As I made my first site visit to a new school this year, I found – as I would term it – a “bad word” scribbled broadly onto the back of a stall door in the bathroom. Not having an eraser handy that particular moment, I left it and determined to inform the janitor later. I forgot this seemingly small detail in the hubbub of another busy day working with my students. When I returned to the site several weeks later, I was aghast to find this scribbling still present for all to read. Not only that, but a packing box, tucked into a lonely corner, was adorned with equally inappropriate phrases. I resolutely snatched a brand-new eraser from my supplies. With half a dozen students watching curiously, I thoroughly erased the ugliness from the door. Next I fished a permanent marker out of a closet and squatted to cover those carelessly written phrases on the box. In that moment I decided: it was not enough to simply remove those graceless words; they needed to be replaced with words of life. “Be nice” – be kind, I wrote onto the box. These new words declared the former ugliness exposed but put in place a new set of words for my students to see.
As I made my renovations, I realized that so often we simply let words be – they come out, they are shared – but they take on an existence of their own. Words are powerful in their ability to destroy or to create, to cultivate death or offer life. By His word God spoke all creation into being, hanging the stars and fashioning a physical realm to display His handiwork (Genesis 1). It is with good reason that Proverbs declares, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21). My act of blotting and rewriting was about much more than maintaining school property or protecting the youngest students from words I hope they never learn. It was about removing what had no right to a place in either their lives or their environment.
It was not enough to simply remove those “bad words” that act as poison. To not cause death is not the same as offering life. And so in each moment I begin to ask, “Lord, how can I speak life?” That is the whisper-cry of my heart: “Speak life!” So I speak, I write – I simply offer whatever words of life well up within me. I speak to the dreams and the strengths, to the destinies and passions – all the glory of how people are created, as I behold them through the eyes of Jesus. Never have I looked upon anyone whom my Jesus has not already loved first and best, so I, too, seek to look with love. On a weekly basis I get messages or responses from friends, coworkers, students, and random people I’ve met – so many of these interactions have a similar phrase: “That is the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me.” “No one has ever told me anything so nice in my whole life.” “I’ve never shared that with anyone” or “We just met – how did you know?” Then I have the delight of watching LIFE happen, like the peaceful warmth of the sun shining down after a dark night, like birds joining sweet songs to the newness of spring. This is the kindness that we all crave – the kindness that sparks hope, that saves lives. A young writer shared a poem with me this week, and these lines captured my thoughts:
“So many people want to stay and survive
But the voices you give them want to make them die.
But they don’t want to leave their loved ones, so they stay alive;
Once the voices get louder all they can do is cry.”
Dear hearts, what have these voices been for you, these poisonous voices with their death-words? I know which ones they are for me – and I can think of moments where my voice was the pain of someone else’s heart. God forgive me for moments when my words carried the whispers or shouts of death; forgive the moments when my words were not meant to bring life-light to others. May my heart always be tender to offer life through word and deed.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:29-32
To not speak death is not my goal. Rather, I want every word to hold the echo of life, of hope and grace. Where I look, I begin to see; and where I listen, I begin to hear – what voices of life need yet to speak? There is a life that was saved this week because of this kindness; there is a life that was saved two months ago by this kindness. There is a life that was saved in October last year and another many years ago in 2010. When Scripture declares that our words, our voices, can be either life or death, it is not purely figurative. There are physical, in-the-moment cries that this kindness answers in a way nothing else can. It is the right words, in the right moment, given in pure kindness. Your words can literally save lives – not because you are the savior of any but because you carry the love of the Savior of all: Jesus Christ, the Living Hope. And He is the best Word of all. There are other moments that this kindness touches and has touched that I may never see fully in this life, so I continue to speak life.
We are created for life, dear ones. What life are you speaking over yourself and others today? What words need to be erased? What new words need to take their place? Where is your voice meant to save lives, pulling others back from despair? I bless your voice to be one that carries words of life in every way, declaring Truth for every need.
“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” – Colossians 4:6