The power of words

Guest editorial

December 10, 2014 | Editorial
Les Klassen Hamm |

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was toward God.”

I remember vividly the moment in an introductory Greek class that this sentence surprised me. We were asked to translate the first few verses of John 1 from Greek into English. Word by word we tried to make sense not only of individual words but also phrases and idioms. But when it was supposed to say “and the Word was with God,” it appeared to say that “the word was toward God.” I loved the nuance of “the Word” being toward God. How clever! Leaving aside the scholarly details, I found great delight in the notion that the Word is toward God. What might that mean? When is a word toward God? Can all words be toward God?

I love words. I use them all the time. I love puns that are perfect for dad humour. I love the deep and artistic ways words are used to convey story and emotion. Words are at once both simple and complex. I use words to speak to people, I’ve used them for a few sermons, I’ve written lots and lots of e-mail, I’ve sung them in various languages, I’ve whispered them to children, and, if I’m honest, I talk to myself a surprising amount of the time with very quiet words.

I’ve come to believe that words are fraught with danger, filled with possibility, and packed with power:

• Words really are dangerous. They can be used to manipulate, criticize, mislead and hurt.

But they are also dangerous simply because it is so easy to misunderstand them. I recall more than once carefully crafting the words of a sermon, to the point where I was confident that I had edited out all ambiguity, only to be completely surprised at how many different ways listeners understood them. Oftentimes they inferred quite different meanings, or completely misunderstood what I thought I had said. It’s probably foolish to believe that my words are always obvious and clear. We need to tread carefully with our words.

• We also need to tread boldly with our words, because they are filled with possibility. Words let us sing, words make us laugh, words share our tears. Sometimes prayer requires words. Words weave tales that entertain and enrich us. The words of a parable can fool us into hearing something we might not be ready to hear. Words build relationships.

• And words have power beyond our knowing! The power of words fasci-
nates me, not only in the way they affect the listener, but, in particular, how words affect the speaker. I’ve noticed that my own words shape my thinking.

For many years, I half joked that there are really only eight kinds of birds in Canada, because that’s how many I could distinguish. But when some birder friends helped to grow my vocabulary, identifying notched tails, crests and tufts, crowns, eye rings and hoods, I saw with new eyes. They taught me to see differences by naming them. Growing my vocabulary improved my vision.

Words don’t just describe the world around me, they shape how I encounter it. I have had some neighbours who drink to great excess. When I think of them always as drunks, or refer to them that way, they really become little more than drunks to me. When I meet them taking out the garbage or shovelling the walk, I don’t have much to say to them. They’re just drunks. But if I think of them by their names, and refer to the one as an artist, and another as a student, they somehow become more human to me. The sidewalk chat somehow becomes interesting.

The words I choose, and the words I use, change me! The labels I adopt for others affect me. Calling a friend “sister” or “brother” has power. Maybe even more telling, and shaping, are the words I choose for my enemies, for those with whom I completely disagree, for those who live differently, choose differently, look different, act differently. The words I choose for them change me.

And so I am left with that same question. What does it mean for words to be toward God? Apparently it’s time to watch my language.

Les Klassen Hamm lives in Saskatoon, owns Bitlink Technology and loves Wildwood Mennonite Church. He is also a member of the board of Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service, which publishes Canadian Mennonite.

—Posted Dec 10, 2014

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January 2, 2015 A.D.

Whether the Canadian Mennonite, my favourite Public Radio program or the church I frequent, when a guest fills in for the regular editor or host, more often than not I experience a breath of fresh air over and above the valued accustomed programming.

Beginning with the guest editorial on "the power of words" by Les Klassen Hamm, the December 15 issue is a fine representation thereof. From the editorial, clearly the words we choose, whether talking with ourselves, with another or regarding another, that our choice of words affects what we feel and think about what we touch, see and hear! That is, already at the starting gate, at the very moment when we experience something, how we consciously or sub-consciously choose to name and make sense of what we experience as we experience it, already nudges our orientation either away from or towards what is godly! Thank-you to the writer and publisher for bringing this clarity of mind to mind!!

Towards fostering the furthering of this end, I underline and support the final sentence in Helmut Lemke's letter to the editor. May the Canadian Mennonite "continue to challenge us (with friction-causing articles) that we may mature and grow in our faith and attitude"!

Connecting the dots from the above two understandings with the tiniest of between the lines read of Don Procter's letter stating "when MMC Ontario suddenly ended my contract", further to my own similar experience some decades ago I can only conclude that even by today's higher employment standards of civility and sanctions against unwarranted discrimination, as I shift focus from Don Procter's on MMC Ontario to our wider community of church institutions, deplorably too many are still without a basic, functionally progressive disciplinary code of practice, never mind a more holistic one than required of our `unchurched' counterparts.

Before I conclude, I highlight one further commonality of practice that ought to warrant pause. Not unlike Don's experience, I was denied a leave taking from my students, even a brief moment during the daily general assembly, under the cloak of a false-friendly fatherly assessment directed by the board that that would be too difficult for me!

However, now with a lifetime of hindsight behind me, I can only conclude further that as a result of many of our church institutions transitioning from a bottom up service structure to that of a not-for-profit incorporated, top-down limited liability corporate power structure as favoured by Mammon, Hamm's words on the power of words provide testamentary witness whether our words are faced "towards God".

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