Pastor: ‘It’s time to check our most dangerous weapon — words — at the door’

By the Rev. Susan Sparks

My husband and I were recently on a motorcycle trip in Yellowstone National Park. Somewhere near Yellowstone Lake, I had an unfortunate collision with a bug at 70 mph. I will spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that the collision required a visit to the local hospital in Cody, Wyo. On the front door of the clinic was a sign that I’ll never forget: “Check your weapons at the door.” This might sound a bit extreme for a hospital, but it’s not so extreme for life.

Forget the nukes and the weapons of mass destruction. We are in a linguistic arms race that simply must stop. It’s time to check our most dangerous weapon — our words — at the door. As the book of Proverbs warns, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it shall eat its fruits” (Proverbs 18:21).

Understand that the power of the tongue includes written words, too, such as texts, emails and posts. In fact, one of the most dangerous arms races is the Internet, where warfare is carried out by some of today’s lowest life forms: cyber bullies. These are people who are too cowardly to fling their vitriolic weapons, unless they can hide behind a screen.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of words that sting us like a bug at 70 mph — words that rip relationships and families apart, words of prejudice and hatred, words of defeat (“you’ll never make it”) and derision (“you’re not good enough”).

We’ve all been on the giving end, too, guilty of damaging others with our words in one form or another. Sometimes, we treat words like I cook spaghetti: in short, sloppy. I’ve never been an exacting kind of cook. I simply throw the noodles against the wall and see what sticks. As you can imagine, I have a pretty messy kitchen.

But, unlike spaghetti, words always stick, and we can’t take them back. It’s probably the one time in life we wish we possessed autocorrect — the annoying automatic spellcheck on smartphones that changes words to things we never meant to type.

So, what can we do? One quick and easy solution is simply to shut up. In my prior life as a trial lawyer, I had a case in which a judge sanctioned a large commercial bank for sending inappropriate dunning notices. After presenting several hours of testimony about the reason that the giant mainframe could not be prevented from spitting out these notices, the judge leaned over the bench and asked, “Well, why don’t you just unplug it?”

Sometimes we need to unplug our mouths. We need to seal our lips and listen. The Psalmist wrote the same thing: “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalms 141:3).

Of course, it’s easier said than done. We love to tell others what we think, to lecture about what is right and wrong, to weigh in and teach the world all the things it needs to know. This fact is ironic, given the old saying that “We teach what we most need to learn.”

Recently, I opened a fortune cookie that offered this maxim: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” Words are only one part of a conversation. Our hearts also speak through our eyes, facial expressions, gestures and intonation. But we’ll never hear the fullness of what’s being said, unless we close our mouths and listen. The author Anne Lamott offers a simple yet powerful solution. She suggests that, in any conversation, we incorporate this acronym/question: “W-A-I-T” or “Why Am I Talking?”

Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that our words can change the world. Recently, I sat with a family member who was about to have surgery. Our doctor entered with a smile and a joke. He was upbeat, positive and encouraging, putting both of us at ease. Sadly, our suitemate on the other side of the curtain had a difference experience. Her doctor offered these words first: “This is the most painful surgery I perform, and you are going to hate me for months after this.” His words hit like a sledgehammer, breaking apart his patient’s confidence and hope.

Here is another example. Last fall, I was walking through Madison Square Park in New York City, watching a father play catch with his tiny son. After a few missed catches, the father basically dropped the ball into his son’s glove and exclaimed, “Good job! I am so proud of you!” The child glowed with joy. It was like putting a positive footprint in the wet cement of that little boy’s psyche.

With every word we speak, we can change the world. The question is this: Will we change it for better or worse? I suggest we start our own arms control. Let’s monitor our mouths and take responsibility for what we say. Let’s change the world for the better by checking our most powerful weapons — our words — at the door.

The Rev. Susan Sparks is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church, New York City.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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