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The Power of Words (and a top reason why people will go to church)

Greetings from Princeton Theological Seminary, where I'm attending the Frederick Buechner Writer's Workshop.

This is is part of my annual Continuing Education-Professional Development time, or what I would call time to "restock the overfished pond" -- time set aside to step back for a few days and renew, restore, and restock my thought-well.

One of the recurring themes at this year's conference is the power of words.

For example, the written word can time-travel: words written over 1,000 years ago still have the power to move us today. And through the written word, a writer can bi-locate, being present in someone's living room in Cincinnati at the same time that writer is present to a reader on a subway car in Tokyo.

Words also have power to bring about change. They can bring about tremendous psychological and social healing ("with malice toward none, with charity toward all...") and they can cause great psychological and social harm (and here I don't want to provide examples, because even to repeat hateful words is to give them power).

In her keynote address this morning, author Kathleen Norris spoke about the power of words on Sunday mornings.
First she read a series of humorous examples of bad prayers. Then she gave us counter-examples of beautiful prayers.

(Proud Episcopalian moment: this prayer, from the Book of Common Prayer's "Order of Compline" was her prime example of a beautiful prayer:

"Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake.")

That prayer was Kathleen Norris' segue into the end of her talk, which contained a great reminder for those of us who preach and lead prayers on Sundays.

She ended by saying people go to church "for relief from hearing things they hear all week long."

Yes. What a great reminder. In our culture, words are used so often to sell products, mask truth, and divide people. Words are so often cheapened.

By contrast, Church can and should be a place where words are used to share God's unconditional love, illuminate truth, and remind us of what unifies us. Where words are used for the purpose of praising and worshipping God.

That's a high calling. A calling we'll never be perfect about living into, but -- I hope you can see - is one toward which we strive.


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