What a Picture! What a Message!

He wore an ordinary T-shirt, but the printed matter on it was very eye-catching indeed! I was looking at his back first and thought, “What a gruesome picture to wear on your shirt, especially when you are (and he was) a Christian young man!” But then I saw the front of the shirt; it had a similar picture on it, but with a small difference – which made a huge difference!

It happened in the early 1900s that an altar boy accidentally dropped a glass of wine during mass. This happened in a small church in Croatia. The priest became upset, slapped the boy and told him to leave the altar and never come back. The boy never came back, but grew up to become Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia.

About the same time another altar boy, Peter John, was assisting a priest at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois. He likewise dropped the glass of wine during Mass, and years later wrote of the experience. Peter John recounted, “There is no atomic explosion that can equal the intensity of decibels in the noise and explosive force of a wine cruet falling on a marble floor of a cathedral in the presence of a bishop; I was frightened to death.” Presiding over Mass that day was Bishop John Spalding. Bishop Spalding looked at the broken glass and kindly said, “Someday you will be just as I am.” Peter John became Archbishop Felton Sheen later in life.

Now, this is not a critical epistle about the theology and practices of Roman Catholicism, but rather about the picture on the T-shirt which illustrates so poignantly the powerful influence of words on young (and older) lives. On the back of the shirt I saw this fearsome claw-like hand with a tongue sticking out of its palm, demonstrating the destructive power of the tongue, as was the case with Joseph Brauz. But then, when the young man turned around, I saw, on the front of the shirt, right over the heart, a picture of a hand reaching out, with a tongue on the palm of the hand, demonstrating how the spoken word can be used winsomely and encouragingly.

There’s an old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” As far as wisdom goes, this is blatantly false. Sticks and stones can break our bones, that’s true, but words, too, can damage and hurt. They can kill the spirit, doing far more harm than sticks and stones ever could. Words make a difference. Words have the power to change the course of history and people’s lives; so, we need to be careful of the words we use and how we say them. Actually, words can be far more cutting and longer lasting in their effect than a fisticuff or such like ever can be!

Romans 3 makes no apology about man’s natural state when it typifies destructive people. And the stress regarding what typifies their destructive outworking in relationships is how they use their tongue. We read among other things there, “Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”

Contrast this with the reminder given to God’s people in Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Now, a word is fitly spoken when it is spoken at the precise time when it is needed; a word spoken in that particular circumstance and at that time is endowed with heightened grace. The shape of the apple and perhaps the lovely fragrance associated with it refer to the loveliness of a proper decision, the gold to its great value, the setting of silver to the brilliance of time and place. And so, consistent with the aforesaid, the Apostle Paul writes, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”

American short story writer Ambrose Bierce once said,” Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” Indeed, words spoken in anger and haste are like bullets that have irretrievably been sent on their way to a target, hitting where they hurt or kill.

By way of contrast, John Colville, civil servant under Churchill, presumably said about him, “He fertilizes a phrase or a line of poetry for weeks and then gives birth to it in a speech.” Words spoken in that vein will not only have been fertilized but will fertilise the very being of the recipients with all that is beautiful and blossoming.

Recently, in our ward Bible Study, we discussed how to dialogue most effectively as Christians. More often than not, parents will ‘dump’ on their children the do’s and don’ts concerning daily living (there are occasions in which this has its place, it must be said), whereas a much more fruitful approach is to have a conversation starting with a question (as over against a judgmental call). Asking and guiding will more readily lead to the child having buy-in regarding whatever desirable conclusion is to be reached. The ten commandments are often handled as the do’s and don’ts from God (picturing God as the great disciplinarian), whereas they are actually a love-letter from God to us His people in which He, firstly, gives of Himself as He shows His character and, secondly, gives to us in them a guide on the road to paradise restored. Isaiah puts it well when he writes (Isaiah 40:14), “He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, And carry them in His bosom, And gently lead those who are with young.” Recognising this will help our children see God in a different, much more attractive light, and will help them see those who imitate God (albeit fallibly) in a much more attractive light, promoting harmony over conflict.

Likewise, when addressing other adults, seeking clarification, asking questions, will create a much more benevolent and receptive environment, than tossing statements at the hearer. Conversation is the key. The open-hand picture with the tongue on the palm encapsulates the journey of winsome and fruitful communication well.

And so, fellow-Christian, if you were to wear a T-shirt with an honest message about yourself, which picture would it sport? The claw tongue, or the open hand tongue? May the Lord cultivate us continually in living out the latter.

Discretion of speech is more than eloquence, and to speak agreeably to him with whom we deal is more than to speak in good words, or in good order.

Sir Francis Bacon(English philosopher and statesman, 1561-1626)

Dr Herm Zandman

FRC Southern River

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