This is my column from the October issue of ChurchActs, the newspaper of my diocese
I've made my life with words. My training as an actor, years in radio, even today in youth ministry, they all rotate around words and how to use them. I know I've annoyed my daughter for years by actually answering the question she asked, not the one she thought she was asking. For example she'd ask to “see” the remote for the TV. I'd hold it up and then put it back. Of course she'd get irritated because what she wanted was to be given the remote, but that wasn't what she had asked. I really wasn't trying to be obnoxious (that was just a side benefit). Rather I was trying to impress on her the importance of using words the right way. Meaning using them in a way that helps us clearly communicate.
What brings this to mind is how often I hear people using words poorly. I had a co-worker years ago who, when he felt a point was debatable, would always say that it was a “mute” point rather than a “moot” point. That's one common way that we break down communication, by using words incorrectly. What is really bothering me is the attitude I've run into when I ask people if they know what they just said, or if they really meant what they just said. It's the “Whatever/I was only kidding/You know what I mean” attitude. This is the one that really drives me crazy. At it's very center this attitude says that words don't matter. In a faith where we refer to the messiah sometimes as “The Word” it strikes me that we need to take a very close look at how we treat words.
One of the places I see this attitude shine through is when young people use all kinds of negative words toward one another then just laugh it off. It's part of the culture we live in to make words into throw-aways. When we make the words we use to talk to one another throw-aways we're not far from saying that what we're describing is just a throw-away too. When we are constantly battered with negative words it can batter our self image as well. If you call someone a dork often enough it doesn't matter that you don't “mean” anything by it. It doesn't even matter if they know you're kidding or that you love them. Someone they like keeps calling them a rude name, so in their hearts they believe it must be true. The list of words I hear being used range from the pretty tame (dork, weirdo) to some that aren't for polite society or the pages of the diocesan newspaper. If you use those words because they're part of the cool, current youth culture then I'd recommend you take another look at how shallow that culture is. What's being peddled to you is all about surface image and self. A life in faith is about going deep below the surface and caring for others.
I need to note that this is not a “teen age” thing. Adults are using words in our church today designed to hurt and hinder all the time. Once we've decided to stop listening words can build a wonderful barrier to communication that keeps everyone else out. Misusing words with faith and theological underpinnings can create divisions where they don't exist and widen them where they do. As always adults need to remember that we stand as role models for our younger brothers and sisters. The model that I see often (though not always) when it comes to using words disturbs me very deeply.
Just before they begin preaching I've heard many clergy pray that their words be wholly acceptable to God. It strikes me that we need to make that a model for all our words. It's hard to imagine that God finds much satisfaction in hearing us call each other names, no matter how much we protest that we were just joking. In his letter to Ephesus (4:29) Paul reminds us to watch what we say so that all our words brings a touch of God into the lives of the listener.
In other words, words matter.