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REFLECTIONS: When words get in the way Bishop Woodie W. White, Sep 21, 2011
Bishop Woodie White
By Bishop Woodie W. White UMR Columnist
There are times when our choice of words fails us.
This is a strange acknowledgement for one whose vocation is so wedded to the use of words. Whatever else may be expected of clergy, we must know how to use words. We use them to instruct, persuade, influence and often to challenge. Words are integral to our vocational identity.
But the use of words is important to all of us, whatever our calling. It is the primary way we communicate with each other. We communicate with both the spoken and written word. I reverence them both. Next to my computer is a book on words, how to use them and their meaning.
I remember the line from the delightful musical, My Fair Lady, when one of the characters in utter frustration laments, “Words, words, I’m so sick of words!” There are indeed times when words are not only inadequate, but can obscure communication rather than enhance it. Sometimes we take the words we use too lightly. Clichés take the place of sincerity. Words are used that have great and significant meaning, but they are used with the intention of neither. Thus meaty, full words are rendered empty and meaningless. Valued but overused words are tossed about thoughtlessly, and thus lose their power to heal and instead often cause great harm.
In The Pastor: A Memoir—the recent, moving and insightful book by the Rev. Eugene H. Peterson (author of The Message)—he shares an experience following his mother’s funeral service. Overwhelmed with grief at the close of the benediction, feeling unprepared to meet those who wanted to extend condolences, he went to a quiet room and there continued to grieve in private. His daughter followed him and sat next to him in silence.
Dr. Peterson writes, “And then a man I didn’t know came in, put his arm across my shoulder, spoke for three or four minutes in preacher clichés, and prayed. After he left I said, ‘Oh Karen, I hope I have never done that to anyone.’”
There are times when even the most helpful words should go unspoken. I remember far too many occasions when the more I spoke in an effort to help a situation, the more difficult the situation became. I thought I was carefully choosing the right words, but they were not right for that time. Right words, wrong time! My words got in the way. Ecclesiastes is insightful when it declares there is “. . . a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3:7)
Of course, there are also moments when words cry out to be spoken as a measure of love or concern, but simply come out wrong. They come from the right place. They are genuine. But as soon as the words are spoken, they feel somehow inappropriate. Those words, too, got in the way.
Thus words must always be chosen with care. People who rely on words in their vocation learn this over time. It makes them professionals.
But the need to choose our words carefully is no less crucial in ordinary, day-to-day situations. Good communication is important to fostering meaningful relationships and expressing intended purposes.
Words are capable of conveying the most profound thoughts of mind and the deepest feelings of heart. But watch out that they don’t get in the way of both!
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology.