Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Power to Bless*

Frederick Buechner, in his book The Alphabet of Grace, speaks softly and poignantly of his experience of acknowledging in the most awkward of circumstances his call to ministry.

In an elegant house on Long Island one summer Sunday, down a long table cluttered with silver and crystal and the faces and hands of strangers, my hostess suddenly directs a question to me. She is deaf and speaks in the ringing accents of the deaf, and at the sound of her questions all other conversation stops, and every face turns to hear my answer. “I understand that you are planning to enter the ministry,” she says. “is this your own idea, or have you been poorly advised?” I had no answer, and even if I’d had one, it wouldn’t have been shoutable, and even if I’d shouted it, she couldn’t have heard it, so the question was never answered and thus rings still unanswered in my head.

What is striking about this is the fact that Buechner, after all the intervening years, is still doing business with those words, is still wounded by them. In another place, he admits that the woman who uttered them meant “no real harm,” yet her words wound still. Why? Why do words, mere words, have such power over us?

Maybe they shouldn’t. After all, they’re just words. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Words are insubstantial, immaterial, even trivial. You can’t weigh them, though sometimes, I observe, we speak of “measuring” them. The great Christian poet, T. S. Eliot, talked not only with words but about words, especially in his Four Quartets:

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

At their simplest, words are symbols, a way of talking about one thing in terms of something else. Someone has said that the mind is like an art gallery with pictures hanging on the wall, and underneath each picture, a little plaque with a name describing what is pictured above. And so when I say a word, what you see is a picture, not the word underneath. When I say “book,” what you see is a volume, not the letters B-O-O-K. And so it goes. I say a word; you get a picture. “Doctor,” “senator,” “southerner.” As I say the word, the picture appears hanging on the wall of your mind just above the word. The problem is, that when we speak to each other, we assume that the picture I have hanging on the wall of my mind above the word I am using is exactly the same as the one hanging on the wall of your mind; but it isn’t! That’s why ambiguity and misunderstanding cling like barnacles to our words and encrust our speech with confusion. That’s why we say so often, “No, no, no. That’s not what I meant at all!” That is, wrong picture!

Words, it seems, are fickle, flexible, slippery things that are difficult to get a handle on. Perhaps that’s why words have become so cheap, so discredited in our culture: “Ah, it’s just hearsay.” “Talk is cheap.” “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words….”

But there’s another word about words. Words are a form of power, and like all forms of power (physical, financial, political, social), words can be used to bless or to curse, to heal or to injure, to save or to damn. “Daddy, I love you.” “I want a divorce.” “Mommy, I’m hungry.” Feel it?

When I was in my first pastorate, I was called late one night to the ER by one of my members who happened to be the ER nurse on duty at the local hospital. She had asked me if it would be okay to call me should there ever be a need for pastoral care for someone who didn’t have a pastor. I said: “Sure.” She met me at the door and on the way to the waiting room filled me in about what I’d find when I got there. It seems a young couple had just brought their infant son to the ER with difficulty breathing. “Blue baby,” I think is what they call it. SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome. Huddled whispers in white corridors greeted us as we arrived. The ER physician asked if I would go in with her to tell the couple that they wouldn’t be taking their baby home that night. We walked in and found them folded together frightened children. Instinctively they stood when they saw us. And clearing her throat, the doctor let them go into the room – seven little words – “I’m sorry,” she said. “We did everything we could.”

“Sticks and stone may break my bones but words….”

“I give you my word,” we sometimes say. And despite all the years of cheap talk and the devaluation of linguistic currency in our culture, that’s still a heavy expression: “I give you my word.” Feel it? That’s because words are a form of power, and like all power, they can be used to bless or to curse, to wound or to heal, to save or to damn, to give life or to take it.

In her powerful and moving novel, St Maybe, Anne Tyler tells the story of Ian, a young man who’s eaten up with guilt because he wrongly accused his sister-in-law of having an affair. She hadn’t, but he spread the vicious gossip anyway. His brother, believing Ian, became so despondent that one night, he went outside and blew out his brains. Ian is haunted by the guilt of what he’d done that he cannot undo. He can’t sleep; he can’t eat. “Oh God,” he pleads, “how long will I have to pay for a handful of tossed-off words?”

That’s why James, Jesus’ half-brother who knew full well just how seriously Jesus took our words, warns Christians with the words: “Let not many of you become teachers; my brothers and sisters, knowing that we shall be judged with the greater judgment.” He continues: “For we all fail much. But if anyone does not fail in any matter, this one is a perfect person about to bridle even the whole body. But if we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we [thus] guide their whole bodies. Notice also the ships, [though they are] impressive and driven by stout winds, they are guided by a little rudder wherever the will of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a little member but boasts great things. Behold a small fire engulfs a great forest. And the tongue is a fire!”

James’ Jewish-Christian background is probably behind his warning about the high stakes of teaching. In Judaism there was no more sacred office than that of rabbi, teacher. And since words are the teachers’s trade and the tongue his tool, James reminds the teacher to choose his words wisely, because words exercise a power disproportionate to their size and substance. Just as it only takes a little rudder to steer a big ship, so also just a few well-chosen, or ill-chosen, words can bless or curse.

Le mote juste, the French say, “Choose just the right word.” That’s good advice, for man or God. And so, John says, when God wanted to bless us, He chose le mote juste, and let it go: “In beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, tells a story about the power of words, sometimes despite and beyond the limitations of the speaker. She writes:

It was January, bitterly cold and windy, on the day that I joined the church, and I found that the subzero chill perfectly matched my mood. As I walked to church, into the face of that wind, I was thoroughly depressed. I didn’t feel much like a Christian and wondered if I was making a serious mistake. I longed to take refuge in Simone Weil’s position, that her true religious calling was to remain outside the church. But that was not my way. I still felt like an outsider in the church and wondered if I always would. Yet I knew that somehow, in ways I did not yet understand, making this commitment was something I needed to do.

Before the service, the new members gathered with some of the elders. One was a man I’d never liked much. I’ll call him Ed. He’d always seemed ill-tempered to me, and also a terrible gossip, epitomizing the small mindedness that can make small-town life such a trial. The minister had asked him to formally greet the new members. Standing awkwardly before our small group, Ed cleared his throat and mumbled, “I’d like to welcome you to the body of Christ.” The minister’s mouth dropped open, as did mine – neither of us had ever heard words remotely like this come from Ed’s mouth. Like distant thunder, the words made me more alert, attuned to further disruptions in the atmosphere. What had I gotten myself into? I was astonished to realize, as that service began, that while I may never like Ed very much, I had just been commanded to love him. My own small mind had just been jolted, and the world seemed larger, opened in a new way.

Ed’s words, those few, simple words of welcome, had power. Like the sacrament of baptism, they seemed to have made an indelible mark on my soul. And they had real import for me during the service. As I went forward on shaky legs to the front of the church, to join the others who were becoming members that day, my eye happened to catch the disbelieving and most unwelcoming expression on the face of a younger woman, an extremely conservative member of the congregation. Absurdly, my mind jumped to that classic Western movie line: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” I felt a twinge for her, for both of us, as I didn’t want to be there, doing this, any more than she wanted me to be invading her sacred turf with my doubts, my suspect Christianity, so unlike her own. I nearly turned around. But I couldn’t because I had just been welcomed into the body of Christ.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…just words…can sometimes heal me.”

“Let not many of you teach!” said the teacher. But please, let some. And let them use their words well. Because words are power, and like all power, they can be used to bless or to curse, to wound or to heal, to save or to damn, to give life or to take it.

And if you choose them well, and use them wisely, and speak them truthfully, you will bless and not curse, heal and not harm, give life and not take it.

I give you my word.

*The following is a sermon I preached on Sunday School Emphasis Sunday at the church where I currently serve as Intentional Interim Pastor. A version of this sermon was published in RevExp 97:2 (Spring 2000).


BellsOn said...

As a teacher, I thank you. I often teach about the slipperiness of language, but it's good to be reminded to contemplate the words I use.

Dorcas Carner Burrus said...

Dr. Stacy,
I am grateful that you have addressed this subject, though I am reading it a few weeks late. I do so love the book of James, as he does tell it just like it is. The tongue truly can be a unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

Though I have been a Christian for 46 years, I must admit that I have, in the very recent past, been guilty of offending by not adequately bridling my tongue. I posted a conversation, which was meant to be private (which would have been bad enough), but I accidently posted it publicly. I have already apologized and been forgiven by this person; I have asked the Lord for forgiveness, and I know He has been faithful to forgive. If only people could forgive as easily as He... My real problem is I cannot forgive myself, leaving me ashamed to the point of deep depression. I have certainly learned my lesson from this bad experience and hopefully shall not be guilty of such again.

I just want to thank you for bringing this lesson to our attention. Most people consider other sins, such as murder, adultery, robbery, etc., more vile than dangerous gossip or sharpness of the tongue. However, once those words are spoken, they cannot be taken back.

Thank you again.

In Christ,