On the Care of Words and the Cultivation of Language


1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Prayer of the Day: Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, most merciful redeemer, for the countless blessings and benefits you give. May we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day praising you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.” Psalm 139:4.

It is more than a little unsettling to be told that we are so well understood that our very thoughts are known before they find their way into words. More disturbing still is Jesus’ warning that, on the day of judgment, “people will render account for every careless word they utter.” Matthew 12:36. That accounting came due with a vengeance last week. If the horrific events we witnessed five days ago have taught us anything, it is that words are powerful and speech has consequences. Words maliciously fashioned into lies and employed to trigger raw anger can incite violence. That is exactly what we saw on Wednesday as an angry mob sacked the United States Capital.

Sometimes, however, we misspeak without intending harm. Often, the consequences of our words do not become clear until after they have passed our lips. Who among us does not regret words spoken carelessly, ignorantly or in anger? One of the less fortunate characteristics of texts, e-mails and social media is that through them words carelessly uttered can spread faster and further to a larger audience than ever before. Moreover, once they are out in cyberspace, ill advised words are practically impossible to erase, recall or correct.

As one whose careers, both in law and in parish ministry, involved working with words, I take this call to circumspection in our use of language seriously. I have been blessed with teachers throughout my lifetime who taught me to appreciate the beauty and persuasiveness of a potent word strategically placed in a well crafted sentence. I was mentored by attorneys who taught me the importance of making sound, fact based arguments from the building blocks of tightly drawn paragraphs, each laying the groundwork for the next. Most important, I have learned both from instruction and experience how a single word can carry shades of meaning that can strengthen or sabotage one’s entire message. Like learning to play a musical instrument, good writing requires life long learning, voracious reading and practice, practice, practice. You never arrive at the point where you can re-read something you have written only yesterday without saying to yourself, “I could have said that better.”

For that reason, few things are more painful to me than listening to a long, rambling “stream of consciousness” sermon strung together with lame attempts at humor. Few things are more frustrating than trying to make sense of lengthy posts rife with grammatical errors, filled with spelling mistakes and lacking in punctuation. But while sloppiness and stupidity in writing and speaking annoy me, worse yet is the misuse of language to mislead or appeal to our darkest fears and prejudices. Back in the 1980s when the term “welfare queens” was coined to demean women on public assistance, nobody had to ask what color they were. Likewise, nobody ever had to say that black men are inherently dangerous. All they had to do is repeat the name “Willy Horton.” Words like “communist,” “fascist” and “socialist” are thrown about like molotov cocktails in political discourse these days with little explanation of what they actually mean in their historical context or how, if at all, they might apply to current circumstances. All too frequently, political and religious discussion amounts to little more than name calling and heated exchanges of memes and bumper sticker slogans. Under these conditions, language loses its power. Words become empty. Talk really is “cheap.”

As disciples of Jesus, we ought to be concerned about the health of words and language. Do we not confess that the Word, the Second person of the Trinity, became flesh? John 1:14. Do we not assert that “faith comes through what is heard and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.?” Romans 10:17. Are we not admonished “Always [to] be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls [us] to account for the hope that is within [us]?” I Peter 3:15. It is, I would argue, our Christian duty to write and speak elegantly, taking care that our letters, posts and articles employ accurate spelling, proper grammar and appropriate punctuation. Faithful discipleship means expanding our vocabularies to enrich our prayer lives, deepen our understanding and empower our witness. It is our responsibility to use words with care and to acquaint ourselves with all shades of meaning they carry, especially their potential to mislead our hearers, perpetuate racial stereotypes, demean others or incite hatred when used in particular contexts. We owe it to ourselves, our neighbors and to the world to which we are ambassadors for Christ to use the gift of speech and writing with reverence, care and circumspection. May the words of the psalmist be our prayer:

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14.

Here is a poem by Pauli Murry about the stewardship of words.


We are spendthrifts with words,
We squander them,
Toss them like pennies in the air–
Arrogant words,
Angry words,
Cruel words,
Comradely words,
Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.
But the slowly wrought words of love
and the thunderous words of heartbreak–

Those we hoard.

Source: Dark Testament and Other Poems, Murray,  Anna Pauline (c. 1970 by Pauli Murry; pub. by Liveright Publishing Corporation). Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910 – 1985) was an American civil rights activist who became a lawyer, a women’s rights activist, Episcopal priest and author. She was the first African American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church in the United States. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Murray was orphaned when young and raised by her maternal grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. She received her BA from Hunter College in 1933. In 1940, fifteen years before Rosa Parks sparked the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white passenger, Murray and a friend were arrested in Virginia for violating segregation laws, taking seats in the “whites only” section of a city bus. Murray later attended and graduated first in her class at Howard University where she became deeply involved in feminism, coining the phrase “Jane Crow.” She was the first African American to earn a law degree from Yale Law School. As a lawyer, Murray argued civil rights and women’s rights cases and was appointed by President Kennedy to serve on the Presidential Commission for the Status of Women. She was also a cofounder of the National Organization for Women. You can read more about Pauli Murray and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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