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“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So begins the gospel of John…and the deepest roots of my spiritual connection to God. I have always loved words, loved what they could do with sound and meaning, loved them in their inadequacy and perfection. As a child, I was teased for my advanced vocabulary. “But that’s the right word for it,” I would think. “I could use a more common word, but it isn’t right.” From the beginning I knew that God was in both language and silence, that as flawed as words could be, they were a link to God — a beautiful and fragile link.

In The Little Prince, the fox tells our titular hero that when you tame something, it becomes yours forever. The same is true of naming things. That’s why I respond so warmly to John’s gospel-opener: God is, in my mind, the first named thing. In a world of small-w words, God is The Word.

Our words for God change and persist; they speak of power and authority. But God is also in the tiniest places, the humblest nest of the lowliest sparrow. God is in all words, from thunder to shame, eternity to crumb. Maybe that’s a compelling enough reason to use our words judiciously.

On the other hand, why not celebrate words? Why not lavish them luxuriously, paint a thick coat of them all over everything, dress up a tawdry world with silvery syllables? Isn’t that what poets and musicians do? Yeah! Don’t paint the town red; paint it God.

That’s what we try to do on this blog, at least in my eyes. We invoke God through God-as-Word. We praise God. We cry out to God. We participate in Godliness and ask our readers to do the same.

That’s a pretty sweet gig, from where I’m sitting.

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I love words. The textures, the shapes, popping p’s and sharp t’s, languorous l’s and sighing h’s. I reckon most writers love words. But we also know that words are powerful. You remember the old schoolyard chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Flagrant lie. And secretly, we all know it.

There ought to be a retirement home for words that no longer serve us, words that have changed meaning over time, or worn out their old meanings. “Meet,” for instance. Sure, we still use “meet” quite a bit — “I will meet you for lunch,” “Tommy has a swim meet” — but we no longer use it to mean “proper” or “appropriate,” as in “it is right and meet that we should join this couple in matrimony.” That’s okay. “Meet” still has a lot of life left in it. But words that no longer make sense in society — words we’ve learned are hurtful — those are another story. Like statues that serve only to remind an oppressed people of their oppression, words that hurt should be dropped for something more relevant.

Words should also be used with equality. I saw two photos of people braving the horrors of Hurricane Harvey recently. One showed a white couple, wading through chest-deep water, and the caption said something along the lines of “Bob and Judy So-and-So are seen leaving a grocery store after finding bread and water.” Hold that sentence in your mind. The other photo showed a person of color doing the exact same thing as Bob and Judy So-and-So, only this caption reported her action as “looting.” Either taking bread and water is looting or it is surviving. It cannot depend on the color of one’s skin. Words aren’t inherently judgmental; the people using them frequently are. That’s not okay.

I’m not suggesting the implementation of “word police” (although if that ever becomes a real job, sign me up!). I’m not talking about “political correctness.” I’m talking about using words thoughtfully. We’ve become a nation of blurters, led by a Blurter-in-Chief, who frequently does not seem to have the slightest idea what is coming out of his mouth. I’m all for speaking one’s mind, but surely the state of my mind — of anyone’s mind — isn’t worthy of being expressed every minute of every day. Surely we’re all aware enough to recognize that just as you wouldn’t put any old thing into your mouth, you shouldn’t let any old thing come out of it.

We are currently in the wake of a tragedy, and there is no better time for self-examination. So let’s talk about words, how we use them and whether or not we ought to. Just like the woman in Houston who finally lost her temper after having microphones shoved into her face and repeatedly being asked “how she felt” about being uprooted, we must reserve the right to be sensitive about words. Because words will hurt us, just as surely as any force of nature.

Have you ever wanted to take a permanent vow of silence? You know, the kind preceded by a pursing of the lips, a twist of the wrist and the throwing away of an invisible key? I feel that way a lot. For all of my so-called proficiency with words on paper, I’m not a good speaker. Or even a good writer, a lot of the time. Sometimes my brain and my mouth aren’t exactly in sync. And other times I feel as if there is some secret code that everyone else knows but that has been withheld from me. In other words, for social, verbal creatures, we humans sure are good at offending one another. Often, we do not even mean to. There is simply no way to gauge how our words will affect another human being.

We can guess, of course. We know that certain words are hurtful or offensive. But what about the ones that seem to operate in secret — poisonous words that we thought were as bland as unbuttered popcorn, and just as lethal? And sometimes words aren’t even necessary. People have hated other people on sight since the beginning of time. There was a girl I knew in high school who confessed that she loathed me because the first time I opened my mouth in class, I used a polysyllabic word that raised her hackles. I was “a know-it-all.” A prig. Later, we became friends, but I never lost the sense that somehow this was against her better judgment — that I’d failed in some primal way, but had been forgiven for it. Only I still don’t know how I failed.

Haters gonna hate. Isn’t that what the kids are saying these days? Or maybe they used to say it and now it’s as dated as “groovy” and “right on, man.” How would I know? Clearly, words I see as peaceful doves can land like bombs without my consent or knowledge. No one can control how they are perceived by others. Even if they try really, really hard.

So I guess what I’m saying is: be kind. Remember that the person in front of you is as fragile and hurting as you are. We’re all just shivering piles of dust, flimsy and susceptible to blowing away in the lightest of gales. No one wants to be alone. No one wants to be hated. For better or worse, we’re stuck with one another. That’s going to necessitate a heap of compassion, a mound of forgiveness, a great mountain of understanding. It is the job of every one of us to add to the pile. If we claim to be good people, moral people, it is the job of a lifetime.

In the meantime, if I offend you, I’m sorry. I wish I could take that vow of silence and mean it, but I’m afraid I’m just not capable of it. It would mean hiding my light under a bushel basket for one thing, and I’m pretty sure God doesn’t support that kind of thing.

“The rest is silence,” says Hamlet as he breathes his last. Now there’s a guy I can relate to.

I once gave a report in high school that turned into a disaster of Hindenburg-ian dimensions. I was rolling along, using words I knew and loved, words I’d read a thousand times or more, unaware that my audience — my friends — were moving from impatience to anger. Why was I using the words I was using — ten dollar, multisyllabic words? Did I think I was better than they were? I was dumbstruck, blindsided by their wrath. I thought everyone knew the words I knew. I didn’t realize that words — pure, beautiful words — the obsession of my life even then, could cause such emotion.

Later in life, I worked for a toy company. Who would’ve thought that something as innocent and delightful as toys could cause so much unreasonable anger? But they did. The letters I got (as editor-in-chief) bore this out: letters complaining about everything and anything. Why did we use the headline “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” to describe a glittery collection of costume jewels? “How dare you!” the letter ran. “My niece’s best friend is a soccer ball!” It was an object lesson in the power of words.

I find as a writer that it is the words we think about the least — the ones that flow from us as simply as breath, as unconsciously as air — that can wound people the most. Why is that? Is it because they represent the things we take for granted — things that most blatantly show our deepest beliefs in the world?

Many of us who are not persons of color don’t understand the concept of White Privilege. Why? Because it is so ingrained, so normal to us that it ceases to be wondered at or even noticed. Like the words we use without thinking, privilege comes so naturally, we fail to notice that we are part of the problem. That what we take for granted can be hurtful to others.

In one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, Hamlet (who never met a long soliloquy he didn’t like) delivers the quintessential angry teen response to Polonius’ endless windbaggery: “Words, words, words.” The words we do not consider, that we hand out as easily as we might a smile or a nod, can be the most dangerous. The actions we do not consider can be symptomatic of collusion with a system that is not fair or equitable.

Words can be insidious. They can attract or repel. Weighing them like stones before we cast them into the world seems to be a practice worth pursuing. Even if we can’t always predict where they will land — as anyone who’s ever read the “comments” section of any Internet post knows — we can try. Consider what you take for granted, in word and in deed. Are you standing where you want to stand? Are you standing with compassion and mercy?

Or are you throwing rocks?

From the time we were babies, my mother read to us. Not just children’s stories, either. She read poetry: Poe, Wordsworth, Eugene Field. My favorite of all was “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. It is a poem about a dashing criminal and his ladylove, who, in order to warn him that the Redcoats are waiting for him, kills herself. Despite the warning, he is gunned down “like a dog on the highway/ with a bunch of lace at his throat.” Not exactly Dr. Seuss. Still, I loved it. Part of that love came from my mother’s analysis and explanation of rhythm, rhyme and meter. “Listen to the way the words sound,” she said. “It sounds like a horse galloping down a road.” I listened. I heard it. My whole world changed.

From these early experiences bloomed a love of language. I’m fascinated by what words can do. Onomatopoeia thrills me. I dig a good palindrome. Anagrams are amazing. I consider language a gift from God. In communication, we are brought together. Imagine a world where each one of us were bound in his or her own metaphoric prison, unable to communicate our feelings or experiences! How lonely we would be!

So, in the spirit of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty,” I offer this paean to the world of words.

Blessed be to God for the look of letters!
The curve of the “s,” the slick feel on the tongue.
The piquancy of “p,” the feel of “r” as it resonates, roars.

Blessed, too, the sounds —
heavenly diphthongs! Glorious blends!
The sunny way “yellow” glints from the page,
the blank stare of “morose.”

And, oh, for the way words bridge our gaps,
fill our chasms with sound and sense,
bring together the unlikeliest of minds,
smooth over our offenses.

Letters become sound become meaning
and a way is lit to heaven;
we need only to follow them
to find You.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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