I’d just been paired with a stranger for one of those awful icebreakers at a conference in a Denver hotel.
We stood among the other pairs, politely smiling, straining to hear each other in the din of the introductions going on all around us. He was a tall man, late sixties maybe, with thinning hair and twinkling eyes.
The icebreaker? Share a moment from childhood when a teacher said something unkind to you.
In a flash I was transported to fourth grade. My teacher (I’ll call her “Miss Shields” though this was a few decades after the setting of A Christmas Story) sat at her desk, engaged in lengthy conversation with Steve, a classmate who’d just presented her with mason jar containing a marvelous gray cocoon dangling from a twig.
The two of them went on for so long that the rest of us thought we’d been granted free time to do our work or read. Some kids rose from their seats and began working out math problems on the board; others took out notebooks and pencils from their desks.
I had a report on Norway due at the end of the week, so I left the room to grab an encyclopedia from the set housed in the hall when I heard Miss Shields sternly demanding that I return to the now-hushed classroom where she waited, hands on hips, to inform me in the presence of my classmates that when she had first met me (I was a new student that year) she thought I was a nice girl, but I had proven to be a great disappointment.
Then it was my partner’s turn. He’d been a wiggly boy in kindergarten, he told me. He liked school but he struggled to sit still.
I’m paraphrasing here. I don’t recall his exact words, but I vividly recall how suddenly his blue eyes teared.
“My teacher let me know it,” he confided. “I wasn’t trying to be difficult, but one day she told me I was nothing but trouble. I felt so ashamed.”
We commiserated momentarily before the speaker who’d initiated the icebreaker directed us to return to our seats and discuss the experience with colleagues at our tables.
We were all overcome by the destructive power of words.
Later that day I spotted my icebreaker partner at the front of the room at the table designated for conference VIP’s. Just before lunch he rose to be honored for the contribution he was still making in the field of education.
As he stood receiving the crowd’s applause, I stared in wonder at the now-smiling man who’d revealed a wounded heart to me that very morning. His kindergarten teacher, no doubt frustrated with her own problems and pain, had unleashed words powerful enough to overwhelm him in the presence of a stranger in a crowded room a half a century after she’d spoken them.
Death is in the power of the tongue.
I cast my teacher as “Miss Shields” to soften the impact her words had on me once I recognized, decades after my day of shame, that it was time to forgive her.
My Miss-Shields-resentment had flipped on me many times after that fateful fourth grade day and I daily face the truth about the wounding words I’ve lodged in the hearts of others.
Who doesn’t regret some of the words they’ve spoken, texted, tweeted or hurled by some other means of destruction in what Arthur Brooks calls today’s “culture of contempt”?
Whether they were spoken to a child out of frustration, texted in anger to a spouse or sibling or ranted on Facebook to put political opponents in their place, words that debase, disrupt and divide give resentment a toe-hold in another’s heart. They cannot heal the wrong we think addressing.
I am still learning to speak and act as one who will be judged by the perfect law of Christ’s freedom.
In an attempt to change the course of my own quick tongue, I’ve recently been contemplating the life-giving power of God’s words.
This reflection came at the suggestion of a priest friend who listened to my concerns about the effect of my words. It’s been a powerful corrective, beginning at the beginning.
The first chapter of Genesis is a wondrous contemplation on the creativity of our Maker. It is our origin story, true, but it’s not clock-bound science. Parse every line in defense mode and you miss its fathomless truths about God’s character and ours.
Genesis reveals a God who speaks. At his word, creation unfolds. God’s speech is light and life, a fiat that makes it so:
“Let there be light. ” And there was light.
And God saw that it was good.
Genesis 1 rewards repeated readings for many reasons, but I was directed to merely contemplate the life-giving power of God’s word in the text.
Light (before the cosmos as we know it) is spoken into being, cleaving the darkness.
Luminous, ordered clarity enters nothingness; light is given its reality at the mere word of God.
Habitual readers of scripture will recall how many times the light of faith is contrasted with darkness of understanding. “God is light,” the Beloved disciple would write in 1 John 5, “and in him is no darkness at all.”
In the first chapter of the same letter John urges, “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another.”
Returning to the ordering of creation in Genesis 1, we see each good layer unfolding at God’s word. We recognize with the awe of the psalmist that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and that healing is found in the Word and words of God.
But how quickly Adam and Eve, once they discard their trust in God, begin destroying each other with words.
Fellowship is broken. They blame the Enemy who tempted them. They blame each other. They even blame God.
Relationships splinter, turning man against woman, brother against brother and nation against nation. The biblical narrative reflects our experience of human division so well that we sense it reveals the truth about our own fractured lives.
It reveals the truth about the division within ourselves, the reason we wound with words so easily, even when we don’t want to. Who can’t relate to the plea of the psalmist:
Set a guard over my mouth, Lord, keep watch over the door of my lips.
I feel the helplessness of the psalmist, the humility of one who sees the impossibility of perfect speech unless God perform a miracle by barricading his mouth! I am often in the same position, reeling from the damage caused by my thoughtless words.
But on the road of conversion, we can heal, gradually at least. One way to characterize the path of Christian growth is that God patiently moves us from wounder to healer as we follow God’s Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
In him was life, and that life was the light of man.
Following Christ, we find that life is also in the power of the tongue.
Christ reverses the pattern Adam and Eve set in motion. Silently he takes human flesh inside the Virgin’s womb. Even as a child, he must be about his Father’s business.
In the fullness of manhood Christ reveals himself a healer whose mere look tells us everything we’ve ever done, whose mere presence can turn water into wine.
And sometimes, because we need them, he uses words to help us see the path of holiness more clearly. Our words, he said, reveal the condition of our hearts:
The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.
He urges simplicity of speech: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything more is sin.” He warns against glib and thoughtless words: “Men will be judged by every careless word they utter.”
He simply is God’s embodied word of mercy: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”
Christ took all the destruction of our words into his flesh on the Cross. He suffered our violence that we might become healers. The resurrected Christ would send his disciples out to preach, baptize and love one another, once they received “power from on high.”
That power was given to them at Pentecost in tongues of fire.
“The spirit whom the Son sends to us from the Father on Pentecost is the Spirit of the eternal dialogue of love between the Father and the Son,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar:
He is the speech of God become a person. We are introduced into this language; until now it had been for us a mysterious foreign language, but when the tongues of fire came down upon the Church it became our real ‘mother tongue.’
That tongue is only granted through prayerful, penitent conversion.
But we can, by grace, learn its language.
St. Paul’s conversion resulted in the understanding that the ‘mother tongue’ is marked by the way it edifies, communicating grace to those who hear it.
He sternly warns against factions and gossip; pleading with the early Christians to “stop devouring one another.”
Oh yes, we do devour one another, don’t we? And if our conversations, tweets and posts aren’t any more gracious than the outbursts of an atheist, how will God get a healing word in edgewise?
Paula Huston, in her book The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life, writes about her own journey toward life-giving speech by first describing her moment of self-awareness:
I realized that behind almost every ruined relationship in my life lay words–words spoken in anger, in haste, in high and unthinking good spirits, in deception. I knew that if I were ever to become a simpler being, single-minded in my dealings with others, I would have to permanently curb my tongue.
When I recall that God spoke light into the empty void, I’m more inclined to create a silent space of prayer before hurling a death-dealing dart at another.
The blue-eyed man who teared when recalling his teacher’s words became for me a cautionary tale, a warning and a motivation lest I lodge a word against another that piercing again.
When I remember what he confided I say a prayer for his healing, for his teacher, for my “Miss Shields,” for myself and for our entire, death-dealing culture in this moment of collective pain.
The psalmist once again speaks the prayer of my heart:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Grant us tongues of fellowship-restoring fire.
Please, God, let there be light.
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Related posts: My Mother’s Finest Moment (first published as a Denver Post Colorado Voices column–shares how my mom knew how to correct a child with words that heal) and Neither Share a Reckless Rant nor Post a Mocking Meme: Give Me a Clean Heart.
Photos by Eric Ward and Clay Banks on Unsplash. Public Domain photo courtesy of Pixabay. Flammarion engraving, Hofmann’s Jesus Speaking to the Multitude and The Descent of the Holy Spirit (unknown author) courtesy of Wikipedia.