Harrowing Of Hell
August 11, 2019

Words Have Spiritual Force

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Lately I have had a story from my youth running through my mind. When I was in elementary school, I was one of the first kids on the bus every morning. I could sit anywhere I wanted, so, I would sit near the back, but not too far back so as not to be displaced by the older boys when they got on the bus. I knew who got on when and where they liked to sit. And maybe this is why I was one of those little kids who the older kids liked, and this afforded me privileged and protected status, but it also carried with it a price…

When the bused stopped in Lynnwood, MN a crowd of kids got on. One of them was Sally, who was in my grade, and another was her older brother, who, for some reason unbeknownst to me, provoked ridicule from his peers. When he would crest the door threshold, the older boys would often start singing…”There goes so and so swimming down the Delaware blah, blah, blah underwear, couldn’t get another pair, blah, blah, blah eaten by a polar bear that’s how the polar bear died.”  And I’d join right in. It showed my status and my coolness.

This boy would always drop into the seat closest to the front. Can’t blame him. Sometimes the bus driver would scowl at us, and sometimes he’d say something to this boy…maybe something like: “Sticks and stone will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” And yet, they do; don’t they?

But there was more. You see there was a price to be paid for my complicity. The price of being treated well by the older boys didn’t stop at my inconspicuously joining in the song.  It expanded.  It expanded to my joining in taunts if this boy was forced to sit too far toward the back.  Then I was spurred to trip him if he passed me in the aisle, and then, I was summoned to shimmy under the seat to grab his backpack. 

Now I never felt particularly good about any of this. I knew it was wrong, and I quite liked his sister, who was the fastest runner in my class. But I was caught, complicit.

And while my complicity rewarded me, it also diminished me. And at some point, the benefit tipped, and even as a little kid I knew my soul was being compromised; it was being wounded. And yet, as is the case when evil traps the self-interested, I was trapped and then used, pushed to go further than I wanted. But I went there because I knew there could be a price to pay if I pushed back or rebelled. My cool kid third grade status could be gone in a flash. Who knows what that would have meant to me on the playground? Heck, I could have become the victim of the taunts and tugs and songs on the bus.

And so, I continued in my complicity to support the hecklers and the bullies, because that is how evil works upon those who are trapped. I was like the proverbial frog in a pot of water heating up on the stove. 

So, all I could do was be nice to his sister in class, and deny, deny, deny in my own mind that I was complicit; deny, deny, deny that I had been bought at a price that at first I was willing to pay, and then was unable to extricate myself from, as my complicity slowly and steadily increased. 

That is how evil works in the world. That is how good people get trapped into doing the bidding of evil. And it all started with a song. Singing it once, then twice, then over and over again. With words, just words. They come out so easily, without much thought, and yet some words are so sticky. They glob on to the hearer and stick there, sometimes for a very long time. And the more powerful the word source, and the more often the repetition, the more sticky the words seem to be. The words my Dad repeated to me were much stickier than the words my elementary school bus driver said. And that makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is that while I don’t remember the names of the boys who spurred me to this bad behavior in the back of the bus, I’ll never forget the name and the face of the boy we taunted…and I’ll never forget the song we sang; it will stick in my mind until the day I die…maybe longer. You see, words we say to others can stick to us as well. Words we utter can stick to our very souls.

Words have force. In fact, words have spiritual force, and can be used by the good and the evil alike. Dallas Willard, in his book Hearing God, writes: “Some of our greatest problems in understanding and entering into life in the Kingdom of God, come from an inadequate appreciation of how that kingdom, like all kingdoms, work. They work by communications, by speaking or using words for the expression of minds and intentions” (p. 122). 

Words have spiritual force, they change things; indeed, they can change us by how we hear them and how we use them. Words are sticky, and, as I said before, the greater the power of the source, like the big kids in the back of the bus, or my Dad, or God, the less repetition needed and the greater likelihood of them sticking to our souls.

God, the Psalmist claims, only spoke once, and twice humanity heard (Ps 62:11). The Gospel of John articulates the Psalmist’s insight this way: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning and all things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus. God spoke once and gave us a world to live in and a way to live in it. Yes, we are made in the image and likeness of the Word made flesh, Jesus, and as a result our words have power, spiritual force!

To not understand this, to not see and admit that words have spiritual force is like going to a gun fight with a knife; it is like believing that sticks and stone will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. That is a fraud. That is a lie because we know words have spiritual power. We see this with Jesus…He speaks, and water becomes wine.

He speaks and people are healed. He speaks and the dead are raised. He speaks, and Pilate and Herod become friends. He speaks, and the church comes into being. We are made in his image and likeness. We are spiritual beings and our words have spiritual power. OK.  So what?  Why does knowing this matter right now?

As you know, I believe we are living in the Age of the Holy Spirit. I have spoken and written about this a lot. But one of the things this means is that the Age of the Incarnation,  the age of things is diminishing in its influence, and things of the Spirit are on the ascent.  This may be why we are seeing Generation Z’ers caring less about owning stuff…They rent cars, bikes, scooters, clothes, apartments, videos, music…

But it also might be why we are seeing people, even older people like you and me, make decisions that seem not to be in their own practical, material self-intertest. They are willing to forgo a practical benefit to perpetuate some larger idea.

It may be why we are seeing autocrats rise to power in many corners of the world, not because they are giving their people more money or security or care, but because of the power of their words to implant in the minds of people particular ideas that lead to particular actions that defend particular things that seem important to them at the time.

My concern is that these folks become like me sitting near the back of the bus, and the price that they were willing to pay at first traps them into actions that, in the end, diminish their soul. And they don’t see it because they don’t believe that words are sticky.

Complicity comes at us all; it shows up at work and at school; in clubs and friendships and family. We all have our price. The question is: “Do we know the full cost when becoming complicit?” Many times, maybe even most of the time, we are unaware of the grand bargain we have entered into.

One way of bringing these bargains to the light of our own minds is by paying attention to our words. How do we employ them? What words do we use? Who inspires them, and what is in it for them? From what source within me do these words come…Anger, vitriol, some old wound or insecurity, from joy or loneliness, from abundance or blessing? From what source within me do my words come? How about Jesus? Maybe they come from Jesus.

And finally: When are we silent?  Why are we silent? Words have spiritual force. Words have spiritual power. This is the age of the Holy Spirit, and your words and your silences are more important and more powerful than ever before.