Bits of Truth

Words matter so much to me.  I realize this is pretty obvious: I do put a couple thousand on this page every week, and my chosen profession requires me to use tens of thousands  every day. Yeah, I love words; I’m drawn to them.

I typically read several hundred pages of fiction and/or non-fiction every week, and when I see words arranged in a way that resonates with me, I use my iphone to snap photos of them. Also, whenever I gather with two or more, I arrive with a notebook and a pen, prepared to write down the meaningful and the trivial.  I scratch out notes at work, at church, and in my small group.

I spend my life surrounded by words, and I tend to horde them. As I was making my way to this space today, I grabbed a couple scraps of paper from my desk, my phone, a notebook crammed with sermon notes, a book I’m reading, and my laptop.  What do these items have in common?  They all contain words that I have gathered from one place or another and carried home with me. One bit of paper travelled all the way from my trip to St. Louis last November. Another is from a visit to Cincinnati about a month ago.  My shoes and toothbrush might not have made it home, but these scraps of paper not only survived the trip, they have remained on top of my desk through several frantic clutter-clearing purges.

What could they possibly say that would validate my gripping them so tightly?

The one from November, which I scribbled while sitting in church with dear friends, says “I can have hope that He will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.”

The paper I shoved in my pocket after church last month in Cincinnati says,  “Lord, if you don’t do something here, we are in trouble.”

In my notes from our small group Bible study I find, “This life is unsettled and incomplete,” and “hope wins.”

Last night, I started Jodi Picoult’s small great things.  I opened the cover and read these words from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”

Pithy phrases all.  Concise.  Succinct.  Power-packed.

Why do I store these clusters of words?

Because in the emotional haze in which I have been existing, I wander around searching for beacons of truth. And, for me, truth is usually found in print.  I don’t write down every word I see, but when I see words that speak truth, I capture them. I hold them.  I carry them around.

Here’s why. Emotions are powerful.  They are expressions of deep feelings that need to be experienced, but they don’t always tell the truth.  My emotions tell me that all is lost, that hope has died, that everything counts on me, that I’m the only one with problems, and that none of this will ever work out.  I weep on my bed and get so carried away by my tears that I never want to stand up again.  Overwhelmed with sorrow, I reach out my hand and grab something to read to quiet myself.  Without fail, I find some shred of truth that breaks through my exaggerating and misled emotions.

I find myself speaking out loud:

All is not lost; God will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.

Everything does not count on me; Jesus is doing something here.

I am certainly not the only one with problems — despite what social media wants me to believe — but my only chance at working through the problems I have is to face them.

All of this will work out. Sure, life is unsettled, but hope wins.

My pulse slows.  My breathing returns to regularity. I close my eyes and move toward sleep.

Yes, I feel dark things still — anger, sadness, grief, and pain.  These feelings are valid,  and I will quash them no longer.  I will sit with them.  I will feel them.  And, I will speak truth to them.  I will not be overcome.

John 16:33

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

 

 

 

 

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The overflow of the heart

“…on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak..”

Matthew 12:36

Well, didn’t that just stop me in my tracks this morning? I got up, brewed my tea, made my smoothie, and sat down to my Bible study thinking, “It sure would be nice to blog this morning…” I usually read my Bible study first, you know, so I don’t go off all half-cocked spouting nonsense as I have been wont to do.  I try to ground myself in Scripture before I let my fingers fly, hoping that they will be directed toward His purposes, at least a little bit.

But didn’t He just step into my process and say, “Well, you know, not many people can speak about careless words quite as authentically as you can, dear.” Oy.

Ok, ok, I admit it.  I have spoken a few careless words. Ok, fine.  I’ve spoken a few careless words every time I have opened my mouth. I just love to hear myself talk, apparently.  So things just fly out of me!  All kinds of things.  Careless things.  They fly out of my mouth so quickly I sometimes surprise myself.  When I say, “did I just say that out loud?” I really am asking out of disbelief.  I shock myself.

Sure, sure, over the years, through some very difficult ‘learning opportunities’ I have acquired an ability to filter.  Sometimes.  But often, a thought pops into my head and out of my mouth before I even know what happened.  I have tried and tried and tried to control my tongue.  But here’s the thing.  The problem isn’t with my tongue.  It’s with my heart.

Matthew asks, “How can you speak good, when you are evil?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

Have you ever met someone who truly has a pure heart?  I actually have.  Perhaps you know someone like this.  They have something kind to say about everyone, in every situation.  And, guys, they aren’t being fake.  They really mean it!  They have compassion, understanding, patience, and true humility in their hearts. So, when they open their mouths, the words that come out are compassionate, kind, understanding, patient, and humble.

If you listen carefully to my words, you will occasionally hear kindness and sometimes compassion, but often what you will hear is judgment, cynicism, distrust, and impatience.  Our mouths reveal us for who we really are!  And, in my case, it can be downright embarrassing!  I really want to think the best of people.  I really want to be encouraging, but I look at a situation, toss it around with what is inside my heart, and out of my mouth comes what I am thinking.

So, what can I do? There is only one solution — a heart transplant.  Or at least reconstructive surgery.  God has been in the business of remodeling my heart for going on fifty years.  He’s done some miraculous work, actually.  That’s why I am, at times, able to open my mouth and offer encouraging, compassionate, and thankful words.  However, the full remodel won’t be done for quite some time, and occasionally I get trapped in one of the back rooms that haven’t been touched yet.  If you try to talk to me when I’m in there, I’m likely to spout frustration, anger, and even hate. It ain’t pretty.

I’ve got to learn not to walk into those areas alone.  When I go alone, all I can see are the problems — the holes in the wall, the stained carpets, the mold, and the broken windows.  But, when the Designer comes with me, He shows me all the work that He’s already done — He’s poured a new foundation, He’s demolished strongholds, He’s got a plan.  When He comes with me, all that frustration, anger, and hate melt away.  All I can see is His goodness and compassion — His ability to rebuild what was once deemed condemned.

At those moments, my heart is full of hope, love, and understanding; when I see the transformative power He has had in my life, I am able to humbly speak that transformative power into the lives of others.  However, when I wander off on my own, my heart gets full of fear, anger, and resentment.  And in those moments, if I’m careless enough to open my mouth, I’m likely to regret it.

Sounds like a simple problem to fix, doesn’t it?  Remind me of that later today when you hear me say something careless, will you?

The Word of my Friend

Did you ever feel like God was trying to send you a message?  At every turn you see the same words, almost as though they were written on billboards specifically for you? Perhaps since I have been blogging, I notice this a little bit more easily than I ever have.

On April 13th I posted a blog called “The Power of Words” in which I considered the effects — both positive and negative — of my words on others.   Then, on April 22 I posted a blog called “The Power of Fewer Words” in which I discussed my challenge to say less and listen more.  It may come as no surprise to those who know me that the kind of words and the number of words that come out of my mouth have been a life-long challenge.

Way back in the fall some new friends invited me to attend a conference for Lutheran pastors’ wives.  They gave me a post card with the theme of the conference written on it, “The Word with Friends”.  The logo is a wordle (see featured image); I love Wordles!  I love words — I am a writer, an English teacher, a Words with Friends addict, and a bibliophile. My friends didn’t have to twist my arm to convince to come to this conference.  I put the dates on my calendar, paid the registration fee, and waited for the weekend to arrive.

Well, two days after I wrote the second blog mentioned above, I was walking into the conference at a hotel in Bay City.  The tables were set with Scrabble boards as centerpieces complete with chocolate Scrabble tiles!  The opening games were all word games — fill in the blank, word scrambles, hinky pinky, and the like. We were even sorted into groups by drawing Scrabble tiles from a bag.  I was having so much fun!!!  Words and letters everywhere!!

The next morning, I woke, ate breakfast, and joined a table of women for the first of four Bible study sessions — The Power of Words, The Lack of Words, Hidden Words, and Impress these Words.  Probably the biggest take away for me came in our last session on Sunday morning.  We were studying James 1:19-26.  Though we had been talking about words all weekend, this chunk included all the gems that God has been teaching me through the last few weeks: be quick to hear, slow to speak; be doers of the word, and not hearers only; bridle your tongue; and most importantly for me, I think, receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 

And really, if I am going to be honest, that is the lesson that I have been learning since I started this blog back in July — God’s Word is powerful and able to save my soul.  Although I have made many changes since last year at this time — new home, new city, new church, new friends, new blog, new work life — the most impactful change has been reconnecting with the discipline of daily Bible study.  I didn’t set out to make that change — it just kind of happened.  My friend invited me to a Bible study.  The Bible study required daily preparation.  I am a good student, so I complied.

But here’s the thing — daily connection with God’s word has breathed life into me.  It has poured truth into my heart.  It has changed my thinking.  It has slowed me down.  It has allowed me to examine my thoughts, actions, and motives.  It has brought me joy.

On Sunday morning, our Bible study leader gave us all a small can of Play-doh.  She encouraged us to make shapes to remind us of the lessons we had learned.  We made a face with a closed mouth and extra large ears to remind us to respect the ratio of one mouth to two ears.  We made a hand to remind us to be doers of the word.   We made a face with a tongue sticking out to remind us to bridle our tongue.  And, we made a flower to remind us that God’s implanted word will bear fruit.

Words are a part of every day of my life.  I read, I write, I edit, I teach writing, and I now teach reading.  I must encounter thousands, even tens of thousands, of words every single day.  But here’s the thing — most of those words do not have a lasting impact on my life.  Sure, there are stories that I love to read over and over again.  There are poems and songs that make my heart sing.  My blog allows me to bring order to the chaos in my brain.  But only the Words of God have the power to save my soul.

Hebrews 4:12

For the Word of God is living and active.

Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow;

it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

The Power of Fewer Words

Last week I wrote about the Power of Words — how my words (and yours) can be a soothing balm or a source of pain.  That is one of the lessons I am learning on my new job; another lesson comes with it: fewer words can be more useful than more words.

This is a challenge for me.

Stop laughing.

Really.

I really like to talk. When I was in middle school our report cards showed two grades for each subject — a letter grade to show our academic performance and a number grade to show our citizenship.  If you forget about penmanship, I usually had all As in academics.  You might imagine that an all-A student would also get the highest citizenship scores — all 1s.   Ones indicated that you followed classroom rules, paid attention in class, refrained from disrupting others, and (here it is) didn’t talk during class time.  Twos indicated that you were doing great with a few minor exceptions.  Threes indicated that you had room to grow.  Fours meant that you were a nuisance to the teacher. Fives meant you were one of those students.  I hereby confess to all the talkers I have ever taught and scolded in my class that beside most of my As were 3s, 4s, and occasionally a 5.  (Pause for collective gasp.)

Naturally I chose a profession that would support my predisposition to garrulousness — I became an English teacher.  Where else would I get paid to stand in front of a captive audience for eight hours a day?  Where else would my anecdotes be celebrated?  Where else could I justify tangential commentary?

I often said in class, “well, this is totally unrelated to what we are talking about, but…” My students, especially seniors, would smile and lean in for a little “story time with Mrs. Rathje”.  Sometimes I could claim that my stories had lasting life-lesson value, but often, I gave my students (and myself) a little break with an amusing (or not) story from my life experience.

Now, for the past several years I have been working with average and above average students who can easily sort out the necessary content from the stand-up routine of a rather verbose instructor — especially when given the verbal cue, “this is totally unrelated to our lesson today.”  But now? Now I am working with students who really struggle with reading — with words.  They don’t need extraneous noise or extra words to muddle their thinking.  I have to practice a little restraint (or a lot of restraint) and focus on giving only the positive reinforcement plus the corrective guidance that will enable my students to more easily decode and comprehend.  I’ve got to keep my stories inside my head — at least until I get home and can put them in my blog for you.

This lesson is of course causing me to think that perhaps I need a little verbal restraint outside of work, too.  I mean, I don’t have to use up 20,000 words every single day. I could choose to use closer to 13,000 and give others some air time.  I’m not the only person in the world (or my house) who has things to say.

I used to say in my class, “God have you one mouth and two ears; respect the ratio.” I need to practice what I have preached.  I need to listen at least as much as I talk, and if I ‘respect the ratio’, I will be listening twice as much as I am talking.  For a chatterbox like me, that is quite a challenge.

And I could probably further apply this lesson to my prayer life — I could listen to God for at least as long as I list requests, or even twice as long. For a selfish human like me, that is even more of a challenge.

I like to fill space with words — spoken or written– but silence is really ok.  Silence allows time for thinking, processing, listening, and truly hearing.  It’s probably well-past time for me to give silence a try.

Isaiah 30:15

…in quietness and trust is your strength…

The Power of Words

This morning I am a little overwhelmed by the power of words.  Simple arrangements of consonants and vowels that together form sound and meaning.  You would think I would love words; I am an English teacher.  I have spent countless hours of my life reading and writing words.  I do love them.  They not only help me communicate with others, express my inner self, and earn a living — they are so much fun!  You may be aware of my embarrassing Words With Friends habit, or the fact that I love to complete a crossword in one sitting, or that I am abnormally amused by wordplay such as puns, innuendo, and hyperbole. One of my greatest joys as a teacher is playing with words to teach students about their own language and how they use it — how do you think I learned how to code switch?

However, even though I love words — they overwhelm me.  How can these simple clusters of sounds have such power?

I watched a video on Friday during my training that interviewed a young boy who was painfully aware of the power of words.  Because of his learning difficulties, he was placed in a special education classroom.  In that room he got the resources he needed; outside of that classroom he was assailed with damaging words: “Hey, retard!” “You’re so weird!”  “You’re dumb!”

On Saturday I learned about a young man who was verbally attacked in his graduate program.  His classmates quietly uttered sexual taunts.  They never touched him — but their words forced him out of the program.

We’ve all heard these stories.  Persecutors attacking victims with their words.

But, guys, my words are powerful, too!  If you’ve met me in person you know that I use a lot of words.  A quick google search will tell you that the average woman uses 13,000-20,000 words per day.  I am sure I do. I love to talk. Over the years I have tried to learn a little restraint and give others an opportunity to share the air space.  I may have made a little progress, but I doubt it.  I can talk.

Quantity is not really the problem though, is it? No. It’s word choice.  It’s what we say. That’s part one.  Part two is the meaning that others attach to what we say.  That means that before I speak I should consider what mean and then consider my audience — what will they hear. That’s a lot of pressure.  I mean, how am I supposed to fit in my 13,000-20,000 words each day if I pause each time I think about opening my mouth. Exactly.

On Saturday evening, after we met with dear friends for dinner, I was lying in bed thinking about some of the words I used.  One phrase stuck out in my mind.  I was thinking to myself, “I know what I meant by that, but I should have added one more sentence to clarify. They may have totally misunderstood my meaning.” Been there?

If I had a dollar for every time I had to rewind the tape of my words to insert an explanation…

It’s no coincidence that at this time in my life I have taken a job where my words are so important.  I, at 49 years of age, still need to learn this lesson — my words are powerful.  The students I will meet, starting this Wednesday, have been beaten and bruised by words.  I may never know how much.  They have been mocked at school, questioned by their teachers, evaluated by their parents, and berated by themselves.  They are bloody. My words must be salve.

When a student reads “bind” for “kind”, I will say, “Great job with that “d” sound at the end of the word! When you say ‘bind’ what do you picture for the first letter?”  When she says “b”, I will say, “awesome!” I will celebrate each correct consonant and each correct vowel.  I will applaud every remembered detail. I will try to help my students recover from the trauma of being assailed by and excluded from the world of words.

And, boys and girls, how do you picture that God would want me to carry this lesson — that my words must be salve — into the rest of my life? Do you picture me telling my husband that I appreciate him going to work every day? Do you picture me thanking my daughter for running the dishwasher or for cooking a fabulous dinner? Can you imagine me reassuring a friend or comforting a loved one — all with my words? That is what I picture.  I picture my words as a healing balm that can cover a stinging wound.  I picture them as gauze that will stop the bleeding and allow some time for healing.

And really, the only way I know to make that happen — to make sure that kindness comes out of mouth — is to do a heart check — a continual, day-by-day heart check.  I know that if I am angry, angry words are going to come out of my mouth.  If I am hurt, defensive jabs are going to burst forth. “…for out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)  In fact, if we are hurting on the inside and we try to say things that are nice, or calming, or comforting, our listeners can often sense that our words are not genuine.  They may hear us and think to themselves, “what a fake!”

Do you see why I am so overwhelmed? How can I take all this into account?  How can I continually check my heart, consider my listeners, and evaluate my message?

I only have one answer — by the grace of God.  And that is how I am going to step into today.  I am going to ask God to purify my heart, filter my message, and when all else fails, cover the ears of my listeners.  Forty-nine years have taught me I can’t do this on my own.

Proverbs 16:24

Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to soul and healing to the bones.