Thursday, 29 May 2014

Pulling the buttons off

The power of words has been on my mind a lot lately; words that build up or words that destroy. It's an easy thing to understand that words spoken over someone can encourage or damage them; there have been times in my life when I've been crushed by things said to me, and times when I'd been inspired. 

Words, words, words.

But something else kept nagging at me, and I realised that the power of words also extends to things that are said about someone, when they're not there. And that's a different kettle of fish. 

Everyone knows someone who's constantly running down other people, don't they? Anyone who's ever stood for five minutes in a school playground at pickup time would be able to identify a few people who don't seem to have a good word to say about anyone. Whether it's the shoes, or the hair, the tattoos, or the latest pregnancy, or the frequency that their kids get headlice, or the latest photos on Facebook or...or... anything. We all know people like that. The ones who have sharp nails and rip someone to shreds just for fun. Who seem to love the cut and thrust of the school-run and turn up twenty minutes early to get in some good gossip. 

I'm not like that, you know. If I'm early for the school pick up, I hang about at the end of the road or wait in the car until the children start appearing, and then dive in, deftly scoop up my offspring and scurry off, waving a few times and smiling like a loon. I don't do playground bitchery, so I'm OK, aren't I?

(Interesting note: my computer autocorrect tried to change 'playground bitchery' to 'playground butchery' there. I think that's pretty much the same thing, don't you?

So - it's not my thing. But wait a minute.

An unwelcome thought came to me: I'm no better.  I'm just different.

I think I am much more subtle. When I say, 'I think', what I mean is I haven't really thought about it much at all, until lately. Some things have happened that have made me consider more closely what I say, and how I say it, and I realise that I fall into the same trap as ScaryMum at the school gates, even though I got there by a different route. 

I love words and I use a lot of them. If one day it turns out that there was a quota of words assigned to each of us for use in our entire lifetime, then my last decade or so is going to be pretty quiet. There's nothing I like more than a chat over coffee with a friend, and I think this is where I come unstuck. the more you talk, the more chance you have of using words for the wrong thing.

How easy it is to make someone laugh at someone else's expense, then clap your hand over your mouth and say, 'Oops, shouldn't have said that!'  Easy to boost your own stock in a subtle way by making oblique observations about a person.  Criticise someone's decision, make fun of someone's mannerisms, pull a face when their name is mentioned. Easy even to pass on gossip under the guise of being concerned about someone. There are sophisticated ways of doing what ScaryMum does up front in the playground.

Then there are the occasions where it's not even you doing the talking. How easy it is to sit and listen and sip your coffee while someone else's reputation is chipped away in front of you. To smile and laugh and encourage the other person to offload their bitterness or irritation, legitimate or otherwise. Then place becomes strewn with the metaphorical corpses of all the people whose characters have been assassinated before you've finished your cappuccino.    

I had a dream a while ago that I puzzled over for days before it became clear. 

I was walking down a road near where I live. I passed a crowd of people who were excited and shouting (a bit like they used to do when two people had a fight in the playground, remember?)  As I walked past, I heard a shrill female voice yell, 'There she is! I'm going to kill her!'  I caught the eye of another lady and I grimaced at her. This could be messy.

 I hesitated, but decided that I'd better turn back and see what was going on. I wasn't going to let this woman murder someone. 

The crowd was shouting and screaming but I saw that the aggressive woman had hold of another, smartly dressed lady who looked frightened. The aggressor decided that she wasn't going to kill her after all, just 'rip her to bits'. 

'Ripping her to bits' meant that the angry lady was going to destroy the woman's fine clothes. The victim was wearing a designer outfit and the other woman was determined to ruin it. 

First of all she took her expensive shoes and snapped the heels off. The crowd cheered.

So relieved was I that there was to be no bloodshed that I decided to join in. I reached out for the victim's beautiful silk blouse and pulled it hard. It tore, and all the buttons flew off.

At this moment, I looked down and realised with horror that I was wearing the torn blouse.

And I woke up. 

I think that the dream tells me that when I collude with someone else to damage a person's reputation, I damage myself. When I pick the buttons off someone's life, or cut someone down to size I, too, am diminished. It might not be actual bloodshed, but wounds are inflicted nonetheless. And just as I pulled the buttons off her blouse, I exposed the nasty part of myself as well. 

I decided that I needed to be much more careful with my words. I mustn't score the quick point with a facetious comment at someone else's expense. I need to be careful what I say and what I listen to. I quickly realised how difficult it was. 

The newsreader had a new haircut and it made her look like a nuclear mushroom. A man interviewed in the street on the news had a painfully tenuous grasp of grammar. A politician said something that made my skin crawl and I couldn't resist making an unpleasant and personal remark back at the telly. And that was just in the course of the breakfast news. There was still an awful lot of day left to negotiate.

I have comforted myself by mentally pointing out to God that I'm not the worst. I know there are people who are much more vicious and open about their nastiness and gossip, but I know that it's no defence. If the pass mark for a test is 100% it doesn't matter whether you get 99% or 19%, you've still failed. I know that my sins have been dealt with my Jesus on the cross and that I am pure and forgiven in God's eyes, but the nagging thing for me is twofold:

1.  This is one of those sins that we tend to accommodate. We build it in and excuse it and we just accept that that's day to day life. Everyone does it. 

2. In the Bible, it says this:
'With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers (and sisters), this should not be.'  James 3:9,10
I don't want to be a person who sings praise to God and then is mean about someone over a coffee half an hour later. I don't want to be a person who writes a blog about living as a Christian and can be overheard in a cafe speculating about someone's private business. I don't want to be but I'm aware that I am sometimes exactly that person. 

We are held to a higher account, those of us that love Jesus and want to be different. We are looking for holiness. Our value comes from being daughters of God, not from other people's opinions of us, and if we need to bolster their view of us at someone else's expense, then we are doubly in trouble.

I was praying about this issue and trying to wriggle off the hook by telling God that it wasn't really a Big Thing, was it?  A picture came to mind of a fog. A swirling, dense, smog-like fog. Greeny-grey, and so impenetrable that when someone walked into the fog, they disappeared from view.

The fog is the business of talking about someone behind their back; using words to pull someone down. The whole gossiping, tale-telling, criticising, condemning malarkey that we all play at to some extent, from time to time. 

When you reach out to touch it, just to see what it's like, it sticks to you. The deeper in you go, the more grubby you get, until being dirty is the norm, and you've forgotten what fresh air feels like. 
You breathe in the toxic air, and if you’ve breathed it in, you’ll be dirty on the inside too and eventually you’ll breathe it out again, infecting those around you.

I don't want to live in the fog, Lord. 

I don't want even to play at the edges where I have the illusion of safety, but keep putting a hand in to find out how it feels. I don't want to be the sort of woman who feels better about herself by belittling others. I don't want to do this, but you have shown me how hard it is, how engrained in our culture, how petty meannesses and jokes at others' expense are considered socially acceptable. 

Father, I want to be different. (In a good way, please). I want to find positive things to say instead of giggling at the gossip. I want to hold my tongue no matter what the newsreader's haircut is doing. I want to bite back the clever remarks, even if they might win me a laugh. 

I want to build up, not destroy.

I want to encourage and inspire, not diminish and criticise.

I want the words that come out of my mouth to bring you glory.


Lord, shine your light to dispel the fog and show it for what it is. Burn it away so that it no longer stops me from seeing. Open my eyes to see it all around me and show me the danger of flirting with it by messing about at the edges. 

Send your Holy Spirit to give me the wisdom and strength to walk away from the fog. Make my words kind and gentle. May I speak your truth and nothing else. 


Thursday, 22 May 2014

A word fitly spoken

(This is the text of a talk last week at a Ladies' event at church: An Evening of Encouragement)

Have you ever had a moment when you realise something about yourself, something deep inside that’s been hidden for a long time, and it gives you a shock? Sort of like a wake up call from God?  Well, this evening for me is the end point (or maybe it’s not the end point at all!  Who knows what He has planned from here onwards?)  of a thought process that started with a bit of a shock a few years ago. It was one of those moments where the penny drops, and makes quite a thud.

I was surfing the internet, as you do when there’s housework needing doing, and I read a blog post about women and friendship. It was a beautiful post celebrating women and sisterhood and the support and encouragement and sort of connection that is specific to women. The special bond between a group of female friends. Maybe you can imagine that. Maybe you know exactly what the author meant. To illustrate her point, she’d taken photos of women at a local conference that she’d gone to. There were groups of twos, threes, fives, big happy, laughing, hugging ladies having a good time together.

You know what came into my head?

It’s not true.

Emphatically. The voice in my head was loud and angry.

It’s not real.

I surprised myself with my cynicism. It came from somewhere deep inside me that I hadn’t been aware of. These women had done nothing to me except stare at me from the screen looking as if they were having a great time enjoying each others’ company and being the best of friends, and yet I looked at them with a resentful suspicion that unnerved me.  I just didn’t believe any of that picture perfect friendship stuff – in fact it annoyed me. I studied their faces and tried to work out who was faking that happy smile, what they were really thinking beneath what was surely a facade.

I’ve no idea how this is going to sound to you – you might well wonder what’s been wrong with me - but the truth is that until these past few years, I’d never had a close female friend. As I was growing up, I had a few so-called friends, but they weren’t all they should have been. Maybe I picked the wrong girls, or the wrong girls picked me, and I was grateful to have been picked by anybody, but they were full of hurt and betrayal and unhappiness and they sapped a lot of confidence from me.

One day she’d be my friend, the next she wouldn’t talk to me. On the way to school I’d never know what day it would be. On the on-days she’d link arms with me and all would be well. On the off-days she’d tell the other girls mean things and laugh at me.  She’d do mean things, but the worst, it turns out, were the things she said. On the on-days, for my own good, she’d tell me that I was fat and ungainly and she’d advise me on who I should avoid standing next to because they were so much slimmer and prettier than I was. She told me that I’d never get anywhere, be anyone. She criticized the way I walked and the way I laughed.

Another she, years later, my tutor at university. I stood up to her when she made my friend cry, and she took me on one side and told me that my friends had told her bad things about me, but she wouldn’t tell me who, or what. I looked around at the people I shared the lecture room  with in a different way after that. I didn’t trust anyone any more. She told me that I had no integrity, that there was something wrong with me that other people could see.

Sticks and stones may indeed break our bones, but whoever said words can’t hurt was talking rubbish. Words can demolish people. They can chip bits off us and leave us fragile and wounded.

The more chipped-away-at we are, the more closed off we become. If we do recognize what we’re doing - and we might well do it all subconsciously and not think about it at all - we rationalize that we’re becoming more self-sufficient, saving ourselves hurt by keeping people arms length.  It seems a sensible solution, and it even seems to work.  

So I read this article about the wonderful miracle of women and the power we have to build up and I realized that I felt as if I had only really seen the power women have to bring each other down, and this had an escalating effect on my whole life. I would walk into a room, and be immediately intimidated. I have to say, it’s a bit better, now, but it’s still a challenge for me. The voices that tell me the lies about those women are still there, and I have to work hard to shut them up. (I’m a work in progress).

I would walk in, and assume that everyone was looking at me and criticizing me. What I was wearing, my make up, my face, my words. They would noticing every flaw that I’d tried so hard to conceal, physical and emotional. My bad hair day, the spot on my chin, the fact that my jeans were a little bit tighter than they were last month, my confusion and lack of confidence. They'd look at me when I walked in and talked scathingly about me when I left. Something inside me was programmed to believe that this is what other women do. To each other.  My default position was one of apology and defensiveness. All that because of words spoken to me years earlier.

If I’m honest, I was afraid of other women. I was fully aware of their power. Women can destroy each other with a look, a remark, an expression. We can crush. We may not do it with our muscles, but the devastation is complete.

The thing is, God can do amazing things. However, it’s a bit uncomfortable when He starts operating on an area of your life that you never knew needed surgery. The wake up call for me was when I saw this article, but He’d already been working lots before that. I do know what friendship is, now. It’s taken me this long. I know what it’s like to have friends who are gifts from God.  People who know me and stick with me, keep my secrets, comfort, inspire and encourage me, and talk sense into me when I don’t have any of my own. People who speak truth to me.

People who’ve helped God counteract the lies spoken to me over the years.

Words from my childhood and university days had caused fairly deep damage to my fragile self-worth, my image of what friendship could be, and even my view of other women.

It comes down to the power we have and how we use it.   We have the power to change people’s lives, and we need to realize that and use it to change them for the better, and not for the worse. You can chip away and undermine, or you can do quite the reverse. The girls and women I’ve been talking about used their power deliberately to damage, but we can learn how to use that same potential to build someone up, and the results can be just as dramatic.

Encouragement is a wonderful term that has inside it a whole host of possibilities.

It means to inspire with courage, spirit or confidence – to help someone needing courage to find some. You can do it. I believe in you.

It means to stimulate by assistance, approval – to boost someone, to give them something that they can use to find more inside themselves. To let them know that you’re on their side, that you’re cheering for them. To lift someone up, to take them higher, to remind them of how far they’ve come, how well they’re doing. To embolden, hearten, reassure, urge, support, help.

Aren’t they wonderful words?

Words are endlessly powerful, and a personal word of encouragement in the right place can have a huge effect.

It can make the difference between someone giving up or carrying on. The difference between winning and losing, hoping and despairing.  Something you say might be just the confirmation someone needs to make a decision, or try something new, or make a change. It could simply something that makes them feel a little better about things.

Encouragement comes in all shapes and sizes, and we shouldn’t dismiss the things that seem insignificant. Something that seems quite small can be quite powerful in God’s hands. A while ago I was walking up Chatsworth Road behind a lady. It was one of those awkward situations where you find yourself walking at just the same speed as someone in front and so it looks a bit as if you’re a stalker – you have this dilemma - do you speed up and overtake, thus having to continue to walk at a faster than normal pace all the way up a straight road, or do you hang back and dawdle, only to catch up again… maybe that sort of thing just happens to me.

Anyway, I was walking behind this lady, and I admired her haircut.  Is that familiar? You stand in a queue at the post office or somewhere, and admire someone’s jacket, or outfit or shoes or anything,  but you never say anything for fear of being thought odd or invading personal space. Well, I was walking up Chatsworth Road, staring at this lady’s hair, and it came into my head that on this occasion I should tell her how nice it looked.


I decided that if she turned right up Quarry Lane, I’d say nothing. 

She didn’t. 

If she turned up Vincent Crescent, I would say nothing. If she carried on, I’d say something.

We got to the junction with Vincent Crescent, and she didn’t turn off.  So, as we approached my turn onto Chatsworth Avenue, I accelerated slightly, drew alongside and said to her, ‘This might sound a bit silly, but I’ve been walking up the road behind you, and I’ve been thinking how nice your hair looks.’

I smiled at her, and made to walk away, and she stopped me. She said,

‘Do you really think so? Oh, thank you so much. I’ve just had it done at a different hairdresser, and I wasn’t too sure if it suited me. I’ve been worrying. I don’t think my daughter will like it. She liked it how it was, but I fancied a change. Thank you so much.’

It made a difference to her. I don’t kid myself that I did anything profound, but I believe that God nudged me to tell that lady that she had nice hair. He knew she was feeling anxious and insecure and through my words He helped her with that. She walked off a little straighter. 

I hope it helped her face her daughter with a bit of confidence, but even if her daughter didn’t like it, at least she knew that there was a strange woman stalker on Chatsworth Road who did.

God is in the business of encouraging. He cares about details like angst over haircuts, and He cares about the big whopping life choices that won't grow out in four weeks. He doesn’t want us to be closed off solitary individuals struggling alone in a crowd with our own neuroses and problems. He never meant it to be that way. He told us that we’re family, and we should be caring for one another. Helping each other with battles. Cheering for each other. Willing to be honest with each other about life and pick each other up when necessary, in a big way or a little way.

 Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.
Proverbs 12:25

Small encouragements are all about the pleasure of being noticed, thought about. That someone cared enough to consider me.  We all long to be approved of, affirmed. I have had several compliments about a particular shoulderbag of mine and I love it when someone says something. I always say, ‘Thank you. A friend made it for me.’  It gives me pleasure that someone shares my impeccable taste in accessories, but also that I have a friend who is so skilled and also that cared enough to make me something so beautiful.

There are big things, too.  Just now and again we get an opportunity to speak simple words into a person’s life, even if we might never know that that’s what we did. I think God gives the gift of prophecy to some people, but I think that much more widely He gives opportunities to speak words that find a home deep inside someone’s heart.

A few people did this for me: they spoke into the dreams that I have for my life, and I have never forgotten their words.  When I was nine, a teacher at junior school wrote in my autograph book, 

To the Daphne Du Maurier of tomorrow: keep on writing!’ 

My Dad had several books published and we were so proud of him. He inscribed one of them to me with the words, 

To Helen: may she write more and better books than this.’  

There are people in this room who have encouraged me who have no idea how precious their words were – and are – to me. I filed these things away in my heart and they continue comfort and motivate and inspire me.  I dream of writing something one day and these encouragements keep me going when the little voices in my head tell me that it’s been said already and said better than I could say it and I should just give up and open a packet of biscuits.

These are raw things; to reveal your dream to someone is a scary thing because they might tear it down. Again, it reminds me of the girl at school in whom I confided the same dream. She laughed and said, ‘Dream on, Helen.’ It hurt, but that's exactly what I did. I dreamed on. Because on that occasion the positive words of my teacher were more powerful than her bitter ones. Without that specific encouragement like a stake holding steady a vulnerable sapling, she might have uprooted my dream. 

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

Someone believed in me. Some days I feel able to take on the world, others completely defeated, but those words stay solid for me. When my teacher wrote that lovely line in my autograph book, I bet he had no idea of the impact it would have on me.

We have no way of knowing what God might do in the future to join up the dots and make our innocuous comment into something huge and powerful for someone.  The thing we say, the little tiny dot that we add – might be just one in a long chain that God is adding to a person’s life that will one day join up and become something amazing.

 A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Proverbs 25:11

Encouragement counteracts the vulnerability that we all feel when we fall prey to comparisons. Someone noticed something positive and affirming and bothered to tell me. My self worth takes a little boost. Someone once said that we are like buckets and life punches holes all over the buckets and our self-esteem pours out of the holes. When we encourage each other, we fix some of those holes, and we refill a little of the self-esteem that leaked out.

I think we’re doing a vital part of God’s work in encouraging each other. Encouragement is listed by St Paul in Romans 12 as one of the separate gifts in the Body of Christ, and maybe it’s true that some people have a special ability to discern an opportunity for encouraging someone, but I think there’s no doubt that each one of us is able to do it. It's what God told us to do.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11


Father God

Thank you that you care about every detail of our lives. There’s nothing too small or too big for you to be interested in and there is no wound too deep for you to heal.

Maybe there is someone in this room who feels that they have more experience with cold and painful words spoken over them in their lives and not so much hope and encouragement. Lord, we know that it’s not too late. We know that you can heal and make new. Reach into the depths of us, will you, and mend the bits that are broken?

We know that you are the Healer. That we don’t have to settle for wounds that won’t heal even if we’re used to them being there. We don’t have to tell the story of the way those wounds were inflicted and shrug and say, ‘That’s just how I am.’ Thank you that you are a God of restoration. That you want far more for us than this.

Teach us how to be encouragers, Father. To listen for your voice when you prompt us and be obedient to speak if you ask us to. To notice people, really notice them. To take opportunities to build up and point people to you, for you are the answer, whatever the question.

Teach us to want the best for each other, and always be on the lookout as to how we can encourage each other to keep going in pursuit of your best for us.

Lord, teach us more about the power that we have to change each others lives, and teach us how to use it wisely. Let us only bless, and never harm. Let us love, inspire, nurture, comfort and encourage each other.

In the name of Jesus Christ


After this we made 'Encouragement boxes' where we decorated our own little box, and then wrote on small cards words of encouragement for each other. People were encouraged to pray for an individual and wait on God to see if there was anything specific that He wanted to say. We used scripture, wrote prayers, told anecdotes and gave thanks for each other. Everyone went home with a box of cards to read through and be encouraged by. 

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