It has a name

When I was in high school, our drama group put on the play The Miracle Worker. As was the case for most productions, I was a backstage participant. My main job for this particular show was to keep the script up-to-date with blocking, sound and light cues, and any other notes which would make the play run like clockwork. (I also sometimes ran out to get snacks and beverages for the director. If I remember correctly, she particularly liked orange juice on the rocks that semester. Showbusiness is so glamorous!)

 

My older sister Becky, on the other hand, was cast as one of the two major acting roles—Annie Sullivan. If you’re familiar with the play or the movie or just the story of Helen Keller, then you know that Annie Sullivan is hired by the family of a little girl who had been blind and deaf since contracting a fever before she was two-years old. Annie is given the nearly impossible job of being Helen’s teacher. Through lots of persistence as well as a host of inventive teaching methods, clever little Helen is able to connect the significance of the letters which Annie painstakingly signs into her hand with the name of the actual object.

 

The pivotal moment in the play is when Annie and Helen are by the water pump. As water pours over Helen’s hand, she gestures for her teacher to sign the word. Annie had done this many times before, but this time something clicks. “It has a name,” Annie says. “W-A-T-E-R.” You see something new in Helen’s expression. She signs the letters in response. Then she stumbles around searching for more words to discover and name. It’s such a powerful scene.

 

My daughter Ella and I visited the place where all of those events occurred. It’s a beautifully preserved home in Tuscumbia, Alabama. We saw the dining room where Annie made her first stand against Helen’s spoiled mealtime behavior, the little house where teacher and student lived alone for a few weeks to focus on learning this new way to communicate, and the actual water pump where that critical realization happened.

 

We also got to see what happened after Helen had that water pump moment. We saw newspaper articles and citations from world leaders. There were photos of her with U.S. presidents and actors. There were letters behind glass display cases which she had written to cousins and other family members with her own little hand when she was 8-years old. Her handwriting was remarkably distinct and precise. Giant books of raised Braille letters were scattered around the room, along with heavy typewriter-like machines used to add those raised bumps to the pages. Helen Keller went on to write 14 books and hundreds of speeches and essays. She lived an extraordinary 87 years, inspiring people and advocating for others.

 

As we walked through the house and strolled around the grounds, I was struck by the power of words. Helen’s ability to communicate changed everything for her. She was loved and cared for by her parents before she knew what W-A-T-E-R was, but she was trapped. When Annie Sullivan came along and refused to see a little girl with no hope, Helen was given a key and her life was forever transformed. If it weren’t for that caring teacher and Helen’s own desire to learn, none of us would even know her name, let alone pay $7 to see the bed where she slept. The whole experience reminds us that anything is possible. You can understand why Helen is quoted as saying, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

Deadly weapon

I’m in the process of teaching our 15-year old son how to drive. Since this is the third kid for me to teach this particular lesson, I know there’s a lot of important information to cover. There are the basics—which pedal is the gas and which is the brake, how to switch on the wipers and the turning signal and the headlights, and the meaning behind the various traffic signs. There are also nuanced skills, such as how to know that you’re in the center of your lane (new drivers are usually really scared of the series of mailboxes flying past them on their right and incoming cars whizzing by in the opposite lane) and when to start braking (they rarely start as soon as I’d like them to).

 

But before he ever sat behind the wheel, I told my son one of the most important truths about driving: This car is a weapon. I told him that a driver must take this task very seriously, paying close attention to the other cars and pedestrians around him. In the hands of a careless and distracted driver, this car is like a loaded gun just waiting to kill someone. This may sound severe, but I know it to be true, and I would be a fool to ignore my chance to warn him about life-altering mistakes before they happen.

 

We often concentrate on the physical dangers of recklessness, but it’s important to warn our children (and remind ourselves) of the perils of something much smaller than a car or even a gun, but deadly in a different way—our words. With a few choices words, we can tear down another person, and the better we know them, the easier it is to dismantle their self-esteem.

 

In his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum plays with the old adage which claims words can’t hurt us. Instead, he says, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.” In most cases, bones can heal, but it’s much harder to forget the pain inflicted on us by a parent who says we’re too stupid or a spouse who says we’re too fat or a friend who says we’re not wanted. Words can create an inner scar. They can pop back into our thoughts decades later to remind us of our shortfalls. Especially nasty remarks can affect future jobs and relationships. They can be joy-stealers and future-destroyers.

 

In James 3, we read about the power of the tongue. We see that it’s capable of great things: “We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.” From the inspiring sermons of Dr. King to the sweet “Have a great day!” note your mom put in your lunchbox, words can make the world a better place.

 

But there’s a dark side to what the tongue can do. “People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth.”

 

The next time you’re in a car, safely passing other giant boxes made of metal and flame, consider the dangers involved. Then take a moment to reflect on the destructive power of your words. Steer both your car and your mouth as if lives were on the line.

Just

I’ve come to believe that words are very powerful. With only a slight change in wording, the intended meaning can be completely altered. For example, imagine you’re shopping with a friend and unsure how you look in an outfit you’ve tried on. Standing in front of one those giant dressing room mirrors, would you rather hear: 1.) “You are not fat.” 2.) “You are not thatfat.” Four little letters but the difference is night and day.

 

Depending on the language, vocabulary can be very confusing. As my African-born son can attest, English seems unnecessarily tricky with so many synonyms that mean the same thing and homonyms which sound the same but mean something different and words with multiple meanings. You could argue that its complexity makes our language richer, but if you’re new to English it just makes you want to plug up your ears and go back to bed.

 

One word with many varied meanings that I’ve recently noticed I may overuse is the adjective/adverb just. Beside its connection to fairness and morality, it can also mean now, only, barely, simply, recently. I use it all day long.

 

“Mom, when’s supper?” It’s just5:00. You can’t be hungry yet. Eat this carrot.

 

Later that night, around 7:00 pm: “Mom, I’m hungry.” What? We justate!

 

You made it justin time. Give me justa minute. We’re justgoing to one store. Justsit there and think about what you did!

 

I’ve also noticed how often we use the word justwhen it comes to faith. If you’ve got a very sick relative and people ask you how they can help during such a difficult time we often say, “Just pray.” There’s a note of last resort here, as if seeing that all the spots for bringing supper to the family are filled, you might as well give them the job of merely praying.

 

But in this context, it could also mean you are giving this goodhearted friend a very simple, specific yet important task. “Just pray,” you say. “Set aside whatever doesn’t need doing right away and beg God to intercede. Please make this your focus today.”

 

Looking at the lyrics to the gospel song “Closer Walk with Thee,” we see justused to describe a scene which would be anything but ordinary: “Just a closer walk with Thee/Grant it, Jesus, is my plea/Daily walking close to Thee/Let it be, dear Lord, let it be” We don’t merely walk with God like it’s no big deal. We strive for a complete connection, justas in onlyis the goal.

 

If you search the Scriptures for instances of the word just, you’ll have plenty of reading. You’ll find “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” in the Old Testament and “People brought all their sick to Jesus and begged him to let the sick justtouch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed” in the New Testament.

 

With a possibly ambiguous word like just, we have to pause and determine which meaning is intended. Then we see Noah’s preciseness in his obedience and Jesus’ mighty power to heal. Such a tiny word but packed with so much capability.