Words Matter

Have you ever re-read an old devotional or blog post that God really used in your life and thought, “Wow! I needed to hear that again!” That concept is what inspired this year’s Summer Sampler. We’re bringing back some gems from years past and will be sharing them with you over the course of the summer. We hope that you’ll enjoy rediscovering these beautiful words of wisdom from Christian women from all walks of life.

by Jan Carlberg

Words matter. Athletes “misspeak.” Politicians rise and fall on words. And as we know too well, anyone in leadership spends a good portion of each day writing, speaking, reading, interpreting, and listening to words. Why? Words matter.

When my Mama was a young girl, her Papa took precious change from a savings jar to pay the fare to take her to hear famous orators in Chicago. “Margaret, pay attention. There are artists who make works of art with oil, but there are  others who paint pictures with words. Learn to use words well.” Only his Norwegian accent said, “use vords vel.” He knew words mattered.

So does Bill Buckner. He’s the guy who let the ball go between his legs during the Mets and Red Sox World Series. His stellar career was erased for many by one mistake. For more than twenty years, he and his family felt the shame and blame of one action. The press was filled with photos and words of condemnation. He became fuel for jokes and the recipient of threats.

The owners of the Red Sox must have had more in mind than finding a celebrity when they invited Billy Buckner back to Fenway Park for the home opener on April 8, 2008 to throw out the first pitch. As he moved onto the field, the crowd began to clap. Then, the crowd stood, cheering and applauding a man who’d returned bravely to face his accusers. This time, there were none. Something happened that sent shivers through thousands who attended or watched by television. It was an act of forgiveness and reconciliation while a whole lot of relieved ballplayers, capable of mistakes, looked on with fresh hope.

Later in an interview when asked why he came back, Buckner responded. “I’d gone back and forth, not sure I wanted to put myself or my family through this. Then I prayed and decided to come. But first I had to forgive the media.”

Forgiveness. As powerful as “I love you” is “I forgive you.” Words matter. Hosea wrote to the children of Israel, ”TAKE WORDS WITH YOU, and return to the Lord. Say to Him, ‘Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.’” (Hosea 14:2)

We’d do well to choose carefully the words we take with us to work and to our relationships. It’s a privilege to choose and use words and to speak of God’s decision and desire to forgive. An even greater gift is knowing we are forgiven by God and by others. Words matter.

Mama knew that well. She wrote many books and encouraged thousands through her words. She kept a book on the sideboard in her dining room. It was a book of blessings that someone had given her. At birthdays and special times, she’d take out the book and read an appropriate blessing.

Part of me hoped for such in the last weeks of her life while I tended Mama in her home in North Carolina. She, Daddy and Mrs. Miller, my favorite Sunday school teacher in Chicago, taught me Bible stories about patriarchs blessing their children. She must not have thought I needed one, since her final words to me were, “Go to bed!”

I never liked those words when I was a child, being the kind of kid who hated to miss anything. And there they came again. Mama didn’t speak any more words after that … a few hours later she took off for heaven. Today’s her birthday. She’s probably laughing about the words she spoke to me and to her sister Joyce, especially remembering that we obeyed like two little kids and went to bed!

Now, I’ve been around long enough to know I’m blessed, even without last minute messages from Mama and I’m grateful. But still a blessing would have been a bonus, something I could write about or tell our grandchildren. I’d have settled for a joke. Now, my Daddy loved a good joke. He always said he wanted his gravestone to read, “I told you I was sick.”

Words have a way of sticking, even though most of us grew up hearing and sometimes chanting. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We know better, don’t we? Words hurt. So does the absence of words. Some should never be said but lots of folks live and die deprived of words that matter, especially those rooted in love or forgiveness. Worth gets tied to words. So does listening. Some of us are better at speaking words than listening to them. Both matter.

Before Mama died, we’d talked about asking folks to give to a scholarship rather than send flowers. As much as she loved flowers, she loved young people and Gordon College more and thought that was a better use of money. So we established a scholarship at Gordon College to honor Mama. Many people gave and still are giving to help students who want to work with words, written or spoken.

The first recipient was a young man from Pennsylvania. Andrew knows the value of a word well spoken. He knew theater and how to use his voice: enunciate, modulate and project. When awarding him the scholarship, I reassured him that his training was excellent but on behalf of all who had given money to the College, I wanted to communicate that our concern was with his understanding of the power of words. Then I gave him one of the lessons my grandmother taught me: “Andrew, my grandmother completed just eight years of formal education in Norway before coming to this country to work as a maid in New York City. But she was a wise woman and well read. One day she talked to me about the value of words through a poem she’d memorized. I’ve put it to memory, as well, to remind me and now, you.”

Boys flying kites haul in their white winged birds.
You can’t do that when you’re flying words.
Once spoken, though you wish them left unsaid.
God, Himself, can’t kill them, make them dead.

To all of us who lead and pay attention to words, we know that the words we take in matter, as well. There’s nothing like the Word of God in us to temper the words that come through us. In the Old Testament Jeremiah wrote, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O Lord God Almighty.” (Jeremiah 15:16) In the New Testament Paul wrote “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16) Why? Words matter.

Enough said.

I think I just heard Mama say, “Go to bed!”

A preacher’s daughter, Jan Carlberg grew up with stories and biblical themes, and wove them together to create her own stories. The author of The Hungry Heart and The Welcome Song: And Other Stories from a Place Called Home, she is a popular speaker at conferences, churches, and colleges across the United States, and listeners always come away charmed by tales of her Scandinavian heritage.

From 1992 until 2011, Jan served as the First Lady of Gordon College, during the presidency of her late husband, R. Judson Carlberg. In that role she was deeply involved in the daily life of the College, and as its tireless ambassador to higher-education affinity groups such as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Consortium of Christian Colleges, and the Council of Independent Colleges.

She is also an ambassador for the church in New England and beyond. Along with her many speaking engagements, she was the first director of women’s ministries at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, teaching the Joy Bible study for 10 years and initiating events such as The Faith Lift. She has also served on several boards, including that of Vision New England.

Jan has two grown children and five grandchildren, and lives near the Atlantic Ocean in Gloucester, Massachusetts. You can visit her at her blog, http://www.jancarlberg.com/.