Out and About (Sort of): Words Matter by Howard Freedlander

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During 2017, I probably wrote roughly 10,000 words in my weekly Talbot Spy column. There were times I was tempted to quote something in entirety, sometimes thinking my words were inadequate to express my thoughts and opinions. However, I always remained committed to my own prose, though frequently including quotations that might be helpful as clarification or amplification.

For this column, I’m yielding almost entirely to another speaker, in this case an Episcopal priest, the Rev. James R. Harlan, rector of the Church of Bethesda-by-the Sea in Palm Beach, Fl. Sitting in the third row during Father Harlan’s Christmas Eve sermon were President and Mrs. Trump. They had been married at this church in 2005.

“In the beginning, in the beginning before and beyond you and me before and beyond this country, and this culture, before and beyond even this planet: in the beginning, the Gospel According to John tells us, was the Word. The Evangelist takes us all the way back, all the way back, to the beginning to put this evening’s celebration in the right context. Back to the beginning where God spoke and there was light. God need only say the word and the world comes into being. That is the power of God’s creativity and love.

Our words are perhaps not so awe inspiring, but we know don’t we? We know the power of speech, of words.

Nelson Mandela the great champion of racial equality in South Africa, who was imprisoned for almost three decades for standing up to a government that was repressing and racist and all of that. Nelson Mandela knew the power of words. He said: “It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.

Words matter. The book of Proverbs talks often about the power of words. Proverbs 18, for example says death and life are in the power of the tongue. Words can build up or tear down. Words can speak truth or obfuscate truth. Words convey information, emotion, motivation.

When God created the universe, the book of Genesis tells us God did so by the Word, speaking saying, “Let there be light.” And there was. That word of God, that word through which God loved and lovingly brought this whole world into being, that word became flesh to live among us to live within us, in Jesus Christ. The word of God is more powerful and more transforming than any word you or I could possibly utter. And the gospel according to John tells us that that Word brings light, pure light, light that casts away the darkness of fear and pain. Light that offers the only real possibility of reconciling with enemies, of welcoming strangers, of truly loving one another, of truly knowing ourselves.

Your words and mine too often give voice to and empower the darkness that sometimes seems to loom so large. Your words and mine can have as much destructive and divisive potential as creative and healing potential. But God’s Word, made flesh in Jesus, whose incarnation we celebrate on this holy night, that word is perfect and pure light.

That word is light that casts out darkness and fear. That word creates within and around us love and peace. That word enlightens us to see who we truly are: beloved children of God. And herein lies, I think, the greatest miracle about this light, this light of God’s love. This light that became flesh in Jesus is also within you and me. The light of God’s love and Jesus is at the core of who we truly are. That creative healing light of God’s love is longing to shine forth from within you and from within me to bring light to our lives and to the world.

That light of the love of God in Christ wants to shine through to enlighten our minds to bring peace to our hearts to heal our deepest hurts.

I wonder tonight where is that light of God’s love shining most brightly for you? Don’t get consumed or distracted by the darkness, even though I know that sometimes it seems difficult to ignore. Tonight and tomorrow and on from there, let’s testify, let’s bear witness like John did to the light of God’s love that we know in Jesus Christ. Let’s testify in word and action that no one need feel confined to the darkness. Not you, not me, not any person is beyond the light-filled touch of the word of God and Jesus Christ. Let’s let that light shine in our words and our actions in our love for every human being. Let’s let that light shining through us be our gifts to ourselves, to our families and friends, and to the world this Christmas.”

I can’t pretend to emulate the Rev. Harlan’s scriptural interpretation. As someone, though, who spews thousands of words in this column and so many more in my daily conversations, I am sensitive about the power of words to heal and hurt, care and console, deride and decry and cheer and chide. I’m aware how a simple hello or personal inquiry can allow the recipient to feel better about oneself. I’ve seen where the absence of words—as in disregarding someone by failing to acknowledge the person’s presence—is hurtful.

We’ve all seen how the poisonous nature of words contaminates public discourse. The unfortunate result is a lack of comity and two-way communication. Words of friendship and understanding cease, nullifying the potential for constructive action and results.

Father Harlan deliberately uses the words “light” and “darkness” to connote God’s will to propagate an environment where love and compassion (light) triumph over hate and discord (darkness). Harlan’s point, stated so gracefully within his sermon, is that words are the vehicle for friendship and love, generosity of spirit, expression of grace and, yes, peace and tranquility.

Because all of us are imperfect, insecure human beings, our words often express our personal flaws. As I interpret Father Harlan’s Christmas Eve message, our words matter in our sometimes difficult and divisive lives.

All of us are messengers of goodness and glee, gloom and gracelessness. We can choose.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Stephen Slack says:

    Excellent and very timely column! Words do matter, and the volume level of words spoken magnify their effect. Let’s lower the volume and look to the light of God’s love that He provided in His Word.

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