series ‘Love Does’ at Church Simplified in Manila, the Philippines.
House dust mites & me
Have you heard of house dust mites? They are tiny, tiny insects that feed on dust particles (dead skin to be precise). And they thrive in old, dusty houses in England, where I’m from. They particularly love to live in carpets, curtains and mattresses. Well, in my childhood, growing up, I had no idea I was sharing a home with not only a Mum, a Dad, 3 siblings, a cat and a dog, but also a few million other critters called house dust mites. And why did that even matter? Because I was allergic to them, well strictly speaking, I was allergic to their poop. I was born in 1960, and growing up in the 60s and 70s there wasn’t the understanding of allergies that we have today. So, the fact that I sometimes struggled to breath properly, that I was so often wheezing, had a runny nose, and a lot of phlegm and mucus (sorry too much detail) in my throat and in my lungs, it wasn’t understood where this came from. I was a super shy kid, who could hardly be understood when I spoke (which wasn’t that often, especially in public). It was hard to make out what I was saying, not just because I was super shy, but also because of my wheezing voice. And of course all this struggle to communicate, plus the humiliation of not being understood, just made me more shy and insecure. My poor parents did all they could to try and help me: they sent me to clarinet lessons to try to help me breathe, they sent me to elocution lessons to try to help me speak. But these only made me more self-conscious.
In English schools – elementary through high school – every school day starts off with registration, when you’re with your class and have to say your name, or your name is called and you have to say you’re present. Sounds very simple, doesn’t it! But I can assure you, it wasn’t. Even just saying “Yes, miss, present!” I inevitably wasn’t understood the first time, and very often not even the second time.
Last week Bebs gave us powerful encouragement to be listeners. Well, during my childhood years I learnt how to become a good listener, but honestly speaking, it wasn’t because I was such a nice person. It was simply because there was no alternative to winning friends. Talking wasn’t much of an option for me.
My life vastly improved when I moved to Holland when I was 23 where they have cleaner, less dusty houses, and far fewer carpets than England. A good friend also paid for – what was then very expensive – allergy tests, and I found out the cause of my problems and could get the medication needed.
I’ll tell you a bit more about my story a bit later, but just to say here that I grew up with words being an issue for me, not the reading or writing of them, but the speaking. Just making myself understood verbally – a big, big issue. And a few weeks ago, when Bebs gave the different ideas and options on what to talk about today, the one title I really wanted to get my teeth into, and your teeth into hopefully: The power of words…
Words are actions when we speak them, write them
Sometimes words are compared and contrasted with actions as though they are mutually exclusive, ‘words versus actions’, e.g. “It’s not about your words, it’s about your actions.” But I want to take a look at how words are actions…
how our words influence others:
when we speak them,
when we write them,
when we sing them,
when we pray them;
And how words of others influence us:
when we listen to them
when we read them and
when we reflect on them.
Words are a powerful tool, with great potential for good or for bad. We see metaphors for this from the Bible, and we’ll read some of these a bit later.
Words can seem small, but are potentially very powerful. Like a flame or a ship’s rudder.
Also, like a flame or a rudder, they have enormous potential for good or for harm. A flame of fire can cook our food, provide warmth, light, protection. It can also burn our house down and everyone in it. And a rudder can steer a ship into calm waters or onto the rocks.
The harm doesn’t have to be deliberate: it can happen totally unintentionally, like a spark which sets a whole forest on fire. So too, terrible damage can be done by careless words.
We experienced that just over 22 years ago, when the careless words of a (brilliant) surgeon triggered the ‘hell’ of a nervous breakdown and what was to become seven years of depression…
The power of careless words is like accidentally setting a forest on fire.
If we knew the potential power of words, really knew this, how would our lives be different from what they are now? Growing in our understanding of the power of words means growing also in the sense of my responsibility with them. And not just in the sense of avoiding harm, for example, like a helmsman making sure he doesn’t steer the ship onto the rocks or into another ship. It also means understanding the incredible potential for good. And we need courage and boldness – as well as humility and wisdom – to use words to their maximum potential for good. Above all: Love must motivate us.
And, please understand me, I’m not talking about some kind of magic, hocus pocus, abracadabra power of words. Not ‘speaking into existence’ something that actually is not there. No, I hope in the coming minutes together we can think about words as a powerful gift from God for good: our words in action as love in action!
Negative power of words: gossip and slander
But before we talk about the good, let’s first talk about the bad.
Words can be used to have power or control over others. This can be in all kinds of situations for all kinds of reasons. One example, many years ago Paul and I knew of a Christian community where the leaders were actually severely burnt out without realizing, let alone acknowledging it, and they tried to control the group using words of judgement and condemnation. Not a good situation.
In another example, there was a local church which, years previously had split off from another church, and it was as if their foundation, was a ‘fear of going wrong again’. They also tried to control the group by using words of judgement, confrontation, and condemnation. Pretty sick it was.
I want to zero in for a moment on the roles of gossip and slander. As a child and a teenager, I thought of myself as someone who didn’t gossip about others, in fact was a bit proud of that – that I didn’t talk about others behind their backs. Also because I hardly talked at all!! So when I became a Christian at the age of 15, I assumed this was an area I didn’t need to be careful about. But at a certain point I began to feel somehow distant from God; there was something wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what at first. I started reading in the Bible for clues… And I came across this:
“Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
Psalm 34:12-14 (NIV)
And I realized in a way it was precisely because I’d assumed it was not an area of temptation for me, that I didn’t need to be careful about it. However, I’d walked right into the trap of being a gossiper with my careless, unloving words. I learnt it then. To be honest, I’m still learning it – just how easy it is to slip into gossip.
One definition of slander is: putting a question mark over the integrity of the other. And you can also do this with a sweet voice when talking about someone, and a smile on your face, even using ‘spiritual language’.
Each culture has its own unique brand of slander, gossip, ‘chismis’; its own unique way of disguising how bad and destructive slander can be.
Also the church culture can have its own brand of gossip. For example, is the info shared in a prayer chain being used to fuel our prayers or our tongues??
Any group of humans can be vulnerable to the temptation to gossip and slander. No one is ‘too holy’, also missionary groups are not.
Many years ago Paul and I worked and lived in a mission community that was really dysfunctional with the sickness of slander.
We experienced how gossip and slander lead to fear, mistrust, disunity, seeing each other as the enemy. If you want to get rid of love in a community: just sow seeds of gossip and slander!
Also if there is an atmosphere of mistrust and a ‘foundation’ of slander, then people will quickly believe the most outrageous lies about each other. We also see this on the internet. But you don’t need the internet for this. Paul and I experienced it particularly badly many years ago when we suddenly found ourselves ‘a target’ of a lie. A massive accusation was thrown at us, and the whole community assumed it was true…
Positive power of words in reading
Now I’d like to focus in on the positive power of words, looking at examples of reading, because the truth sets us free, also the truth in the words we read. They can change the course of our lives. Have you ever experienced that? There can be so many examples of this, and some in the most unexpected places.
In Young Focus we’ve had regular Saturday ‘Reading For Pleasure’ sessions running for the past couple of years. It’s been so thrilling to watch the world of literature open up for these students, and to see them develop their own personal taste in reading.
Just from my own experience, I know the power of fiction to change my life. For example, as a young child through reading the Narnian chronicles from C.S. Lewis, I came to know that God was GOOD even before I believed in Him… That made it a whole lot easier, later as a teenager, to open up my life to God for the first time.
Many of us have stories I think where we’ve read something and ‘the light has gone on’.
And, by the way, may I take the liberty of exhorting all you writers: In order for there to be good stuff out there to read, someone needs to write it! Someone like… YOU!
And of course there’s what we call God’s Word, the Scriptures, the Bible as an incredible source of truth for reading. A big example of the life changing power of words – from my Paul’s life – is reading Isaiah chapter 58. But that’s a sermon in itself and I’ll leave that to Paul to share one day! But if you haven’t read it already, I dare you to read it! It’s powerful stuff! Isiaiah 58.
“There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.”
2 Timothy 3:15-17
The truth sets us free and we are “… shaped up for the tasks God has for us”
Sticks & stones and other quotable quotes
You’ve heard this saying most likely:
‘Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’? It must be one of the biggest classic non-truths ever, right! Talk about Alternative Facts!!
This rhyme is a lot closer to reality:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words can also hurt me.
Sticks and stones break only skin
While words are ghosts that haunt me.
Pain from words has left its scar
On mind and heart that’s tender.
Cuts and bruises now have healed,
It’s words that I remember.”
The book of proverbs in the Old Testament is just FULL of great wisdom on the power of words:
“Gracious speech is like clover honey— good taste to the soul, quick energy for the body.”
“Keep vigilant watch over your heart; that’s where life starts. Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth; avoid careless banter, white lies, and gossip.”
“Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy; do you really want junk like that in your belly?”
“Words satisfy the mind as much as fruit does the stomach; good talk is as gratifying as a good harvest.”
“Careful words make for a careful life; careless talk may ruin everything.”
“The words of a fool start fights; do him a favor and gag him.”
“Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.”
Conversation and the value of our words
We kind of know words have power, don’t we, but sometimes we throw them around as if we don’t really believe it, as if they’re without meaning or value.
In conversation – let’s be people ‘of our word’, not allowing our words to become cheap by, for example, making promises we don’t actually intend to keep.
“And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.”
Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.
Let’s maintain and cherish integrity, and not slip into manipulation. Manipulators, are those who are hungry for power over others.
In fact, if my words have become cheap this can show that I actually don’t care:
This is a story Jesus told:
““Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, ‘Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.’
“The son answered, ‘I don’t want to.’ Later on he thought better of it and went.
“The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, ‘Sure, glad to.’ But he never went.
“Which of the two sons did what the father asked?”
They said, “The first.”
Jesus said, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.”
Notice that phrase “you didn’t care enough” which is actually referring to the second son in the story whose words were empty and didn’t follow through with what he said.
Caring and loving follows through. Let’s make our words count. Because we care.
Love in action is also about our conversation with others. Paul gave some conversation tips:
“The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.”
Yes, this is also love in action: how we talk to others, bringing out the best in them.
James wrote in his letter:
“Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.
A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.
This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!
My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?”
Again: words matter. They are not meant to be cheap. Let’s use words with the respect they deserve. They’re meant to be a powerful tool for good, but can so easily be used for harm.
Also in these days of social media where there seems to be so many ways to share our words. Take a moment to think and self-edit before pressing ‘send’!
Jesus: the Word incarnate and the divine power of creation
Now I want to turn to what I think is the most amazing, mysterious aspect about words: the power of creation.
(See Eugene Peterson’s introduction to John’s Gospel: First 2 paragraphs.)
God spoke the world into existence; Jesus as the Word incarnate came, expressing Who God is.
If we want to have an idea of Who God is, of what He is like – we look at Jesus. Another name for Jesus is the Word, or the Word incarnate; incarnate means embodied in human form, in flesh and blood.
Here are some verses from how the Gospel of John begins:
“The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!—came into being without him.”
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son…”
The word became flesh. The Word – from Greek “logos” – meaning whole message, apparently has the sense of both the word conceived or thought, and the word uttered. Bible scholars also get from this the concept of Jesus expressing the mind of God.
And, incredibly enough, this also points to what we can create with words – not empty words, not slanderous, poisonous, destructive words. But words of beauty, of truth, of love, that can in a sense create life.
Let’s not underestimate the divine aspect of the creative power of words!
Also in: worship where the gifts of words and music embrace; silent words of prayer; Holy Spirit gifts of prophesy and tongues.
Here’s the awesome mystery. When we talk about the power of words, it’s somehow a reflection of the divine.
Everyone’s gift: words that change our world
What about your story? How is your relationship with words? How do you experience love in action through the power of words? Each one of us is uniquely different, with our unique perspectives, unique characters, unique talents. Some of us are more comfortable and skilled with words than others. But, to one degree or another, we have ALL been given this tool of words – if only in our conversations and silent prayers.
What I would like to do today is to shake us (gently) awake to the power of this gift that has been placed in our hands, and the awesome, glorious responsibility that goes with it. Not only the responsibility to use that gift, but also to hone it, to develop it. For example, do you like writing and words, fiction, non-fiction, song lyrics as a form of art and communication? – Find outlets to express that craft. Do you want to sing, to speak? Then set time aside and find opportunities to train and fine-tune those abilities. Are you already a published writer, screenplay writer, song writer, poet, singer, public speaker, then how can you continue your journey and grow in your craft? Let us take seriously and cherish and invest in the gifts that have been given to us.
And to all of us: in our times of personal reflection, let’s have the courage to take a good honest look at our speech, our day to day conversations, how we use words, for example, to talk about other people. Within our families, or among friends, do we join in a culture of gossip? How can we very practically put love into action by the way we talk TO each other and the way we talk ABOUT each other?
Do we understand the power of words in their potential to impact us in reading? Let’s invest in our souls and minds – let’s invest time in reading!
I’d like to finish by finishing the story I started at the very beginning:
So, despite getting the right asthma medication and my allergies clearing up, actually the ‘damage’ had been done, and I continued to struggle terribly with insecurities. I continued to have one major fear, and I became a huge expert at avoiding it: speaking in public. That’s quite an achievement when you’re sent out as a missionary. But, on one trip back to England, I couldn’t run away when they asked me to the front of our small Baptist church to share my ‘latest adventures’. Standing there before all those friendly, expectant faces, and still paralyzed, struck dumb with fright… I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
I’d like to tell you about a turning point in my late 20s. There was one little moment with friends when they didn’t hear me. I responded with such a volcano of inner rage and frustration I had to go off alone and ask God why this over-reaction to such a simple harmless incident. Then I was reminded of that typical school registration scenario where I was struggling to make myself heard and understood. I realized that at some point in my childhood I had given up with communication. It was just too humiliating. And then in that memory of the classroom registration, as I was praying to God for help and understanding, I ‘saw’ in my imagination that Someone was sitting at the back of the classroom, and that Someone had always been there. And He was saying 5 words that were to change my life:
“Ann, I can hear you.”
That was a starting point of healing that is going on to this day. ‘Ann, I can hear you,’ are 5 words that are part of the reason I can stand here today in front of you and have the freedom to speak…
The scene of our failure and humiliation can become the fertile ground for the deepest blessing, grace and growth in our lives.
Much like compost, it is rotting stinky stuff, but new life grows precisely there.
Words have power, so much power for good. They are a divine gift, a divine tool for blessing. Let’s read them, listen to them, receive them, let them change our lives. Let’s use them – speak them, sing them, write them, pray them – let them change the world.