The power of words

I wonder whether you can remember any of the things that people said to you when you were a child.  Perhaps you remember words that had a profound and lasting impact on you. There were surely some. Many of us, perhaps all of us, have a memory of words that deeply wounded us or shaped us in ways we wish we could change. Think of the child told that she is ugly. Think of the child told that he is a disappointment. What about the child who is told that she really cannot sing. Or the child who is told that he will never make anything of himself. They might have been words spoken in haste, in rage or in a moment of madness – but they were words that shaped lives for decades. I can’t tell you how many people have told me about something someone once said to them that they just can’t forget. But how blessed are those who can remember not only cruel things, not damaging or humiliating things, but beautiful words of love and affirmation, words of tenderness and appreciation. For they grow up knowing that they are loved and that all shall be well. Even when troubles come, those who have been fed on words that bless can overcome, survive and even thrive. Whoever it was who said that words cannot harm like sticks and stones was so terribly wrong. And those who think that words are fragile and insubstantial things and can do little good in the world have not recognised that they have the power to make lives good.

G.K.Chesterton used to joke about ‘poor, chatty little Christianity’ and of course chattiness can sometimes demean the value of these treasures we have that we call words, but words themselves are rich in blessing and can redeem and ennoble and bless us. In a world where words are not always valued, or a world where words are shouted, or a world where every other word is a swear word, our faith brings new and other words into being, words that can carry blessing and peace and power. In a world where many know the word ‘Jesus’ only as an expletive, we learn that invoking the name of Jesus can heal and save – because all that he was and is comes into the room with us. The world we live in, any world we live in, is shaped and created by words. The countless words of the internet, the phrases of the advertisers and the politicians, the pages of the novelists and the playwrights. But we can choose to live in a world that is re-shaped by the words of the Gospel, by the life and message of Jesus, by what we have come to call the word of God, a word and words that re-make the world as God wants it to be.

You may remember the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast. A prince is cursed and becomes a beast as magic words take effect on him. His shape changes and he is trapped in a world that is not his own. He can only escape the spell if someone beautiful comes to love him and tells him so. And miraculously and wonderfully Beauty comes to love him, despite his ugliness, and as she makes her love plain in words that bring tears to his eyes, he is re-made. The good words break the power of the old words and he becomes himself once more. Fairy tales of course are much more than fairy tales – they tell us who we are. All of us, in some way or other, have been made beastly because of things that people have told us, because of the power of ugly and cruel words. But all of us can find healing as words of blessing are spoken and we find ourselves again. This is why Christian worship is full of words that, if we really take them seriously, can bring us so much blessing and can help us bring in our turn so much blessing to others. Many of us spend so much time worrying that we’ve said the wrong thing or not said the right thing or just couldn’t think of anything to say. But I love the way that one Old Testament scholar has suggested that what the Bible gives us is our ‘mother tongue’, a way of speaking, words to say and sing and pray, that if we really learn them and let them become our own, then they will bless us with life itself and life renewed. I want to learn that tongue and let it shape the way I speak to others and make the world. And I believe that that is possible and that that’s what God is bringing us.

The two Bible readings for today both show us – in their different ways – the vitality of words. There is something I recognise about the story of the healing of the ten lepers and of how only one of them came back to say ‘thank you’. I think this is not simply a story about the importance of being polite, about writing the thank you note after the party or remembering to say ‘thank you’ the thousand times that British people tend to say it on any given day. It’s really a story about the power of words to change our lives. The leper came back to say something – and the words he uttered revealed that he was changed not just on the outside, not just skin deep, but inside too. Christians have often said that the prayer of thanksgiving is the first kind of prayer, the kind of prayer that when we learn to say it again and again and almost from instinct, when we learn to be people who are first of all thankful – then we have somehow found life itself. Tonight, at the Walking the Way group, we will reflect on how we can nurture the art of saying ‘thank you’ in our lives – not out of politeness and not just when life is wonderful, but as a kind of spiritual temperament, a kind of language. The thankful leper, the thankful person, is the one who is truly healed. When our words are ones of thankfulness we have grasped something of the miracle of the generous and joyful life. And we bring blessing with words of thankfulness too.

The writer of 2 Timothy says that people should stop disputing about ‘mere words’, that people should avoid empty and irreligious chatter. And he recognises that the infection of false words will spread like gangrene. But he also thinks that there are some words that really matter, some words that can really help us to live, some words that are to be relied on, words like these;

‘If we died with him, we shall live with him;
if we endure, we shall reign with him;
if we disown him, he will disown us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful
for he cannot disown himself’.

 ‘This saying is sure’, he says, ‘this is saying is sure’. These words are words of truth and we can stand secure upon them. He knows that words have power, and that some words, the words of God, really can be trusted. The pen and the voice appear so insubstantial, and yet are truly mightier than the sword. A voice speaks and the words are lost to the silence. A pen writes, but the page is thin and flimsy and is all to easily torn or burned. The words in the dictionary refer only to each other and make a web of words. But of this insubstantial, flimsy and beautiful web – is the world made. And as a spider’s web is beautiful in the morning light, so is the web of words, and especially the wonder of the word of God. Saint Paul was put in irons like a criminal for speaking words about God, but the word of God itself cannot be chained, he says. No matter how many books are burned, how many prisoners are fettered, no matter how many voices are silenced or pens crushed, the word of God is free and will go on remaking the world. So, he says, let the words of God make your life new and whole.

The world is full of stories about the power of words. Scheherazade saved her life with the words she wove into a thousand stories. The civil rights leader Martin Luther King gave his dream to a generation with his extraordinary eloquence. Jesus spoke and people were healed, people were forgiven, people were freed. The wonder is to hear the words that God is speaking, to hear again the words that Jesus spoke as though he is speaking them to you. And the challenge is to take words from our faith and speak them to others – for blessing and hope. What will you do with your words?

There’s a lovely short story by a writer called Isabel Allende, a story called ‘Two Words’. Belisa makes her living selling words. For five centavos she delivers verses from memory; for seven she improves the quality of dreams; for nine she writes love letters; for twelve she invents insults for enemies. For fifty she gives the gift of a secret word to drive away melancholy. But in real life, in the stories of our lives, words come free and they also come bearing such power. I have no doubt that you will carry some wound from a time in your life when someone said something that truly hurt. I know that we are all suffering in a time when words seemed to have become crude weapons and when insults are shouted in the streets on in parliament, when words seem to have been corrupted and broken. But I want you to know that today you can hear words of blessing, words of hope, and they can heal. What will you hear? And what will you say – to bring blessing to others? You need to know your own power to do that – and the power of the faith we share to give you words to say.

In Hebrew the same word means both word and deed. To say something is to do something. I love you. I hate you. I forgive you. By my words I invite a response from you. Through our conversation we create each other. When God said, ‘Let there be light’ the sun lit up and the flames licked life into being. ‘In the beginning was the Word’. God never seems to weary of trying to get the right word, the word that reaches us, that speaks to us, that creates us again. Word after word God tries. God tried saying it in creation. God tried speaking to us in the prophets. And then God sent Jesus Christ – whom someone has described as the ‘mot juste’ of God – the word. At last God made the word flesh, and Jesus spoke and did what God required and what God meant.  In his life, death and life, God says what God is and what we are. Just as your words have you in them, your breath, your spirit, your hidden truths, so Jesus has God in him.

So of course, words are not ‘mere words’. Words make the world what it is. Words have power to create and to destroy, to wound and to heal, to give life or death. This fragile world rests on a web of words. And among these words are the words of God. Words of love, life, joy, peace and hope. And caught in the web and spinning it too – is Jesus Christ – whom we follow and listen for and speak for. The words of God in Christ will save us. I believe it is so.