We’ve all done it. We’ve talked before our brains can process the words. It’s a universal malady. Let me confess a small example. Rev. Donne Wilkinson and I were standing at the grave of the late Mathilde Bradford. Mathilde was one of those wonderful ageless persons who loved to work with children as a social worker. At the grave, I suggested (spur of the moment) that we sing “Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so.” Rev. Donnie and I ended up an octave higher than the tune started with (I’m easily influenced). When it was over, I turned to Donnie and said, “You an preach, but you sure can’t sing.” Laughter came easy, which Mathilde would have enjoyed. Later, I apologized to Rev. Donnie for my carless remark. “If it’s any comfort,” I said, “I can’t sing, either.” Then, he told me he had to have throat surgery years ago, and there were complications that affected his vocal chords. I felt like crawling in a hole, but he laughed and was very gracious.
It’s been called “foot in mouth disease”. You speak before you think. And sometimes, it gets you in trouble…real trouble. In the New Testament book of James, we find these words: “The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity and it can defile the whole body. Man can control every kind of beast, but no one can control the tongue; it can be an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3: 6-7). James describes the stress caused by an undisciplined tongue. He said, “The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body.” Angry, hurtful words can cause physical and chemical damage to our system. We use certain metaphors like, “He made my blood boil,” or, “What he said made me hot under the collar”. How many marriages fall apart because of a lack of good communication? Words can be so hurtful. They can set siblings apart, alienate friends, and cause a rift between parents and children.
The thing about words is that you cannot take them back. Once spoke, the damage is done, no matter how much “forgiveness ensues”. There’s a poem that says: “Thoughts, unexpressed, may fall back dead; but God Himself can’t kill them once they’re said.” Of course, there’s a positive side to all of this. Words can also do a world of good when they come from kindness and thoughtfulness. People are more sensitive than we think, and most people respond favorably to words for encouragement and support.
One of the most important jobs I have is to try to bring words of comfort to grieving families. It is never an easy task, and I don’t take it lightly. Fr. Ron Rolheiser, president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, says that one sentence of consolation that he offers at funerals is this one: “He is now in hands safer than ours. She is now in hands much gentler than our own. God is more understanding and more compassionate to us than we are to ourselves.”
I will always remember the first time I tried to bring comfort to a grieving family. My father decided to move back to his old home-place when I was about 11 or 12. We raised cotton, corn and huge garden of assorted veggies. It was a learning experience because we had cows, chickens, guineas, etc. A family lived nearby who were called “sharecroppers”. A baby was born to them, but he only lived 5 or 6 weeks. My sister and I got busy and made a wooden coffin out of planks we found in the barn. My sister lined the box with pieces of cloth with cotton underneath. When we took it to the grieving family, they hugged us and wept. I read something from the Bible at the graveside and my dad offered a prayer. I won’t forget this experience because it did as much for me as for anyone.
So, words are important. They can do a world of good or harm. I found this prayer by an unknown author that says it all:
Lord, though knowest better than I know myself that I am growing older and will someday be old. Keep me from getting talkative, and from the fatal habit of thinking that I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from craving to try to straighten out everybody’s affairs. Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details—give me wings to get to the point.
I ask for grace enough to listen to the tales of other’s pains. Help me to endure them with patience. But seal my lips on my own aches and pains—they are increasing and my love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by.
Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally it is possible that I may be mistaken. Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a saint—some of them are so hard to live with—but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil.
Make me thoughtful, but not moody; helpful, but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all—but though knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end. Amen.