I am amazed at the power of words. Sometimes we give so little thought to what we say, to others or to ourselves, yet words have the power to heal or hurt, build up or cripple. Words are a huge part of my life’s work, both professionally and personally, so I am particularly sensitive to them. I’ve labored for hours – literally – over the composition of an email. If the subject of the email is emotionally charged for me and/or the recipient, I sift each word carefully, removing any that feel sharp or dangerous or easily misinterpreted. I often ask the office administrator to read it before I hit the send button to see if she catches any nuance I may have missed. A poorly used word is a dangerous thing. A word poorly used by a pastor can be an even more dangerous thing.
I was thinking today about some words that have been said to me over the past week or so. Some of these words lifted my spirits and built my confidence. Others felt like sucker punches or “polite” stabs in the back. You know what I mean – that knife thrust while the speaker’s arms are holding you in a “warm” embrace.
Here are some of the words that painted my emotional landscape this past week:
“Maybe you just aren’t doing enough!”
These words were spoken to me during a meeting of church leaders. I do not write details of my church life here, but let it suffice to say that this leader and I have not been seeing eye-to-eye lately. When trying to reconcile a request of mine with an opinion of hers (and/or her committee), that was the grenade she threw. I know it sounds as if I’m being dramatic. No one else in the room felt shrapnel but me. But there is inside of me this little part that wonders if I’m good at what I do, if I’m doing a good enough job, if I’m even up to the task of leadership in ministry. So yes, a seemingly simple sentence like this delivered devastating effects. Suddenly, that little part in me has been fed and isn’t so little anymore. Am I doing enough?
“You look like a preacher in that robe.”
Now that sounds like a compliment, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t a preacher want to look like a preacher after all? Honestly, I don’t know. What does a preacher look like anyway? In a region where female preachers are still an oddity, what should a preacher woman look like? In this case, I knew that this “compliment” was loaded. It came from the mouth of a dear woman in the church who wants her pastor to look as gender-neutral as possible. Skirts should be long. Necklines should be high. Colors should be black, brown, gray, or navy. Anything that hints of femininity or personality draws criticism. I am a woman who has struggled my whole life long with body image. It has been just recently that I’ve experienced moments when I am at home in my less than perfect body. Those moments are fleeting, especially when positive reinforcement comes in the form of “you look good in a garment that completely hides your shape, your gender, and your personality.” Really, is it that hard to accept a “real” woman as pastor?
“I think you are one brave and powerful woman. I respect you.”
On an evening when I was feeling particularly lonely, I wrote an email to my former college chaplain who was later my counselor during a most challenging time in my life. It was on a college mission trip with him that I first felt and expressed my call to ministry. It was under his kind but persistent prodding that I began the painful journey of differentiation. (Obviously an on-going journey!) Some of my most life-changing realizations came to me when he was an active part of my life. We’ve talked only a handful of times in the past decade. I needed the kind of strength that night that I remember feeling in the past when he helped me shift my perspective. I didn’t tell him any of that in my email, of course. It was just a newsy little update on life in general. Somehow though, he heard what I wasn’t saying and said what my soul needed so much to hear. I’m trying every day to live up to his words.
“You are still writing, aren’t you?’
It was a week for communicating with long lost, special people. In another conversation with someone I haven’t spoken with in a decade or more, he asked me this question. I am a tentative writer. For years I didn’t share any of my personal writing. Then I did, but just with one or two people. Well, maybe just one. Then eventually I began blogging, but anonymously. Sharing my heart on a page publicly has been slow developing for me. But that one – the first to see what I am sure were feeble early attempts – ten years later still remembers and still encourages. For me, that’s huge.
“You’re a preaching woman!”
We had a big anniversary celebration at my church last weekend. It was a source of great anxiety for me. I am not afraid of preaching or public speaking, but this time it seemed different. People with long histories with the church were coming back. Other preachers were coming. Members of our Presbytery staff and our Committee on Ministry were coming. There was the pressure that the service must be perfect and the sermon must be just right. Worship planning and preaching are two of my favorite things. I sure didn’t want to botch it on this day. No pressure. None. (Yeah, right!) I worked hard and I prayed hard. And I had a ball! These were my Executive Presbyter’s words to me as he hugged me following the service. Wow. (And thank you, Lord, for the sermon mojo Sunday!)
“I love you.”
My family is not shy about saying these words. My children and I tell each other every day. I have a few close friends that I know love me and who tell me from time to time. Sweet little ladies (and a couple of sweet men) and children in the church tell me frequently that they love me. I know they do in the way that sweet little ladies (and men and children) love the pastor who loves them back. But hearing those words when they are completely unexpected can perk up the soul and make it smile. My soul smiled this week.
So in the great balance of things, it seems that the positive words have outweighed the negative this past week. For that, I am thankful. And for the weaker moments when the negative is all I seem to hear or remember, I am trying to learn to practice what I heard recently on an Oprah special. (She is the queen of pithy quotes!)
“I have come to believe that no one can hurt me with their words. They are simply sharing their observations. I am the one who gives meaning to them.”
I am praying for the wisdom to assign good meaning to all that I hear, learning from both the good and the bad.