If we priced and valued words as we do commodities, on the basis of supply and demand, then words would be dirt cheap these days. There are more words available in the cultural marketplace than ever before: round the clock television news and talk radio, stacks and stacks of newspapers and magazines, countless web sites and endless email. Words are plentiful and common. They’re like store brand canned goods and imitation jewelry; it’s hard to find quality words that satisfy our taste for truth and lovely words that meet our need for beauty. Words that matter are hard to find and priceless.
We live in the age of hype and spin, sound byte and take away lines. Words get used to conceal more than to reveal, to obscure rather than to clarify, and to coerce more than to persuade. Straight talk and plain speech are in short supply.
So, it’s easy to conclude that words don’t matter very much—to think that what we say evaporates as soon as we’ve said it. Christianity, drawing from its deep roots in Judaism, offers a very different view: words have great creative or destructive power.
Words are the origin of everything: “In the beginning was the Word,” the Gospel of John claims, which means, in part, that there are no beginnings without words. God made the world with words: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Over and over again in Genesis 1, that’s what we hear: “God said, and there was. God said, and there was.” The word is the source. Words create, make things happen, and set things in motion: “I pronounce you to be husband and wife.” “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” “I love you.” “I believe in you.” “I forgive you.” “I’m here for you.” “I understand.” Other words have destructive power: “We find the defendant guilty as charged.” “Crucify him.” “I want a divorce.” “I can’t trust you any more.” “I’m sorry; we did all we could.”
Because words have power, they matter greatly, and we are called to a wise stewardship of them.
We use them to lift our voices in praise to God, and to lift one another up with encouragement. We use our words to affirm and heal, not to dishearten and discourage. We use our words to bless. Poet Stanley Kunitz, once said that a blessing is “like rapture breaking through on the mind.” The right words from the right person at the right time can impart joy and peace, even in times of upheaval and seasons of struggle.
I’ve written about this before, but it was such a pivotal experience for me, I’ll mention it again. A long time ago now, I got in hot water because of an unpopular position I took on the issue of race. I was getting some crank calls with thinly-veiled threats about what the callers intended to do about the trouble-making preacher who had moved into town. I’d like to say that I was courageous enough that none of it bothered me, but I was scared almost to death. Late one night, when I couldn’t sleep, the phone rang, and I just knew that, on the other end of the phone, would be still another angry voice. Instead, it was the voice of my friend, Mack Charles Jones, and all he said was, “Hey man, I’m here.” As far as I am concerned, Mack spoke directly for God that night. He blessed me. To this day, when I am anxious and worried, I hear God say to me, in Mack’s voice, “Hey man, I’m here.” They’re just words, but, sometimes, words are almost everything.