A large crowd had gathered, most of them present to express their dissatisfaction with the leaders and their pending decision to approve a new, large complex of student housing. As the Town Council meeting was called to order, four NAU students were highlighted for winning an essay award, crafting their own versions of NPR’s “This I Believe” statements. These articulate young adults spoke of many things: the power of kindness, the deep and emotional impact of a loving dog, of fathers and mentors.
One young woman, drawing from her work with service animals, described Flagstaff as “one of the most community-driven, volunteer heavy communities I’ve ever encountered.” Another shared of difficulties in her journey, and opined that “kindness is more powerful than you can ever know.” Prior to them, the first essayist, a young man, “words are powerful.”
Moments after hearing from and applauding these articulate young men and women, the community was given an opportunity to speak. What followed was – to me, at least – so dichotomous as to be immediately jarring: whereas these essayists had shared with us words and perspectives both positive and hopeful, members of the community rose speaking with words and tone negative and cynical, harsh and nihilistic. The importance of kindness forgotten, the power of words was still readily apparent, as the Town Manager himself at one point insisted that the assembled body “show a little decorum, please.”
This recent night in November reminded me so strongly not just about the power of words, but our responsibility therein. In his epistle, James shares about this, likening a tongue to a fire-starter. Which can be both a bad and a good thing.
Several years ago, when Barack Obama was first running as president, I heard an interesting analysis comparing him with the Democratic candidate one election cycle back, John Kerry. It was the expert’s opinion, based on analysis of their speeches and patterns of conversation, that whereas Kerry had too-often dwelt on the negative, Obama was about hope. Regardless of what one thinks of him or his presidency, the rhetoric of his first campaign was one that recognized and harnessed the power of positive words, sharing hope-filled messages to many.
Having heard this “expert” analysis – and (as I remember it, anyway) a prediction, at that early time in the election, that he would likely overcome his opponent John McCain precisely because of this hopeful message – I was somewhat convicted. Were my words positive, hopeful enough? At the time, struggling in my own leadership, I was want to focus on what was broken, on the negative, on what I was lacking. I realized then how important it was that I be able to share hope.
I honestly don’t know how well I’ve done in sprinkling my words with the salt of hope in the 7 years since. This recent Town Council meeting served as a stark reminder to me of the importance and power of the words we choose to use. And at the front of my journal, which I often carry (even to Council meetings!), are two powerful verses that I would hope guide my tongue (and my life):
Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. (Eph. 4:29, CEB)
whatever is True, whatever is Noble, whatever is Right, whatever is Pure, whatever is Lovely, whatever is Admirable – if anything is Excellent or Praiseworthy – think about such things. (Phil. 4:8, NIV)
I believe words are powerful, and kind words even more so. Like Moses or Jeremiah, I wonder if I have the strength and ability for what I feel God is inviting (calling?) me to; but will trust God’s Holy Spirit. May my words be well-chosen, kind, and meaningful to those who hear.