Your Words Matter (Rev. Dr. Charley Reeb)
In Matthew 5:9, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
For many people, the Broadway play The Elephant Man is one of the greatest Broadway plays ever produced. The play is based on the real-life of John Merrick, a man who lived in London in the late 19th century who was severely deformed – so deformed that he actually was a side show for the circus that would travel through town. He was relentlessly teased. Mobs would chase him and throw things at him.
There was a happy ending to his story. There was a time when he was being chased by a mob, and a police officer and a train conductor grabbed him, put him in a room, and barred the door, making sure the mob didn’t get to him because they were so threatened by how he looked. Dr. Travis showed up and rescued Merrick and turned him from being an object of pity and scorn to a respected member of the community.
I’m particularly touched by a scene in The Elephant Man that comes up in my mind, my heart, and my soul quite often. Merrick is sitting in that room, being barricaded from the mob. He’s crying out, but the train conductor and the police officer don’t understand what he’s trying to say. At one point he actually says, “Jesus,” but they don’t make it out. And then Dr. Travis shows up and something comes out of Merrick from the depths of his soul that anybody could make out. He simply cries out, “Help me, help me.”
There’s something about that story and there’s something about those two words that resonate with me. There are many people in our world who are screaming out, “Help me!” Many people in our community are screaming out, “Help me!” The world is screaming out, “Help me.”
As we hear the cries for help in the world, we have a choice. Are we going to be helpful or hurtful. Are we going to be troublemakers or peacemakers? Are we going to tear down or are we going to build up? Because make no mistake about it, folks, those who divide and those who tear down, they’re doing the devil’s work, but those who bring peace, unity and healing, are doing God’s work.
There will always be those people in the world who do nothing but tear down. If they’re not in the midst of a quarrel, they’re causing a quarrel and they are doing the devil’s work. But there are also always those people who bring peace and light to any situation. There are not enough of those folks in this world.
The central question of today’s message is: Are we going to be peacemakers or troublemakers? Which one are you? I’d like to form this message around a few choices.
The first choice is this one: We can encourage or we can discourage. It’s as simple as that. Are you an encourager or are you a discourager? I love the Psalms.
Psalm 39:1 King David cries out, “I will bridle my mouth.” He says that to God, “I will bridle my mouth.” And you can even sense in that psalm that David is struggling with keeping his mouth shut. For David knew the wisdom of Proverbs 18:21:
“The tongue has the power of life and death and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
Our words matter. Our words have power. They can build up or tear down. They can make someone’s day or ruin their week. It should give us pause, or, as David said, we should “bridle our mouths.”
Growing up my mom would often say to me, “Charley, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Unfortunately, many of us follow another version of that advice, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit next to me!”
Words have the power to encourage or discourage – to build up or tear down. And this not only applies to the words we say but also to the words we post on social media. Are we bridling our Facebook posts? Do we think twice before we post things that discourage and tear down?
I’ll be honest with you. The world has had enough of those who tear down. The world has had enough of criticizers. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people are crying out to be encouraged to be built up, to be affirmed.
I think criticism is overrated. Oftentimes, criticism is couched in very righteous ways. But let me ask you this, are you ever excited or feel good about yourself when someone comes up to you and says, “You mind if I offer you some constructive criticism?” How do you feel when people do that? Now, I’m not saying there’s not a time to be objective and evaluate matters, but generally those who habitually going around saying, “I want to give you some constructive criticism” are trying in some way to tear down, not build up.
So, what have you chosen lately? Are you an encourager or a discourager? Are you doing God’s work or the devil’s work? The interesting thing is many people have it backwards. There are folks in the who feel like they’ve been divinely appointed to criticize, to tear down, to discourage, and they do it rather righteously, and they think that God has appointed them in to bring all kinds of criticism and negativity into a person’s life. It’s very sad.
James Moore talks about a situation that many preachers can relate to when he was a young pastor and he moved into a new church. He did this during the time when pastors lived in parsonages. We don’t have many of those now. There are a few remaining, but most pastors have housing allowances. But back then Moore was moving his family into a parsonage into a new church, and they moved in about noon and they sat down at the dining room table to eat their first lunch in the home they just moved into when there was a knock on the door about 12:15pm. And who was it?
Well, it was a lady from the church who had brought over a casserole, but after she put that casserole down, she sat down with Moore and his family and she began to talk about his predecessor and all the things he did wrong. She criticized him for doing this. She criticized him for doing that. She went on and on and on and told James he needed to fix these things. And, of course, James tried his best to listen patiently and nodded his
head, but he confessed and said, as she was talking, “I was thinking two particular things.”
The first is she is saying more about herself than she is about my predecessor. And the second was: “You know what? There’s going to come a day when I have to leave this church and I guarantee you this. She’s going to come to this very house when my successor is here and say the exact same things about me.”
Isn’t it sad how people believe they have been appointed to criticize, to tear down. And I have to tell you, as a pastor, the majority of people in churches have been absolutely wonderful. But I have come across some toxic people in every church I have served who feel they’re on God’s side when they create quarrels and division.
There is a wonderful book by Laura Huxley entitled, You Are Not the Target. And she says, “If you’re fortunate in life, you’ll discover three particular things make three great discoveries. The first is this, you can make people feel better or you can make them feel worse. The second is, it’s much more satisfying to make people feel better. The third, when we make people feel better, generally we feel better.”
Are you an encourager or a discourager?
Here’s another choice we have: We can heal or we can hate. There is nothing more of a spiritual cancer than resentment and hate. Someone once said that hating and resenting a person is like drinking poison, expecting that other person to die. There is nothing more destructive than hate. It can make us spiritually and physically ill.
Paul Turner once wrote about a particular person in one of his books that was suffering from anemia. She was terribly anemic and the doctors were at their wits end trying their best to figure out what was wrong with her, and they couldn’t help her. They tried vitamins and they tried diets and they tried medicine. They tried everything they knew and she couldn’t be helped. And she was in a bad state. So, they said, “You know what? We’re going to have to check you into the hospital.”
Well, there came the day when she had to go into the hospital. Of course, they checked her blood and lo and behold, when they checked her blood, she was perfectly healthy. She was perfectly fine, and the doctors were baffled. So, they approached her and they said, “Has anything new happened to you? Have you done anything different since our last visit?” And she thought for a second and said, “Yeah. When I knew I was so sick and knew I had to go to the hospital I called my brother who I have been estranged for my brother for many, many years. I hadn’t talked to him in a long time, but I told him I was sick and I was going to the hospital and he came over to my house and we had a nice talk and I forgave him.”
Isn’t that something? Her resentment made her physically ill, but once she let go of it she became well, she was healed. In fact, it changed the components of her blood. You can heal or you can hate.
The Bible puts it this way in Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Why? Not only because it heals us but also because responding to evil with good is the most powerful witness of our faith in Jesus Christ. It turns heads! People are baffled when you respond to cruelty with kindness. They want to know why and we can tell them it is because Jesus lives in our hearts!
This leads me to one last choice: We can be kind or we can be cruel. Ephesians 4:29-32 says it quite plainly:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen…Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
You see, we’re called to reflect the kindness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The great commandment is simple. You shall love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said, “The world will know your disciples by your love for one another.” The truth is we can quote scripture chapter in verse, we can preach like Peter and pray like Paul, we can be experts in church history. We can know theology better than our professors. We can know scripture better than our biblical professors, but it’s only when we show kindness, the kindness of Christ, that this world truly sees the power of our faith. You see, we can get an A in Bible and still flunk Christianity. We can be kind or we can be cruel.
The sad truth is some never learn the importance of kindness and how it is the most powerful expression of our faith. Some folks claim they know that Bible but live as if they have never opened it. Maslow has this quote, I don’t know if you’ve heard it before, but he says, “If your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail.” You know someone like that? They think their only tool is a hammer, and they go smashing through people and they go smashing through issues, tearing up everything. And I am not only speaking of the physical. I am talking about the words we say. The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That is the biggest lie ever told. Words cut. Words damage. Words can be destructive.
I’m sure that for many of you there are still words that were said to you in your past that haunt you maybe in your childhood, and you’re still trying to live those words down. You’re still trying to forget those words that were said to you. And I can think of words said to me by people I looked up to or by particular figures of my life, and those words just cut me. There have been so many people who’ve come into my office as a pastor who have sought counseling from me, who have been literally destroyed by those in their life who thought their only tool was a hammer and they hammered and they smashed them with awful words and criticism.
In fact, I remember a particular lady about in her thirties that I spoke to in another church who was really struggling with an eating disorder. And as we began to uncover her past and the reasons why she was struggling so much, well, the truth emerged. When she was a child, she was rather chubby, and her classmates would tease her relentlessly. They would call her Jaws hum the Jaws theme as she came
into class. And she never got over that. So much so that in her thirties she was still struggling with an eating disorder. It’s sad when people think their only tool is a hammer.
We have another tool, a better tool, a more effective too, and that is kindness. Your kindness may the only sermon someone hears or sees. Never underestimate the power of kindness.
Vic Pentz, Senior Pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, tells an unforgettable story of how one man’s simple gesture of encouragement saved the life of his depressed colleague. One of Pentz’s friends is a pastor in Seattle near Microsoft headquarters. He tells how a manager at Microsoft decided to live out his faith at work. The strategy he decided on was that instead of emailing and texting people who sat just 10 feet away from him, he would actually get up and go speak with them, you know, like they mattered!
A few weeks after he started doing this, one of his employees came into his office and gave him a brand-new version of a computer gaming system, Xbox Live. The manager said, “Where did you get the money to buy this?” because he knew what he was paying the guy, and it wasn’t that much. The employee said, “Well, I sold my gun.” The employee continued, “You see six months ago my mother died and I was depressed. Then I started working here thinking it would help, but nobody ever talked to me except on email. So, I looked up ‘coping with dead mother’ on the internet but what I found instead were suicide chat rooms. So, I went out and I bought a gun and I have been practicing ever since.”
“Every night I put the gun to my head with Kurt Cobain music playing in the background. And for the last month the safety has been off. And I knew that the only way you would ever know that I died would be if payroll notified you.”
He continued and said, “But then last week you freaked me out. You came to my desk and you put your arm around me and you told me I was funny even over email, which is hard to do. And you told me I always get my projects done on time which helps you to sleep better at night. So, I went home and sold my gun and I bought you this. Because for the last few months you have been complaining how much you want Xbox Live, but that your financial advisor, a.k.a. your wife, won’t let you have it. So I bought this for you. For my life, here, this is yours.”
Someone once said, “Be kind to everyone because everyone is fighting some kind of battle.” Our words matter. Our kindness matters. Jesus Christ, gave us the ultimate example of kindness. You see, we so easily write people off. We so easily criticize others. But Jesus never relinquished his love from anyone. He had every right and every power to cruel to us but he chose to be kind and loving to the world that was being so cruel to him. In fact, even on the cross he was forgiving a thief next to him and forgiving all of us. It was that kindness and forgiveness that redeemed us.
The best way we can follow Jesus is to carry his light of love and kindness in this dark world that so desperately needs it. It is the only thing that will change this world. Who needs that light and love and kindness in your life?
We can encourage or we can discourage. We can heal or hate. We can be kind or we can be cruel. Our words matter. The choice is ours.
Daily Devotional Guide
Monday: Read Proverbs 18:21 and James 3:3-12. Words have power. They can build up or tear down. They can make someone’s day or ruin someone’s week. The influence our words have on others is remarkable. It should give us pause. Think of a time recently when someone’s words encouraged you. Why were the words so encouraging? Now think of a time when the words of someone hurt you. How did it make you feel? This week hold those two memories in mind as you have conversations with people and see if you find yourself choosing your words more carefully.
Tuesday: Read Psalm 39:1 and Ephesians 4:29-32. Some might find it hard to believe that these words were written to a church, but all of us are tempted at times to say something hurtful. Quite often, it is because we are angry or frustrated. In the moment, it might feel good to give someone “a piece of our mind,” but words said out of anger are hardly ever helpful or productive. In fact, they are usually destructive. Can you think of a time when you regretted saying something? What kind of damage was done? The best thing we can do when we are angry at someone is to pause and cool down. Give it a day or two before responding to the person. The email or text that looked so satisfying and righteous the night before might look differently in the morning, so wait at least a day before you consider sending it. It could save you a lot of trouble and pain. Can you think of a time when you were relieved you did not press send?
Wednesday: Read Romans 12:9-21. As Christians, we should control our tongues and be careful “to do no harm” to another. Sometimes, that means just keeping our mouths shut. However, as followers of Christ, we are called to do more than prevent someone from being hurt. We are also called to build others up – to be kind and loving, regardless of how they have treated us. As Paul put it, we are to “overcome evil with good.” Sometimes, the best way to control our tongue is to say the very opposite of what we feel like saying to someone who has said something hurtful to us. Think of the kindest thing you can say in response and watch the person be baffled by your words. You would be hard-pressed to find a more powerful witness of faith than responding to cruelty with kindness. Is this not the example of Christ? Have you ever witnessed someone “overcome evil with good”? What kind of impact did it have on you?
Thursday: Laura Huxley writes, “If you’re fortunate in life, you’ll make three great discoveries. The first is this: you can make people feel better, or you can make them feel worse. The second is that it’s much more satisfying to make people feel better. And the third, when we make people feel better, generally we feel better.” How often have our words to another not only made them feel terrible but have made us feel terrible, too? Can you think of some examples? Try starting your day with this prayer, “Lord, today I am going to speak and act in a way that makes you proud and makes me feel better.”
Friday: Today, read again the scripture texts assigned in this devotional guide. Which one is your favorite and why? Try memorizing it. How will you live in response to that text today?