For years I kept a handwritten note in the pocket of a coat I wore on Sundays. A young child in my church made this card, probably in the middle of one of my sermons, and handed it to me after the worship service. “Pastor Chris” is the simple greeting on the front. Inside, these words are written in clear letters: “Thanks for preaching! From Sarah.” There are days when I doubt the power of words. And there are times when a sermon seems to go over the pulpit, in the words of one great preacher, “like a wingless dove.” Touching that note in my pocket was like sticking my soul into a warm glove on a cold day.
Preaching is an odd vocation. In my particular tradition, the Christian Reformed Church, many preachers are expected to deliver two sermons a week. So, each Sunday I’m responsible for about 5,000 words, many of which will be lost on even the most dedicated listeners, let alone children. It is a humbling job, one that can leave a preacher soaring on the praises of a good Sunday and sinking the next week below the surface of his or her self-doubt. “You’re only as good as your last sermon,” a friend of mine once joked. Do my words matter? Or, more to the supposed task of preaching, “Is my preaching anywhere close to God’s Word?”
These days we are re-discovering the power of words-the sheer power of words to build up or to tear down, to heal or to hurt. Early in life, we hear that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But that is playground philosophy not the wisdom of the ages. It is primitive training in rugged individualism. The truth is, if you think that words are inert, you had better find body armor for your spirit.
Words have potential energy. When delivered to another human being, they act with force. That force can bring devastation or delight. When a public servant is recorded using a racial slur, a tsunami of racist hurt washes over what we expected to be higher ground. We all should have warning labels pierced to our lips: “this vehicle has been known to transport hazardous waste.”
Nevertheless, one word (or five, for that matter) can stir up joy. A quiet comment of appreciation uttered by even the least among us can cure a soul. Words have potential energy. The least practiced potential these days is to bring life. It’s counter-cultural to encourage. The gospel of John describes Jesus as “the word become flesh,” a word that came “not to condemn, but to save.” In the Christian tradition, God’s Word is considered alive and active. In contrast to the condemning urges of the human heart, the goal is life and renewal.
One of our culture’s greatest ironies is that we highly reward people whose language is caustic and judgmental, while so many of us quietly suffer from lack of encouragement, hope or love. A profound revolution would occur if we all began slipping notes of appreciation into each other’s coats. Or changed the channels we listen to and think of something truly good to say.
Here’s a start: “Thanks for reading! From Chris.”
Chris DeVos is the Manager of Church Partnerships and Care at The Colossian Forum.