The biggest lie that I was ever told was given to me when I was a child by both parents and teachers. It went like this: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me". Try as I might, I could never find a way not to let words hurt, especially those I heard on the playground, words like ‘four eyes, sucker up to bat, or train-track mouth’. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, no one seemed to think much about bullying except that it was a fact of life and you either got tough or earned the even worse label ‘crybaby’.
Words never hurting was the idea that it wasn’t what others thought of us that counted, but what we thought of ourselves that mattered. True enough. But sensitive children don’t know how to distance themselves from the painful words that others throw at them. In Grade 7 and Grade 10, bullying was so much a part of the culture that it had a whole week dedicated to it, called Initiation Week. This was supposedly a time of light-hearted high jinks where the oldest kids in the school had the right to treat the younger ones any way they wanted. I got to clean out a locker, lucky me, but other kids had their hair washed with shaving cream or were told to swallow raw eggs or dress in drag. Even the teachers had a form of initiation as it was always the unaware first year teachers who got assigned lunchroom duty that week.
Luckily, that has disappeared from the school system for many years, but it still shows the power of words. There’s a huge difference between labelling something ‘initiation week’ versus ‘institutionalized hazing’. Words do matter. We now know that many children struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts even as young as 6 or 7. Often it is because of the words that are used on them.
“You are so slow, why are you so stupid”, and my personal challenge, “you’re not good enough.” These kinds of words haunt us long after we can remember who first said them to us or why.
That’s one of the reasons why the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian writings are so dear. They recognize the importance of words, so much that our bible starts with God speaking, “let there be light” – the idea that words can be so powerful when spoken by the right person that great things like light and life can be created from chaos.
Mark’s gospel starts with such a great creation. No Bethlehem, shepherds or wise magi here. Two men meeting in the wilderness in a profoundly personal initiation ritual. Not hazing, but a simple and symbolic act of drowning in the Jordan River, the historical boundary for the Hebrew people between the wilderness of Moses and the promised land of King David. A moment of connection between two men recognizing the importance of God in their lives and their common bond of connection to the Mission of God. John the Baptizer meets Jesus the Messiah in an encounter so profound that it will change the course of history forever.
And when John and Jesus meet in that ritual, something amazing happens. God tears the sky apart and Jesus hears “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” It is one of the few events that is written about in all four of our Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is right up there with the overturning of the Temple, the Crucifixion, and the Easter resurrection. It was words that the disciples thought worth repeating, and core to the teachings Jesus handed down to his disciples. God loves us.
That’s bigger than we might think, and certainly something that Christians might take too much for granted.
The concept of God for most people was something to be afraid of, that would judge and punish and condemn. Even now I hear that when people say, “oh, I could never come to church, if I did, I would burst into flames,” and they are only half joking.
That’s not the God we see here, and not the God that Jesus and John saw when they read scripture. God choses special messengers to comfort the poor and help the children of the needy, as it said in our psalm today. That’s a loving God, not a punishing one. Yet all too often we still act and think like God is a punisher who speaks angry words to condemn us.
If we believe that God is a bully only interested in punishing us, we will give up on our lives, ourselves and the people around us. We will justify acting like a bully because we’re just being like God. And we will struggle with the words that we speak about ourselves deep in our private hearts. We can be our own worst bullies.
The Globe and Mail this year published a series of articles about mental health and the tremendous toll this puts on Canadians. One of the things they wrote about was mental health hygiene. We are great at brushing our teeth and washing our hands, but lousy at cleaning our minds of negative words.
As Christians, we are called on by our scriptures to practise mental hygiene by remembering the generous and loving acts of our God that led us out of slavery into freedom, into relationship with the loving Divine. Just as Jesus heard the sky tear, this good news should turn our lives upside down. When we put star words, God’s words, at the center of our minds, we join in that joyful community of saints that know the profound good news, that we are beloved children of God. May it be so for us all!