Tag Archives: Language

Language and Leadership

I recently had the opportunity to overhear a conversation that warmed my heart. It made me hopeful for the future. It reminded me that truth will always find a way out, no matter who tries to lock it up. It reminds me that in every generation, God gifts some with special talents and extra intellect. It reminds me that we must never stop praying for the upcoming generations. When we look at those in leadership in our nation and our states and our cities, we may be very tempted to wonder if he skipped a generation or two.

The conversation that encouraged me took place between a thirteen-year-old boy and a fifty-year-old man. The man asked about something the boy had recently done for a club at school. The boy had made a speech on the subject of global warming as a project for a debate in the club. When asked what side he took, the boy replied that he spoke about man-made global warming as a hoax.

The older man was surprised. “A hoax?” he asked. “What made you think it was a hoax?” The boy replied that he went to the library and found a great deal of information about weather and climate that refuted the allegations of people who support the claims for man-made global warming.

“Well,” the man said, “What led you to choose this subject?” The boy replied that he overheard two people in a drug store talking about the weather. Both were concerned because of the severe winter and the lingering cold weather after the first day of spring. “They couldn’t understand why it was cold,” he said, “but they both said it didn’t prove that there was no global warming.”

“What did you think?” the man asked. “I decided I would just look for whatever I could find, and then I would know,” the boy replied.

Lest you think this boy was coached, I must assure you that he was not. This boy spoke without any help from anyone. He had no notes. His mother did not interrupt to correct things. He did not even have a teleprompter. He never stopped to say “uh … uh … uh….” He also did not use the words “like” or “awesome.” He spoke in complete, grammatically correct sentences.

It was a pleasure to listen to this conversation for a variety of reasons.

First, the boy was coherent and confident. At the age of thirteen, he knows when he knows something, and he is able to communicate what he knows in clear language. His communication skills are not only exceptional by comparison with many young people his own age. His communication skills exceed those of the President of the United States. It makes me sad when I hear a young person who is not able to say what he means. It is like watching someone trapped in a net. It is a crying shame to hear an adolescent who is unable to say what he means or to tell a story in language that permits the hearer to enjoy the experience. Children who want to describe a magnificent sight struggle saying “It’s like you know awesome! Amazing!” and nobody really knows what they are talking about.

Second, the boy thought for himself. He didn’t say that his teacher told him that man-made global warming is a myth. He also did not say that his teacher told him that man-made global warming is the coming Armageddon. In fact, it was quite impressive that he used the term “man-made global warming” rather than simply “global warming.” He knew the difference in the meaning of the two phrases. He recognized that the real subject of the political debate is whether the world is getting warmer because of human use of fossil fuel. He did not confuse that proposition with any observations of the natural geology, astronomy and meteorology of the earth.

Finally, he was humble. Matter-of-fact. He never even referred to the proponents of man-made global warming at all. He talked about the ideas, but he did not talk about advocates for any viewpoint. No argumentum ad hominem. He did not refer to his feelings about either side of the argument. He simply discussed the issue and his research methods. I could not tell if he felt proud of his work or validated by winning an argument. He did not seem to care what anyone else thought or felt about what he believed to be truth.

To hear this conversation made me feel something. Peace. Sometimes I wonder what will become of the world when the last thinker dies. When I listen to commentators on television who are unable to distinguish fact from opinion or who believe they have performed astute analysis when they dream up a label that scornfully dismisses and belittles the opposition. Sometimes I despair of the future. Every so often I hear someone speak with the coherence and confidence of this young man, and then, no matter the age of the speaker, I relax. Recently speeches by Dr. Ben Carson and Marco Rubio have had that sort of effect on me. They speak of the world around us in terms that make sense, and they speak of ideas that fit with reality. They know the difference between facts, ideas, and wishful thinking. They do not need to destroy someone else’s reputation in order to build up their own.

This young boy spoke in that manner. It was refreshing and comforting and inspiring. This is what God hoped for when he gave human beings, alone among all the animals, the gift of speech. It is God’s gift of speech that allows him to communicate with us in the Bible. Yet people who are unable to communicate with other people will never get the message of the Bible. Someone whose vocabulary is limited to “whatever” and “weird” will not absorb the passion which shapes the psalms or the lofty rhetoric of Paul’s writings. God is able to communicate in the language of spirit, and people can, too, but the fact is that most of us find comfort in meaningful language. To hear a young person who is comfortable in his native language is encouraging. All great leaders have the gift of language, the lack of which is one of the reasons our President flounders in communicating his agenda. Whether or not one agrees with his agenda, it is painful to wait while he labors to find his way to a complete sentence on the subject.

I am probably too easily impressed. Maybe you hear gifted young children every day. I don’t. I know there are some. I have grandchildren among whom there are a couple of talented speakers. Still, it is a treasure like the pearl of great price Jesus spoke of.

Pray for the leaders we have today. Pray that they will have the gift to see truth and to speak truth. Pray for the children and their teachers. Pray that they, too, will have the gift to see truth and to speak truth. Pray that they will learn to use the gift of language with skill and integrity. Then there will be hope for the future.

The Web We Weave With Words


Image courtesy of Stuart Mileshttp://www.freedigitalphotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles

Recently I happened upon a fund-raising site for a person who wants to make a mission trip. She described some of the things she expects to do if she can make the trip, and then she said, “Even though I will be there for only a short time, I want to make a difference.”

This person used a phrase we hear every day, because the phrase has achieved some prominence in common usage as a way to express a charitable commitment. People are often invited to participate in a charity project in order to “make a difference.” Young people asked what they want to do when they grow up will respond by saying, “I want to make a difference.” I don’t know who said this phrase first, but it has attained great popularity.

That doesn’t make it the right way to describe the work of a Christian on a mission for Christ.

I am certain that the person who used this phrase in her fund-raising effort did not mean what she actually said. Her other statements belie the message of this phrase. She said that she wanted to share Christ with people and show them what he is like. That is not the message of this phrase. She said that she wanted to touch people with Christ’s love. That is not the message of this phrase. She said that she wanted to push back spiritual darkness and physical pain. That is not the message of this phrase.

The message of the phrase, “make a difference” is, “Look at me. See what I do. Take notice of me, because what I do changes things.” The implication of the phrase is that the “difference” she makes will be a good thing for the people who experience it, and the phrase therefore invites praise of the person who “makes” that difference.

This is not the work of a Christian on a mission for Christ, and I know that the person who  used the phrase used it because it is so common in our culture, not because she thought about the meaning of it. She really wanted to say that she hopes to serve the people by pointing them to Christ and inviting them to praise him for what he will do in their lives. She really wants to open people’s hearts and minds to the Christ who will make a real and eternal difference in their lives.

Common usage of this phrase supports deliberately secular work and secular goals. Feeding the hungry is something Christ teaches us to do, and that work makes a difference until the hunger recurs, but if feeding the hungry is nothing more than putting food in people’s mouths, it does not achieve the kind of change Christ has in mind.

When Jesus fed five thousand people, they were agog. What a man! The next morning, after Jesus and the disciples had slipped away, the crowd chased Jesus down near Capernaum and asked, “How did you wind up over here?” Jesus knew that they were not concerned for his well-being or his means to pay for transportation. He replied, “Look, I know you aren’t concerned for my health. You followed me all the way over here, because I gave you food. That food was just a temporary fix. It didn’t do you any eternal good. It didn’t change you. That is not the sort of food to give your energy for. You need the food that endures for eternal life.” (See John 6:22-40) In other words, Christ used the feeding of hungry mouths to open empty hearts to his truth.

This is what the young woman wanted to say when she was trying to raise funds for her mission trip. She didn’t want to ask people to be impressed by her self-sacrifice in going on the mission trip. She doesn’t hope to come home to a parade and a certificate of award for helping sick and hungry people in a third-world country. She wants to touch empty, sick hearts with the love of Christ and give people something that will satisfy their eternal hunger. She doesn’t want people to remember her. She wants people to remember that she gave them Christ.

There is no “sin” in the word this woman used. I am not trying to suggest that. I am, rather, saying that when we speak of the work we want to do, we must speak with the same commitment to Christ that we will apply in the work itself. Our words and our deeds are the testimony everyone sees and hears. People who hear that we are Christians will start judging what Christianity is by what they hear and what they see us do. If all they see are charitable acts, and all they hear are secular phrases, then they are not introduced to Christ and his claim on our lives. It isn’t wicked; it is a lost opportunity to testify.

We miss a lot of such opportunities. The condition of the world witnesses to a deep heart-hunger of people for that eternal food Christ offered to the people after he had fed them temporary bread. We don’t want people to waste time being impressed by us. We want them to see Christ and receive what only he can give. It would be a shame to “make a difference” in time and space while failing utterly to show people the Christ who will change them eternally.


Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic
Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic (Photo credit: jakebouma)

The teachings of Jesus are all about love. In fact, when we read those teachings closely, we discover that the teachings of Jesus are about transformation. When we get close to Jesus and spend time listening to him, we open ourselves to become different. When the Holy Spirit dwells within a person, that person simply cannot continue to be like everyone else.

Today’s daily news is filled with rhetoric about the way people relate to each other. If I read only the specific spoken words, I would conclude that all the people involved are trying very hard to get along with each other. Each party to the conflict simply feels the need to point out some little failing in the words the other person is using. Simply using better words would clear everything up in a flash.


Politically correct language is not about loving anyone. The rules for speaking politically correct language do not transform anybody, and abiding by those rules will not produce a culture where people love or even respect one another. The best possible outcome from mandating correct speech is tolerance. If you have ever dealt with a sibling you could barely tolerate, you could testify to the fact that tolerance is not love.

Still, the secular culture of our day holds the usage of correct speech in high regard. The level of regard is expressed by those who not only watch what specific approved or disapproved words are spoken, but they also peer beyond the specific words and recognize when otherwise innocuous words have become code for forbidden words. I don’t need to elaborate on this image. You hear it every day from commentators and politicians and the spokespersons for politicians.

The problem with policing speech is that while people can be legislated to use or to avoid specific words with some degree of success, there is no corresponding success in changing attitudes. The underlying problems remain, and the problems are not all in the hearts of those who use what is considered to be offensive speech. For every person who expresses a heart illness that is manifest in speech that assaults someone, there is someone who cannot forgive some past offense, and that person is on high alert to find the slightest remnant or suggestion that the offense is approved by any speaker. Someone who takes offense at people who have done nothing to offend, finding hate speech and code words everywhere, has a serious problem with the inability to forgive. The mechanism of managing verbiage can never heal an unforgiving heart. That heart must be transformed by love, and that kind of change can only be made by the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to achieve transformation of the culture by policing the speech of the people.

It is hard to imagine how such behavior arose in a nation whose regard for the freedom of speech given to every human being by God himself at the moment of creation is enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution. As often happens, it arose in response to very real wrongdoing, but effects of the perpetration of evil have been exacerbated by the effects of the inability of people to forgive, even when the old wrong no longer even exists. This problem mirrors the behavior of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, and when we look at what Jesus thought about the Pharisees, we can see clearly why political correctness will never have the desired effect. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for washing the outside of a cup and ignoring the garbage inside. He accused the Pharisees of being like mausoleums – ornate and beautiful on the outside, despite being full of rotting corpses and the bones of the dead.

The solution to a culture where people actually do get along, where people respect one another and even love one another, is not political correctness. The solution is in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said that love is the greatest commandment of all. We should love God above all, and love our neighbors as ourselves. He said that even if a neighbor became an enemy, we should love that neighbor anyway, and even pray for that neighbor. Furthermore, if that neighbor needed anything from us, Jesus said we should give it. We should not withhold ourselves or anything we have from that enemy neighbor while it lies in our power to make the situation better. When people are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to live the law of love, then this culture will be transformed as well.

When I point out that political correctness will not solve attitude problems, I do not suggest that we should all abandon good manners and polite consideration for others in our words. I simply mean that good police work never ends crime. Criticizing or even punishing people for unacceptable speech does not really do anything for the issue that lies beneath the words. There is only one way to transform the human heart. That heart must be open to the Holy Spirit.

How does this work?

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:16-17