When I was little, I talked all the time. On walks with grandma through the woods, I’d run ahead and turn and turn, mesmerized by the festival of the forest. Everything I saw I told her about as if she were blind. After humoring me for long enough, grandma would squeeze my hand as we poked past crimson red cardinals and cobalt blue jays, and say sweetly, “Sometimes, dear, it is best to keep our words inside.”
My big brother was a little less kind. Having had enough of me and my annoying every day questions, he brought me close and let me in on a big secret. It was one that mom and dad wouldn’t dare tell me. It would scare me too much.
“When we’re born,” he’d whisper, his eyebrows raised, “we are given a certain amount of words. If you talk too much, like you do, you’re going to run out of them. You won’t be able to talk ever again.” And then he’d point at his moving silent mouth. “Ever again.”
Sometime between this harmless sibling prank and my loving, but tired, grandmother, I learned how to watch what I said. I learned that there is virtue in being slow to speak, because words are not just expressions- they are expressions received. If they are laced in barbed-wire, they will cut. If they are impulsive, rash, hasty, they run the risk of being too raw and blunt and you may not even believe in them after a moment’s thought. And I knew that this wasn’t just for my own right conduct, but for the fact that in dark moments when things feel tender and very vulnerable, words can hurt, they can pluck at every vein in a heart.
I also learned that depending upon who you are, words weigh more. The prophet holding a sign on a street corner could be laughed off and forgotten, but the words of a pastor must enter and interrogate your mind, sterilizing the sin out of you.
I love the last thing Albus Dumbledore ever said to Harry:
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
While wreckage was still cracking and the fires were still smoldering, John Piper decided it best to drop a tweet into the feeds of his 300,000 + followers. He quoted the Bible to tell everyone that God had done this before, and it was on purpose. He left no explanation because, of course, you are only allowed 140 characters and it was better to get the truth shipped out fast even if meant no room for bubble wrapping.
Now, I don’t agree with John Piper’s theology at all. I don’t think God pressed his finger into Oklahoma and twisted it through homes and pulverized small children. But then again, I am not a theologian and I’m not talking about theology.
What I am talking about are words and their limitless power. Their ability to soften things and encourage one another. The way they can shine a light in the shoving darkness.
And also, their ability to take the knife and twist it. To sprinkle salt in the wounds. To step into someone’s grieving process and take away their ability to be mad at God. To interrupt a survivor’s private pain and rob them of the time taken to sit in the quiet and hold the loved ones they have left without being bothered by their favorite author/pastor telling them that God sent the twister.
I felt the same way last week when my pastor said something that sent me running out the church in tears. Words and body language, inside a quick puncture of a moment, made it clear that gay people will find no place here. My mom and I lamented over this, not for us, but for the families of gay folks in the church and for closeted gay kids and for the gay couple looking for a church home in their new neighborhood. Words carry weight. They injure.
But they can also mend.
They can be in a quote that a broken hearted mama hears and wraps her arms around like a buoy out at sea. They could be the one thing that carried her and her husband through the darkest days of their life. They could come in a whisper and a hug, through a phone call from far away, or through their favorite pastor’s twitter account.
To be able to speak is a privilege and a responsibility. To be able to speak from a balcony is something not to be taken lightly at all. You are one hundred times more responsible for weighing out your words before you broadcast them to the world. Furthermore, if they aren’t even your words, but the holy words, well, that’s something else entirely. That’s abuse.
The use of “holy words” should be taken with a kind of caution that checks and rechecks over and over until they are sure that their delivery will not strike at the hearts exposed. You should think about whether your intention is to make a point or provide relief, because in the darkest of moments the very last thing the world needs is a pastor taking scripture and flinging it out like an arrow.
Pastors, your words carry weight. You are responsible for them. For their correctness. For their sensitivity. For the wounds they inflict.
And if you can’t manage that, if you can’t apply the gentle words of my grandmother, then maybe it’s time to step away from the conversation altogether.
What is your reaction to Piper’s tweet? Do you think I’m off base?
As always, you can disagree, but do so respectfully.