Words matter. I read the following this past week on Facebook and had a good laugh. “In case of volcanic eruption, you will hear mermaids. Do not ignore the mermaids; they are there for your safety.” Well, this was a Google translation #44a. The word translated into mermaid was serinas from the Spanish. The word siren then was translated into mermaid. Well, we know where that translator’s head was, don’t we? Doesn’t it make much more sense when we hear: “In case of volcanic eruption, you will hear sirens. Do not ignore the sirens; they are there for your safety.” Words matter.
Do you remember the childhood response to name calling and bullying? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?” I wonder, is that lie still being used today?
In the long view back to my childhood I remember the hurtful taunts and nicknames hurled in my direction. I remember talking to my mother about this and her response to this bullying was to tell the name-callers that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
So the next time I was verbally abused I said: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. So there!” And I tried to be brave and tried to show what they said did no damage, but these taunts were painful. Obviously they hurt me because 60 years later I can remember them.
Wikipedia.org informs us that “in The Christian Recorder of March 1862, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, presented this ‘old adage’ in this form: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.”
The article does not mention the reason for the publication but a couple of things I think, are significant. First, the African Methodist Episcopal Church is primarily an African American congregation. This publication was written three years before slavery was abolished in the US in 1865. Physical and verbal abuse was not unknown to this community. Still isn’t.
What I really like about this 1862 version is not that words will never hurt me, but that words will never break me. There is a world of difference in those two words. The statement: “Words will never hurt me,” has never been true. If we buy into that adage, we buy into a denial in a grand scale. But there is a definite positive spirit to the statement that “Words will never break me.”
Do I remember being the bully and name-calling others? Yes, but I’m not sure if it was in retaliation, self-preservation or just plain meanness and wanting to fit in with others who taunted. One of the taunts I remember casting about was calling someone who wore glasses, four-eyes.
I do remember when I was in 5th grade and there was a new kid in school. He was an adult sized fifth grader. I remember he tried to be friendly with me, but I wasn’t having it – friends with a boy – no way. I remember how he never seemed to hang out with anybody. And I remember a day during recess break where we made a wide path around him as he was sobbing on the ground because he had been taunted one time too many.
I have thought of that boy through the years. I see him prone on the hillside sobbing and I can’t even bring his name to mind. And when he does come to mind so does my sense of shame at being one of those who, while I never taunted him, never showed him the friendship he asked for nor the courage to help stop the bullying.
Words matter. They can hurt us, wound us, and curse us. They can heal us, help us, and bless us. Words matter.
Barbara Brown Taylor, (Feasting on the Word, Homiletic Perspective, James 3:1-12) writes about “the harm done to congregations and communities by practitioners of loose speech. Call it tongue toxin. Speaking of the harm small things can do, there is nothing quite so devastating as a carefully placed interrogative. Here is how it works: after someone has praised another person in your presence, telling you how much that person’s example of faith has meant, you cock an eyebrow and say, ‘Oh?’ That is all it takes to introduce doubt. That is all it takes to lay a match to the dried twigs at the base of a redwood tree. In this same vein, tongue toxin is at work when people of faith indulge in glib speech, making what is difficult sound easy, or what is mysterious sound plain.
Brown Taylor continues by quoting James: “For all of us make many mistakes.” “Whether we mean to or not, we construct worlds with speech. Describing the world we see, we mistake it for the whole world. The cure for all of these tongue toxins, James suggests, is the steady practice of faith – to love the neighbor as the self is the way of wisdom, in this world and the next.”
James’ concern about what we say was real when he wrote his letter, and unfortunately, all too real today. No matter which side of the political divide you may support, I think we are all tired of lies, lies, and more lies. When in the world did lying become a national pastime and apparently a new normal? I’m not even sure that liars know any more that they are lying. Maybe a new 12-step group needs to be started called Liars Anonymous.
Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto, THE BLOG, 9/12/2012 (huffingtonpost.com) also reflected on James’ letter. “Words are potent weapons in the hands of those who crave their power. In short, words are harmful whenever we wield them for our own gain and not the building of others. We are witnesses to such harm most tangibly during election season. [As the day of voting] looms, our airwaves are flooded with advertisements that dally along the line between truth and fiction.”
Barreto continues, “Dishonesty has a corrosive effect on both its speaker and hearer. Such words weigh us all down. Mendacity is not a partisan attribute. That the other side has lied does not justify the mendacity of those we tend to support. Accusing the other side of deception furthermore hides a critical insight of James. The destructive power of words is insidious and infective. The more we are inundated with it, the easier it is to slide into the corrosive but easy discourses that sever relationships. In the end, James suggests that there is never a relationship between humans and God which is not at the very same time manifest and embodied in our relationships with our sisters and brothers.
In James , sin, suffering and illness are communal hardships just as much as they are individual ills. Their alleviation is affected through communal liturgies as much as personal confession. We are links in an unbreakable chain. What if the ancient insights of James were to stir in us a new politics [as we approach the voting booths] this fall? What if we were to turn our words to a single, holy purpose? What if we were to turn away from the expediency of duplicity and to the glaring power of truth and love? What if we simply stop denying the destructive force our words can carry in their wake?”
Words matter. Words matter in our homes, in schools, in the work place, in coffee shops and bars, grocery stores, street corners, and politics. Words matter. Part of my daily prayer before I go out the door in the morning is: “Please God, please, please, please, help me keep my mouth shut when I am about to say something stupid or inappropriate or harmful. It took me a while in my own life to realize that my words matter. Your words matter too. Being aware of their potential impact on the other person or group you are speaking with is important. Will they be a blessing or a curse?
James certainly had a way with words and he certainly liked to use colorful imagery about trying to tame this small member that does great damage. I’m not sure he was always successful – like we can tame a wild tiger. Ummm? There are many things we can’t tame and the storm in the photo depicts one of those things. We may not be able to completely control the tongue, but we can be aware of our words and the impact they have. We can stop, take a breath and be mindful of what we are about to say before the mouth runs off without engaging the brain.
James is pretty hard on teachers, expecting them to be better role models to all they meet. In this context, however, we are all teachers by our words and examples. We are all challenged by James’ words. “The tongue,” he wrote, “is a fire – but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless God and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
James did not have the wisdom of 12-step groups to draw from. Knowing the poison of addictions, 12-step groups help to tame whatever the addiction may be, even though the desire of that addiction is still lurking just below the surface. That is why 12-step programs use the word recovery and not cure. Many lives has been saved through these programs. My sister’s included. Maybe we should start a new 12-step group called Liars Anonymous.
The Serenity Prayer, written by theologian, Reinhold Niebur, is used in an abbreviated form at meetings. These are words that help to remind us of the wisdom we already have in choosing our actions and words, and they do lift us up and they do bless us. I close with this abbreviated prayer this morning:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen and amen.
Copyright DMC 2018