Chaplain Mel Baars
September 16, 2012
“Sticks and Stones”
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Most of us grew up reciting a version of this nursery rhyme. I can’t recall when I learned it, but I am sure it was at some point in elementary school. Teaching our children this little adage is a means of building their resiliency, thickening their skin so that they can handle the bullying or the gossip mill that they will likely encounter in school. We all have our own memories of playground scenes and the taunting and teasing that transpired between classmates. I don’t know if I ever shouted out the rhyme, but I am sure that it crossed my mind whenever harsh words were thrown my way.
There is some dissension over the saying’s origins. According to Wikipedia, everyone’s favorite all knowing, all powerful internet mega-resource, this nursery rhyme first appeared as advice in a publication of Tappy’s Chicks and other Links between nature and human nature by Miss George Cuples in 1872. Other internet dictionary resources cite a volume of The Christian Recorder in 1862 which said, “Remember the old adage, 'Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me'. True courage consists in doing what is right, despite the jeers and sneers of our companions.” Either way, this saying has been around for a while.
Sadly, name calling is part of growing up for most kids. They are either victims or perpetrators of these harsh words. Typically, those kids who are apt to throw harsh words at their peers, have caught their fair share of them at home from their parents or older siblings. At times, verbal abuse seems more contagious than the stomach flu and certainly as virulent, which is why I always thought the Sticks and Stones phrase wasn’t very helpful. Words can really hurt, sometimes worse and for much longer than sticks or stones, especially if they are lobbed at us by someone who is supposed to love us. Perhaps this is why some have altered this phrase a little to better reflect this reality. A recent article in the journal, Psychology Today, twisted the adage like this, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will cut me deeply.” Words either build us up or tear us down, and we all know that it takes a lot more time and energy to build something than it does to destroy it.
The tongue wields remarkable power and must be controlled which is why James belabors his point, using not one but four different examples which illustrate the truth of his point: a bit in the mouth of horse can yield obedience, a rudder on a ship if piloted well can guide the vessel with precision and safety, a spark, left unattended, can set a forest ablaze in minutes, and a wild animal can wreak havoc if left untamed. James sticks with real life which makes it easier for us to understand and then identify similar examples in our own lives.
This past week we have watched the world catch fire over words captured on a video that was uploaded to youtube. Whatever your opinion is on this video, The Innocence of Muslims, and trust me, I have my own opinions, this week, all over the world, we have witnessed the power of the tongue and its capacity to have incredible influence with rapid speed. Who knows what the intention was of those involved with this, whether they anticipated the kind of explosion which happened, but their words have been used as a powerful weapon of hate and violence. This is exactly what James is talking about without, even, our present context of a global, web-based society. Twenty countries across the Middle East have been affected, including Afghanistan. There have been multiple deaths with many more injuries. It’s hard to say just how far this particular fire will spread. It is a sobering reminder that words matter. Words can bring a blessing or a curse; words can even mean life or death.
James realizes just how critical the tongue is in maintaining healthy relationships between one another. I think this is why he begins his third chapter with this statement: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. All teaching is based on relationship. A teacher gives and her students receive. A teacher has the authority to speak while her students are required to listen. Teaching uses the tongue, and not just in a private setting, but publicly, with the potential of affecting whole handfuls of people. While this may seem a simple concept, James is well aware, probably from his own personal experience, how difficult controlling the tongue can prove to be, especially when emotions, like anger or frustration or exhaustion, are involved. But being in a position of influence means that there isn’t room for much error. It is funny how many of us are more likely to hold on to the negative words than the positive ones. As teachers, or even parents, every time we open our mouths to speak, what we say may be etched into the very fabric of our pupils. Once the train has left the station, it’s not easy to stop it. Even a pencil mark that has been thoroughly erased leaves a hint of a smudge.
One day, when I was about seven, I remember my Dad saying a “bad” word in front of me, maybe it was dammit but I don’t know. I think he had dropped a glass and spilled its contents on the carpet. He was annoyed. Now, I didn’t grow up in an excessively religious household. I heard my parents, on occasion, say some four letter words, but I was taught that these words were “bad.” I wasn’t allowed to say them. I remember, when my father let this word slip, saying to him, quite incorrigibly, “Isn’t dammit a ‘bad” word.” I bet my hands were on my hips when I scolded him. What I remember more than anything from this exchange was the look on his face when I brought this to his attention. It was a mixture of frustration and disappointment in himself. He sat down on the stairs, eye level with me, and admitted his mistake, “Yes, you are right, and I shouldn’t have said it. I’m sorry.”
All these years later, I still remember the incident well. But, what I remember most about that day was my Dad’s apology. It wasn’t the “bad” word or the details of his mistake that made the truest impression on me, but it was how he responded to what he said, the way he recognized his mistake and then attempted to rectify it. There is a reason we are warned not to take on the mantle of teaching, preaching, leading, shepherding, or parenting. We are all going to make mistakes and say things which we regret. It’s part of being human. Sometimes these mistakes have serious, even deadly consequences. How we handle these mistakes though, even the worst of them, may make all the difference in what happens next, in how the landscape for our pupils, our soldiers, or even our children, is affected for good or for ill.
Admitting our mistakes or that we have been wrong is not an easy thing to do, especially in this business. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for failure even though we all know that our days are filled with the evidence of our imperfections-- the email we forgot to send which put quite a few co-workers in the hot seat, the moment we snapped at a co-worker for no good reason, the words we uttered in anger or frustration. We all make these mistakes, and we can’t take them back either. We can’t rewind the clock and do a second take. There are no do over’s.
But, what makes a good teacher is recognizing the errors that have been made and then taking steps to put the pieces back together. For as much as there are mistakes, there is also forgiveness. Every time we come together to worship, we confess our mistakes, the harm of our unbridled tongue, all that we have done and left undone and everything between. Confession is a practice of Christian faith. It is the way that we begin the process of repairing the damage we have done. And God’s response to our confession is forgiveness and pardon. In a gesture of restoration, God heals our wounds, both the ones that were self-afflicted and the others that we have caught in the crossfire of our lives. Our confession and then God’s forgiveness-- it is never one without the other.
Because of words, our worlds may be set ablaze. And, as we know too well, what started as a spark can explode, incinerating everything in its path. As teachers, as those who speak while others listen, we are called to do the hard work of putting out the fire, of recognizing our failures and our mistakes so that we can begin the long process of healing and restoration. This is how we sow seeds of heaven. This is how we share the good news. It may take our whole life, and even the lifetimes of those who follow us, but we can trust that God will be there too, lighting our paths and guiding us every step of the way. Amen.