Monday, January 12, 2009

The Power of Words and the Weight of the World Pt. 1

"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."
- Rudyard Kipling

I have long been intrigued and influenced by the power of words.

One of human kind’s greatest achievements and most foundational activities is the acquisition and effective employment of words for self expression and communication. Take a moment, fire up your imagination, and think about what life might be like without the facility of language and words. Seriously, indulge me . . it’s scary and amazing isn’t it? We don’t have to look long to find examples of the immanence of words. Consider podcasts. I love podcasts. I drive a good deal around this beautiful island called Ireland and to help the miles pass smoothly, I listen to loads and loads of podcasts and audiobooks. Recently I was reflecting on how strange it was that oftentimes now I choose to listen to people talking while in my car than actual music - and oh, how I LOVE music. I remember thinking when I was younger that only old people listened to people talking - news, interviews, lectures and the like - while in the car. Guess that means I’m going the right direction then!

One of the podcasts I enjoy ruminating on is called Napkin Scribbles’ by futurist and cultural analyst Leonard Sweet. While I have yet to read any of his books, I appreciate his approach to many topics as he simply presents what’s floating across his mind that day. During one such Napkin Scribble from a couple of years back, Len began sharing about a gentleman by the name of Dr. Masaur Emoto who had spent twenty years studying the effect of words on the structure of water. Dr. Emoto exposed separate samples of water to different words, spoken or written, and then proceeded to freeze each of the samples to record any variations in water crystal formation. He employed the use if words like ‘You Fool’ and ‘Thank You’ on the water and what he found is nothing short of amazing - if you can believe it. The crystals that formed from ‘negative’ words like ‘You Fool’ appeared incomplete and without luster - lacking something. The crystals that formed from words like ‘Thank You’ had a beautiful symmetry and radiance about them - qualitatively different from their negative counterparts. Interestingly, Dr. Emoto found that the most powerful words which had the greatest effect on the water crystal formation were ‘Love’ and ‘Gratitude’.

Now, it doesn’t take a scientist to know that certain words help and heal, while others harm and harass. It’s an intriguing thought to contemplate Dr. Emoto’s work and why his findings might have turned out the way they did. For those with a penchant for reflecting on ancient words, one of the oldest texts in the world to inspire faith in human souls is today known as the Bible or the Holy Scriptures. Right throughout that unique tome of inspiring words resides many, many references to the influence of words over the lives of others. Beginning right at the start of the Scriptures we find an account of the genesis of the world and how it was lovingly crafted by the Creator. Much of that account recorded in Genesis chapter one, is bold and direct stating, “And God said . .” and then it relays those things He spoke into existence, “Let there be light . . Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear . . Let the land produce vegetation . .“ On and on God speaks and new things come into existence! Chapter one hundred and four, in the book known as Psalms, also poignantly illustrates the reality of words bringing matter into existence and that same matter continuing to respond to the words of God. No matter whether you’re a sceptic or a believer, the mere concept of One speaking and matter responding by coming into being within space and time is nothing less than astonishing. It’s the power of words, God’s words, having effect in the created order. In this, a precedent was set.

That words continue to have effect in our world is an understatement. The creation and employment of language is a non-static endeavour. Languages are constantly changing, evolving and morphing. I was recently responding to an email from a friend and in the course of my response I used a word that made me stop and think, “Is that a real word or did I just make that up?” I asked myself. I had to go and check it out. It turns out that the word isn’t even in the dictionary, BUT it is used in much of our contemporary speech within English speaking circles. I saw it listed in the index of the ‘Urban Dictionary’ but without definition. I know what I intended it to convey, and what I believed the context of its common usage was, but it wasn’t ‘on record’. I used it anyway, presuming my friend would understand my intent. Just yesterday I heard on CNN that a particular ‘watchdog’ group claims by April 29th, 2009 (give or take five days either side), the English language will have a total of one million words in usage. Some claim that is already the case. Either way the point is that words, and how we use them, constantly changes.

One incident that illustrates well the power and influence words can yield over one’s life came when my wife Christy and I were at one of life’s important decision-making junctures. We were about to graduate from college, and being already married, we were trying to discern God’s leading for what lie ahead, beyond the cap and gown. We had been exploring the possibility of moving from rural Indiana to the metropolis of Chicago in order to participate in a youth ministry internship with Willow Creek Community Church. It was our second official visit to the church and the Sunday service led by Bill Hybels was our final experience before hitting the road back home. We were challenged and moved by what we heard and experienced that morning - specifically by what Bill had shared on moving forward with God’s intentions for your life. It was one of those moments, that you can unequivocally state, ‘God was speaking directly to me’.

Following the service, Christy and I went about a mile or two down the road for some lunch, choosing to eat at a Chinese restaurant. As you all will undoubtedly know, one essential aspect of the Chinese dining experience is the obligatory ‘fortune cookie’ at the end of the meal (or before if you cheat!). We waited expectantly to view what our unique messages would be and then cracked them open with child-like delight. This was a defining moment. When I read the message in that little flavorless ‘cookie’, the course of our lives were changed forever. This is why I now firmly believe that God is in the fortune cookie business! The little note read, “What can words do to me unless I take them to heart?” Whoa! We had just been stirred, jarred even, by the content of the morning’s church service and were still attempting to come to terms with it when this message caught us by surprise. I thought about those words . . and I have thought about them for many years since. That experience, coupled with many other affirming reassurances, led Christy and I to move to Chicagoland and join Willow in their work among young people. Our time there changed us, and I still have that little ‘message from God’ pinned on a board in my office.

**End Part One**

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