I’ve always loved words. The shape of them, the curves and curls, the way that they contain and communicate meaning, in so many different ways.
But this multiplicity means they’re also slippery little customers. Or as Eliot puts it,
Crack and sometimes break,
under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.’ (Burnt Norton)
Language carries with it lots of baggage, – associations and echoes. As a result, the same word can mean different things to different people. Alice Walker understands this, as she writes in the following poem;
I’m really very fond of you,
I don’t like fond.
It sounds like something
you would tell a dog.
Give me love,
Throw your fond in a pond,
(‘I’m Really Very Fond’ from ‘Horses Make A Landscape Look More Beautiful’)
This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a friend. We were discussing what it is we pray for and she suddenly dropped a conversational bombshell.
‘Every day’, she said, ‘I pray to be nice’.
You might think, well, what’s wrong with that? But ‘nice’ to me is what ‘fond’ is to Alice Walker. Or Kyrptonite to Superman. It’s a terrible word. An insipid, pastel-coloured emotion, laden with shoulds and oughts and good intentions and utterly devoid of passion.
However, when I suggested as much to this friend, she looked at me aghast. Now, to be fair, I could have been a little more sensitive. I didn’t help matters by shouting ‘You pray to be NICE? WHY? It’s not an adjective, it’s a biscuit. You’re not nice! You’ll never be nice! If you turn ‘nice’, our friendship is OVER’.
A slight overreaction, possibly. Especially as it transpired that she feels the same way about the word ‘lovely’, which I use all the time.
The point though, is this. Words – even little ones – have a lot of power. What we say has a huge impact – both upon ourselves and upon others. I may, for example, say that I feel ‘fat’ or ‘stupid’. In reality, neither fat nor stupid are feelings. They’re convenient self-harming labels which allow me to wallow in a bit of self-hatred without actually engaging with what’s really going on. Which stop me recognising that what I really feel is frightened, or inadequate or lonely or angry or confused or whatever. And, having identified these lies, then countering them with truth.
Now, when I say truth, I mean ‘The Truth’.
Not ‘my truth’, or ‘your truth’ or even ‘Oprah’s truth’.
Not truth diluted by verbal manoeuvering, e.g; my personal favourite – negative comparison ( ‘oh I’m not so bad – I’m not Hitler‘). Or how about truth justification, (‘Yes I queue-jumped but my blood sugar levels were low and I’ve had a beast of a day’). Or, for the religiously-minded, the ever-popular ‘godly’ choice – our friend Mr Law, (‘Call yourself a Christian? You’re a miserable sinner and you just mucked up again, you crusty piece of rubbish. Try harder’).
No, what I need and what we all need is The Truth. Jesus truth. Bible truth. The promises, admonitions, encouragements, prayers, songs and wisdom of God’s word. And this word is not the Law. Because of Jesus – The Word – God’s speech to us is instead, grace-filled and radical. This may sound surprising, but consider how often Scripture pairs ‘truth’ with ‘grace’. As we speak the truth to others and to ourselves, we are to do so ‘in love’, with ‘gentleness and respect’.
As Proverbs 18:31 reminds us, words have the power to bring life and death. So we need to think about how we use them. What starts as a skirmish with water pistols, can end up with both sides pumping bullets. Instead, with the Spirit’s prompting, what we say can bring life and peace, joy and hope. Now that’s what I call ‘nice’.