Part 1: Words Matter
“Toxic” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” for 2018. Toxic. Imbued with poison. Given the climate of our national discourse, this is no surprise. Meanwhile, on the other hand, The Christian Science Monitor reported recently that words like “love,” “kindness,” and “patience,” are being used less frequently in American life. The juxtaposition is stark. Words matter. Even in a digital age when images and emojis often replace words, words matter. They interpret but, even more consequentially, they shape our reality and experience. Words wound and they heal. They obfuscate and enlighten. They degrade and they uplift. The writer of the book of James is well aware of the power of words. He warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. But how great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire! With the tongue (words) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so!”
I am writing this series on communication over the Christmas break. At nearly the conclusion of the Christmas Eve service, after “Silent Night,” and before “Joy to the World” we proclaimed again the powerful opening of John’s gospel. “In the beginning was the Word.” As Christians, and particularly as leaders, we, of all people, know that words matter. We are followers of The Word, for Heaven’s sake! How we communicate, how we use words, spells (no pun intended) the difference between effective and transformational leadership, and ineffectual and even harmful leadership.
No, it does not surprise me that “toxic” was the word of the year for 2018. There is a poison in our national dialogue and, yes, even (though often inadvertently) in our Christian communities and many a great forest has been set ablaze in our congregations and in the communities and world we are called instead to bless. I agree with James that “This ought not to be so!” Join me over the next four weeks in examining our words, how the ways we communicate – and what we communicate – can bring more blessing than curse in the coming year.