By LARRY BAKER
My words came back to help me.
No, I didn‘t muff the line. I know the cliché says, “Your words will come back to haunt you.”
I have seen it happen–words previously written, pulled out of a file folder and read for others to hear. The exchange took place between two ministers. One was on the offensive and the other under attack. The examiner, the Reverend Dr. Peacock, asked, “Brother Greene, have you changed your mind on the topic?” Brother Greene answered “No” and nothing more. The Grand Inquisitor used the answer, one he didn‘t like, to launch an impassioned statement of his position. When the exchange neared its end, Brother Greene pulled a letter from a folder, read it aloud for all in the room to hear, and finished with the writer‘s closing and name. The writer had previously expressed appreciation for Brother Greene‘s position on the topic under debate–and the writer was none other than the Reverend Doctor Peacock himself!
The Reverend Doctor Peacock‘s words had come back to haunt him!
Happens all the time. Politicians and pundits have staffers scouring articles, interviews, and speeches of their competitors with a fine-tooth comb to find words that might incriminate or undercut others. Nominees for government posts have elected officials and their aides digging through private documents, public records, and published accounts for words that might haunt their writers.
But words sometimes wing their way home with help and healing. That happened to me. More than once. I remember an occasion, years ago. I was unusually tired and disappointed in some folks and that combination plunged me into a funk. Over lunch, a friend and I talked through the matter. When we had eaten most of our food and I had said most of what I needed to say, my friend asked, “Do you remember when_____?” Then he asked, “Do you remember what you said to me?” I didn’t, but he did, and he repeated my earlier counsel. My words came back to help me!
Some of my words have come from others–the Bible, a favorite hymn, a treasured friend, a cherished book, a beloved parent–but I have tucked them away in my memory. When I least expected, they spoke up, “Hey, remember______” and the words came out like stars on a cloudless night. They had come back to help me.
Some Bible words hang in “my” room at home. My mother gave them to me when I was a college student: “l can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13, King James translation, no less) printed in calligraphy and modestly framed, a work created by a minister in her church. I have made them “mine.” As I look at them from time to time, they help me.
Words, however, can also rend the fabric of relationships and the social order. A brief look at the 20th Century puts us in touch with the Third Reich, Nazi Germany, and Adolph Hitler, who used words to attack, divide, destroy and throw the Western World into cataclysmic conflict. Or, take a look at what is taking place all around us now–in our society and others around the world. We often feel the dreadful power of words, within the church as well as outside.
I have seen an individual shatter a personal relationship with a few harsh words. Two sisters, former parishioners, took part regularly in worship — but refused to speak to each other because of harsh words hastily spoken decades before I became their pastor. Came in and went out different doors. Sat on opposite sides of the sanctuary. Encouraged me but never at the same time. All that because of some heated words.
Words are powerful. This may be why Paul counseled the Philippians: “whatever is true…. noble…. right…. pure….lovely… admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (4:8). When we have filled our minds with the likes of such and made them ours, those words will come back to help us. Words have power to change us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My words have power over my thoughts and actions. Poorly chosen words can kill my enthusiasm, shape the way I feel about myself, lower my expectations and hold me back. Well-chosen ones can motivate, offer hope, create vision.
Maybe we could make a few good words from one of David’s prayers our words: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14, NRSV ). Who knows? Maybe without warning, our words could come back–to help. We might call them lifelines.
Larry Baker is director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Hardin-Simmons University.