Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Has anyone here ever heard this old English nursery rhyme?
I have to say that I have my issues with this saying. True, words don’t hurt me physically, but demeaning, threatening, or taunting words can have a lasting impact on my soul. And especially things that are said to us when we are still little often stay with us our whole lives, and can lead to insecurities or fears.
Can you think of anything that was ever said to you, which hurt you and which has been hard to shake off?
When I was a kid, I was tall and sturdy, and I carried a lot of baby fat through my teenage years. I can’t count how many times I was teased and shamed because of my appearance, and to this day, I am carrying around body issues, though I am trying to reason with myself that my body doesn’t define who I am. It’s been hard to forget all those taunts from decades ago. Words have an impact.
Again and again we hear stories of young people, teenagers, who see no other way out but kill themselves because they are relentlessly attacked, shamed, and bullied – often about their sexuality; modern technology like the internet make it so easy to hurt someone without ever physically touching them. Words will never hurt me? Oh yes, they will.
Words are powerful, and I bet pretty much everyone here has used words to show someone else how powerful we are – maybe in an ugly fight, maybe to show someone that we are smarter or better than they; or at least we think we are. And I am sure pretty much everyone here has said something that they wished they could take back. I am the first one to admit this. In the heat of an argument, or when I’m carried away by frustration and anger, thoughtless or hurtful words slip out so easily.
I am pretty sure Simon Peter wished he could take back telling Jesus what to do and not to do after he was rebuked and even named Satan, which literally means ‘tempter’. I am sure Peter realized at some point that he was tempting Jesus to take the easy way out, instead of following the will of God, the Father, and that he had been carried away by his passion and his fear.
Right now, we hear many words that are meant to be hurtful. I don’t know about you, but I think it is mind blowing how presidential candidates from the same political party just rip each other apart verbally, trying to point out how stupid or ignorant or incompetent someone else is. And we haven’t even entered the real presidential race yet – how bad it is going to get?
And then, of course, we see and hear the news about all those in Germany and other European countries who may not attack refugees and asylum seekers with sticks and stones – although that sometimes happens, too – but who use words like ‘Ausländer raus’, which means, ‘Foreigners, get out’, and ‘Go home’ – although for many, there is no home to go back to. And the internet makes it easy to spout horrible threats against refugees and asylum seekers anonymously. Frustration and fear are often the driving force behind such words, I understand that. But how do you think such words make a child feel who has been traumatized by war and violence in their country of origin, who possibly had to endure a harrowing escape, and now is confronted with threats and verbal violence? Don’t you think hurtful words will stay with this child for the rest of their life?
Now I understand that the refugee situation in Europe right now is complicated, and that there is reason for concern. But attacking and threatening fellow human beings is not the answer; it only supports the alienation of them and may lead many young people to be driven into extremism.
The whole refugee issue is close to me heart – not because I ever ws in that situation – thanks be to God! – but my grandmother had to leave her home after World War II. My grandmother was a refugee from Silesia, a Catholic, who ended up in the small industrial and very Protestant city of Delmenhorst in northern Germany. She and her fellow refugees did not receive a warm welcome, but encountered prejudice, snarky and outright hurtful comments; for example, they were called leeches and ‘asoziales Flüchtlingspack’ – that one is hard to translate into English, but it’s bad – well, even to a non-German speaker, it probably sounds nasty. The Protestants also didn’t trust the Catholics – and vice versa – yes, those were the days. So it shouldn’t be surprising that most of the refugees hung out with each other – married amongst themselves, sent their kids to Catholic schools instead of public schools, and formed their own community within the bigger community. It took two generations to overcome the stigma of being a refugee. Even my mother still had to deal with being taunted for being the child of a refugee, and she never had the same opportunities many of her non-refugee peers had.
Words will never hurt me? Oh yes, they will.
We often talk about the authority of the Bible. And the Bible has a lot to say about the use of our words. In today’s psalm, the person who prays these words praises God for the beauty and the order of nature, and goes on to praise God’s law, and closes with the petition, ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart by acceptable to you, o Lord, my rock and my redeemer.’
In the lesson from Isaiah, we heard, ‘The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.’ In other words, even a prophet and man of God like Isaiah knew that listening to God is crucial before we use our words. And: we are given a tongue and words mainly to sustain the weary.
And today’s lesson from James is all about the use of our words and the dangerous power of words. ‘How great a forest is set ablaze by a fire! And the tongue is a fire.’ And James goes on, ‘With the tongue 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 be so.’
And I think we get the idea what we are called to do: to use our words wisely and carefully. To listen to God and to our conscience first before we speak and potentially hurt someone with our words. James reminds us that our tongues, our words, have enormous power: the power to destroy, but also the power to heal and to bring life.
And I am certain all of us know something about the healing and uplifting power of words, because we all have heard those in our lives. Words like ‘I love you’, ‘I believe in you’, or ‘I can’t tell you how much your kindness means to me’. The first time we hear ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’ out of the mouths of our children.
God has wonderful words for us, too. God says, ‘I love you’. Every Sunday, we hear the words that we are forgiven. God says to each and every one of us, ‘You are forgiven, my child’. We need to hear these words. These are the words that give us life. And we need to speak such words.
The Lord has given us tongues, that we may know how to sustain the weary with a word. The Lord has given us a tongue to speak a word of encouragement to the insecure, a word of comfort to the suffering, a word of hope to the hopeless, a word of wisdom to the questioning, a word of grace to those who can’t forgive themselves, a word of love to every beloved child of God. A word of welcome to all who are lost. Because this is how we show forth Christ.
Yes, as Christians we need to be extra special careful with our words, because we represent Christ in this world – Christ, who gave himself for the sake of the world, and showers us with grace and mercy and forgiveness, morning by morning. And we might be the only Christ some folks out there ever get to see and experience.
There may be those in Germany and other European countries right now who use hurtful words against those seeking asylum. But then there are also many who choose to use their words in a sustaining way. We’ve seen pictures of people at train stations in Munich, Vienna, and other places, who greet the weary with a smile and a word of welcome. Among the people in Munich, there were Roman Catholic Bishop Reinhard Marx and Lutheran Bishop – and current presiding bishop of the Evangelical Church in Germany – Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, who happened to have a meeting and spontaneously decided to join the throng at the Munich train station when they learned what was going on there; they were the official face of Christianity that day.
What words, do you think, have a more positive and potentially life altering impact on the refugees coming to Europe: words of welcome, or words like ‘get out’, ‘go home’, or outright threats? Which words show forth Christ, who loves and forgives and seeks to draw all humanity to himself? What words would you like to hear in such a situation?
God has given us the amazing gift of words. Ours is the responsibility to handle them with care, for our sake, the sake of humanity, and the sake of God. And may our continual prayer be: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, o Lord, my rock and my redeemer.’ Amen
This post is also available in: German