The old nursery rhyme is a lie: "Sticks and stones may break by my bones but words will never hurt me."
We know the truth. More of us are hurt, wounded, maimed and killed by words than by sticks and stones.
Words can kill. They can be just as lethal or harmful as a gunman's bullets. Aren't most of us living our lives with old wounds, many unhealed, from words said to us or about us on the playground or in the lunchroom or by people we loved? Have we not used words as weapons intending to hurt the person we love because we are mad at them? We might regret using the words later and even apologize, but both the speaker and the listener are now damaged.
Words have power. Have you noticed that the Bible begins with God speaking? God's speech creates the universe. Words have substance. Words create worlds. Words of power are not just for God. We are created in God's image. We can speak. Our speech creates. Everything changes when a child says his or her first word. They define their world by the words they create. My son's first words were "Dad," "Mom," "God" and "IHOP." The universe in four words!
Today I am a wordsmith. I have the opportunity and privilege to write and play with words. I am not burying a loved one killed by a gunman in Tucson, Ariz. I am not looking at year-old rubble in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and wondering if my mother is buried in it. I am not watching flood waters in Queensland, Australia, that take away my car, my house, my town. So what words will I say? What will I create?
Today I remember a friend, almost a family member. She died almost a decade ago of an aggressive brain tumor. Long before she died she accepted prayers on her behalf, but with conditions. She did not want any prayer said for her that used imagery of war, or battle or fighting or violence.
I did not like her limitations. I wanted her to survive. I felt that her best chance was to fight cancer with every ounce of strength. I wanted the radiation to nuke the cancer. I wanted the doctor to cut out the cancer, to rip it out, to kill it off. I wanted the cancer to be killed as many ways as possible. We are in a war with cancer.
But she would have none of this kind of talk.
How will there be healing, she said, if all the language is full of violence? Doesn't the violence we say in our prayers limit God's effectiveness to heal? When did Jesus ever use battle imagery to heal someone one? She believed that hate in every form -— including hate against cancer — was working against the will of God.
Prayer for her became a major task because so much of our prayer language — especially when we face cancer — invokes battle imagery. So we tried to pray the way she wanted us to pray. We saw the radiation as a light from heaven instead of as a death ray. We prayed that the cancer cells would stop going bad and return to their true selves.
I don't know if our prayers were successful. I know that she eventually died. But I also know that she was eating fish tacos the day after brain surgery.
She lived another two years. She returned to the pulpit. She continued in her ministry with persons who had AIDS.
I know that she forever changed how those of us praying for her looked at our prayer language, our everyday language, and our theological language. I think we are all word smiths. Every day we create worlds by the words we say. I think God invites us to use words that heal, to avoid hate in all its forms — even those well intended. Today I invite you to create a new world with healing words. Start with the hard stuff.
I invite you to pray for the suspected gunman in Arizona who, like the cancer cells, lost his way and needs to find his way back to his true self. I invite you to pray for the well being of a politician you can't stand because he or she is on the wrong side of every issue. I invite you to pray for the blessing of someone who harmed you with words. If we do these things today and every day we can stand with God and say "let there be light." And it shall be so.
MARK WILEY is pastor of Mesa Verde United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa.