Sticks and Stones

Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. ~ Proverbs 16:24

I suppose my sister and I were like most siblings. We were best friends and we annoyed each other constantly. We would fight over which record to listen to. I liked “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce and she was partial to “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night. We would play at full volume our record player which sat in a blue and white striped cardboard box, and Mom would yell, “Turn that thing down. You’ll disturb the neighbors.”

We could not play a game of checkers without changing the rules which always led to cries, “You’re cheating.” We resolved most disputes by stopping the game and promising never to play with each other again. When we bickered, Mom had her favorite sayings. “You two are tap dancing on my last nerve.” Or “You are driving me up a wall.” In the first grade, before I knew what an idiom was, that turn of phrase always made me smile. Words created wonderful pictures.

When Mom had enough of us, she would say loudly, “Go outside and play, and be back before dark.” Those were the days. One time Becky and I grabbed two tennis rackets and some balls from the garage and walked down to the tennis courts at our town park. We tried to hit the yellow balls back and forth to each other, but they always sailed high and far over the fence. We started fighting over who should “fetch” the balls.

Without Mom to referee our dispute, our argument intensified. I discovered that I knew adult “four letter words” and Becky threatened to tell Mom unless I got the tennis balls. I did, but we started arguing again. Our words became personal, and they cut like a knife. I made remarks about her weight, and she said things about my crooked teeth. Both of us started crying.

I sobbed and said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  The previous spring, I broke my arm picking cherries when I fell off a ladder. The pain was tremendous. Mom took me to the clinic where she worked, and the doctor put my arm in a cast. Six weeks later I was good to go, so I knew firsthand the agony of broken bones.

Even as I said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” I knew it was a lie. I knew I had said things that deeply hurt my best friend and she hurt me as well with her words spoken to me. My pain was greater knowing that I had harmed my best friend.

An anonymous person said, “The tongue has no bones but is strong enough to break a heart. So be careful with your words.” Words can inspire us or destroy us. They can lift us up or tear us down. “Raise your word, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder,” Rumi said.

Do we think before we speak? Do we weaponize our words or do we use words as a healing balm for the soul? Do our leaders construct words to build relationships and community, or do they use words to divide and conquer? Words matter.

I grew up in the United Methodist Church singing, “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red or yellow, black or white, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” I knew Jesus told us to love one another, yet we (the United States) were at war with Vietnam. As a kid I wondered, “Does God love all the children of the world and then cease to love them when they become adults?” We were killing a lot of adults and innocent children. Our church sang “Jesus loves the little children of the world” with such gusto and then we would sing with equal vigor at the end of the service, “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.”

I was confused. What words were true and what words were false? What is the Word of God and how does it influence our way of life? Do we love who God loves? Do we imitate Christ?

Imagine my surprise as an adult when the church I loved introduced me to our Book of Discipline which states, “The Discipline is the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves remains constant. We do not see the Discipline as infallible, but we do consider it a document suitable to our heritage.”

Then I read in the Discipline, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The words hit me like a brick, and I did not want to “fetch” the balls hit over the fence. Does Jesus love the little children of the world or not? Are we made in God’s image or not? Are we beloved children of God or not?

I had friends who were gay or lesbian that I loved. The church told me that God’s love for us was far greater than our love for one another. So, if I loved and accepted my brothers and sisters who happened to be gay or lesbian, wouldn’t Jesus love them even more?

Phyllis Tickle says that every several years the church has a “rummage sale of ideas.” We discuss, talk, and debate about what stays in the house and what goes out on the curb, to paraphrase Barbara Brown Taylor. It is a painful, but necessary process.

At our general conference this spring, after years of throwing sticks and stones and saying harmful words, the United Methodist Church tossed out the devastating language regarding our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. We affirmed the dignity and sacredness of all. Our sexuality is a sacred gift from God. May we cherish it.

May our words lift, confirm, love, and unite us. May our words heal and reconcile. May our words reflect the Grace of God for all the children of the world.

Blessings and peace,