When our girls were little we talked a good bit about the power of words and using our words to build up each other instead of tearing down or hurting each other. I can remember teaching them the word, edify. We would frequently tell one sister to say something edifying to another after she had used hurtful words. This often produced unexpected results, like the time there was a long silence before the offending sister, struggling to find something nice to say about her sister, finally came out with, “I like your shoelaces.” We take what we can get as parents.
I was reminded of this story Sunday after a chat with our new Youth Pastor. Our church, First Baptist Jenks, is just now getting back to some semblance of normal. While we were quarantining, Brandon Trentham came aboard to minister to the youth in our congregation. I was eager to meet him because of his name. I wanted to know if he was related the first teacher I had when I went to college as an adult, Bart Trentham. It turns out that Bart is Brandon’s father, so it gave me an opportunity to share a story about his dad.
I had one year of college after high school back in the dark ages. I won’t reveal the year, but it was so long ago that girls were not permitted to wear pants anywhere on campus, and we registered for class in the gym by going around from table to table trying to find an empty spot in a class to add to our handwritten registration card. When I was 48-years old, I decided to go back and get the degree I never got. Our three daughters had either gotten their own degrees or were still in college and thought I was crazy for actually wanting to go to school. I had a good deal of trepidation about it myself. My two biggest fears were (1) they would make me use a computer (we were still in the DOS era and I didn’t even know where the “on” switch was) and (2) they would make me do math. Actually I ended up learning to do math on a computer, but that is a different story. My heart was pounding as I walked into the registrar’s office at what was then Tulsa Junior College and registered for two classes. I didn’t have to register on a computer! Whew!
My very first class was Intro to Psychology and I loved it from the start. My teacher was a young Bart Trentham who was an adjunct teacher at the time. I don’t think he was Dr. Trentham at this time; maybe still finishing up. (Sidebar; I had the BEST teachers at TJC! Most of them very over-qualified.) Bart was funny and engaging and made psychology come alive for me. I was the annoying “non-traditional’ student in a class full of sleepy 18-year olds. You know, that adult who sat on the front row and kept asking questions. One day, after I had asked a question, Bart paused for a minute and looked straight at me and said, Fran, you ask really good questions. You ask Ph.D. questions.)
I can still remember the physical feeling that accompanied his words. Ph.D.? Me? Could I? It was like an arrow to my heart and a seed was planted. Long story short, I did get that Ph.D. As I was sharing this story with Brandon, he asked if his dad knew it. I replied that I think he knows I became Dr. Carona, but I don’t think he knows his part in it. As I thought about our conversation later in the day I realized that Dr. Trentham probably doesn’t even remember me. Many years have gone by, and I was not an important part of his story, but he was an important part of mine.
This brings me back to the power of our words. We can choose to use this power constructively, to build up and encourage, or we can use our words to destroy, to wound and shatter another person. And words have a very long life. I cannot even count the people who came to my office still wounded by words that were spoken to them as children. We can use our words as Dr. Trentham did, to plant a dream, or we can use them to destroy dreams, to imply that one’s hopes and ambitions are impossible. Are our words life-giving or life-draining? Do our words inspire or extinguish? Gary Chapman in his book Love As a Way of Life says our words can be either bullets or seeds.
And then there are the words we speak to ourselves. Oh the lies we believe! I spent many hours teaching my clients to challenge their negative thoughts that came to them so automatically, and replace them with words that are true. If you have spent a lifetime listening to your own lies it is difficult to even know what the truth is. The world is hard enough; we don’t need our own self-inflicted wounds.
The Bible has much to say about our words, telling us that the tongue has the power of life and death (Prov.18:21), and that the words that come out of our mouths should be for building up others (Eph. 4:29). When we must deliver a hard truth, we must do it in love and not harshly. Do I always get this right? Hah! But I have a mental image I use. I call it a criticism sandwich. The bread slices are the soft words that go down easily, and the meat in the middle is the difficult part. Begin and end these conversations with the soft “bread.”
And when you get the chance, use your words to inspire, to create a vision. You just never know when your words can change the trajectory of someone’s life. Use them carefully.
So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. 1 Thess. 5:11 NLT