Word Power

Words! Words! Words!

Along with many of you, I recently read How to Be An Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi.
F477D884-9BB7-44F8-8D20-7A049F1720C8_4_5005_cIt’s a thoughtful and challenging message we white folk need to hear. (The next book on my stack — highly recommended by my wife– is Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize winner, Isabel Wilkerson.)  One sentence by Ibram Kendi popped off the page and has been rambling around in my brain ever since.

The power of the spoken word is in the power of the word spoken.  (p, 167)

Reread and think about that for a moment.

The curse of our high-speed technology,  pervasive social media, and 24-hour cable network news is that we are drowning in a sea of words with every voice shouting louder than the last one.  It reminds me of that moment in My Fair Lady when Eliza Doolittle shouts,

Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through,
First from him, now from you.
Is that all you blighters can do?

Perhaps you can identify with a friend who asked each family member to share something they learned after spending an extended weekend together.  One grandson wrote: “I learned that one cousin likes to hear himself talk and another cousin likes to make sure other people hear her talk, which often conflicts with my desire to hear nobody talk.”

There’s a colorful phrase in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus warns of people who “think they shall be heard for their much speaking.” (Matthew 6:7 KJV) They assume the power of the spoken word is in the number of words that are spoken and the volume with which they are spoken.

“The Power of the Word Spoken”

65E68970-10EA-48DE-8C47-5DD56EB38B75_4_5005_cBy contrast, it’s refreshing to remember that the power is not in how many words we speak or how loudly we speak them, but in the truth of the word that is spoken.

Ibram Kendi (a graduate of Florida A & M and former professor at the University of Florida) demonstrates that principle in practice. In interviews, he answers questions with a careful, calm response.  The word he speaks has power because it is the result of what he calls “persistent self-awareness…and regular self-examination.”

The Living Word

There’s something deeply biblical about all this. Proverbs 51:1 advises, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  The writer of the epistle of James instructs us:

Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.  Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you. (1:19-21) 

The word of truth that is planted deep inside us is not a trivial word picked out of thin air, a simplistic word denying the complexity of our world, or a manulative word floating around in a meme on the Internet.  It is not a lie, a distortion of facts or a reinvention of history that becomes “true” because of the number of times the President, his family members and supporters repeat them and the volume with which they do it.

The power of “the word planted deep inside you” is ultimately truth that honors those “stubborn things” called facts. For followers of Christ, it is truth that is rooted in disciplined reflection of scripture, explored by reason, nurtured in Christian community, and confirmed in personal experience. It is, in fact, the living Word that became flesh among us in Jesus.

Parker Palmer (On the Brink of Everything: Grace  Gravity and Getting Old) offers this prayer from poet, Jeanne Lohman:

Let us try what it is to be true to gravity,
to grace, to the given…

refusing solemnity and slogans,
let us honor what hides and does not come easy to speech…
Our words are feathers that fly
on our breath.
Let them go in a holy direction.

Grace and peace,


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4 thoughts on “Word Power

  1. Thank you, Jim, for this thought provoking essay. Anne

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. We are currently reading Kendi’s book & discussing it with a Zoom group at Trinity, Tallahassee. My only regret is that (at present) this is an all white group. I’m learning, but I think my learning could be more real if the group had a bi- or multi-racial base.
    Thank you again for your insight!

  3. Thanks for the “good words”…. have a blessed day and SHALOM…

  4. Regina Birrenkott August 30, 2020 — 6:47 pm

    Currently reading Kendi’s book and finding so much that I want to discuss and hear the stories and opinions of others! Thank you for the reminder of the power of words…not the quantity of words or the volume of those words! We all have so much to learn!

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