About four years ago, my husband Toby and I were on a motorcycle trip riding through Yellowstone National Park. Somewhere near Yellowstone Lake, I had an unfortunate collision with a bug at 70mph. I will spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that the collision required a visit to the local hospital in Cody, Wyoming, just outside the west entrance of the park. As we entered the hospital, we noticed a big sign on the front door: "Check Your Weapons at the Door."
As we found out later, the sign was put up because many of the patrons of the hospital--it being Wyoming and all--would show up for treatment packing heat! I've never forgotten that sign and have thought of it often, as I believe "Check Your Weapons at the Door" is a good instruction not only for a hospital but also for life.
There are a lot of weapons floating around these days. On the international scene, there are nukes, drone strikes, and WMDs--weapons of mass destruction. Here in the United States, we have a serious problem with gun control. Did you know that more than 30,000 people are killed by firearms each year in this country? That's more than the population of the town I grew up in in western North Carolina.
But here's the thing: even with the nukes and the drones and the automatic weapons, there's an equally scary, perhaps even more dangerous, weapon still at large. And we each have one. Each of us was born with our own personal WMD: the human tongue. Proverbs 12:18 explains, "The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing."
We all know about the damaging power of words. We've all been on the receiving and giving end of words that sting us like a bug at 70mph: words that tear relationships apart, words that tear families apart, words that tear hearts apart, words of anger, words of jealousy, words of resentment, insecurity or fear; words of prejudice, hate, or racism. Words that have manifested into violence from Charleston to Ferguson.
We all know about the damaging power of words. And please understand that when I say "words," I mean spoken and written. Remember that our fingers are extensions of our mouths. Texts, emails, and social media postings can also be considered weapons. For example, did you know that 52% of our young people report being cyber-bullied? The old bully on the playground has now found a hiding place behind a computer screen. Even more alarming is a report by Yale University that found that bullying victims are up to 10% more likely to consider suicide. Whether it's spoken, written, texted, or tweeted, this arms race of words has to stop. We must check our weapons at the door.
Jesus made this crystal clear with his words in the book of John: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). Obviously, we can't live that legacy of love that Jesus commanded if we can't control our tongue and our words.
Let me offer three ideas of how we can check our weapons at the door. Of course, you know it has to be three ideas. That's because life comes in threes: first, you believe in Santa, then, you don't believe in Santa, and finally, you are Santa.
The first way we can check our weapons at the door is to take responsibility for what we say or write. Sometimes, I'm afraid we treat words like I cook spaghetti: in short, sloppy. I've never been an exacting kind of cook. I just throw the noodles against the wall and see what sticks. As you can imagine, I have a pretty messy kitchen.
I'm afraid we treat words like that, too. We just throw them out randomly and see what sticks. But unlike spaghetti, words always stick. They stick, and we can't take them back. Oh we'd like to. It's probably the one time in life we wish we had autocorrect--the stupid automatic spellcheck on smartphones that changes words to things we never meant to type.
Sadly, there's no autocorrect excuse in life. Words stick, and we can't take them back. Dodgers' legend Willie Davis explained the danger: "If you step on people in this life, then more than likely you're gonna come back as a cockroach."
The second way we can check our weapons at the door is to be quiet and listen. One of my favorite lessons about being quiet came from my adopted Jewish grandmother, Nana Gert. She was the matriarch of a dear friend's family. At 89, she would still cook huge High Holiday meals. I asked her one time how she had the energy, and she said, "Well, I just don't wait for Friday Shabbat to rest. Anytime I'm tired, I say 'Shabbat? Why not!'"
A great lesson for us all, especially when it comes to our mouths. We must learn to take a Shabbat for our mouths and listen. Said another way in Psalm 141:3: "Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips."
Sadly, the reality is that as human beings we love to talk, to tell others what we think, and to lecture others about what is right and wrong. It's like the old saying goes: "Folks that think by the inch and talk by the yard should be shown the door by the foot."
The problem is that when we do nothing buy talk we lose all opportunity to listen. The author Steven Covey explained, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply. In any conversation, there are two parts: the mouth and the heart. When we listen to reply, we're only listening to the words. If we are truly listening to understand, then we hear not only from the mouth but also from the heart."
The third and final way we can check our weapons at the door is to recognize that our words can change the world--for better or for worse. Let me offer you two examples. Last year, while I was sitting with my husband as he waited to go in for surgery, we overheard a conversation between the doctor and the other patient in the waiting room. The doctor entered the room and without even a "good morning" said, "You are going to hate me after this surgery. It is one of the most painful procedures I do." Wow! Can you imagine the negative impact of those words on the patient? His family? His recovery?
Here is another example. Last fall, I was walking through Madison Square Park in New York City watching a father play catch with his tiny son. The boy was just old enough to hold a glove, and the dad was standing almost on top of him so that the ball, when tossed, would be sure to land in his glove. After a few missed throws, the father basically dropped the ball into his son's glove and then exclaimed, "Good job! I am so proud of you!" Can you imagine the positive impact of those words on that little boy? It was like putting a positive footprint in the wet cement of that little boy's psyche. It's just as Proverbs teaches, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof" (Proverbs 18:21).
No matter who our audience, whether a child, a co-worker, a family member, a friend, or a complete stranger, people are hungry for love and affirmation. With every word we speak, we are changing the world. The questions I leave you with are these: are we changing the world for the better or for the worse? Do your words lift people up and leave them better than you found them, or is your mouth a weapon of mass destruction?
Remember Jesus' teaching "love one another," for that is how we will be known as his disciples. Let's make our words be a tool of healing, not hurt. Let's make our words change the world for the better. Let's agree, together, to check our weapons at the door.
Let us pray. Gracious God, may we be mindful of the power of our words so that we may strive to use them for healing, for good and to glorify your name. Amen.