By Vernon Martin, Worship leader and Life Group leader, Jubilee Church Wirral
our words matter
It stung as the woman’s hand slapped my cheek and I was jerked back to reality after being way off somewhere deep in thought.
I was trying hard to remember if I got everything I had come into the shop for. I was only about 7 or 8 years old. My mom was waiting outside and had sent me in to get 2L of milk – that much I did remember….but was there something else I was forgetting?!
It was a hot summer's day in South Africa and I recall the feeling of the cool tiles on the soles of my bare feet as I ran through the aisles of the Pick ‘n’ Pay (think Tesco, but less posh!).
When I got it and was ready to pay for it, I didn’t notice that I was in the wrong queue at the till. There was a single non-white queue at the end of the row of tills that was only manned occasionally. I didn’t deliberately avoid it, I just had a momentary lapse of memory and proceeded to stand in the queue of people nearest to me.
Standing in line, I wondered if I’d missed something; was I supposed to get something else? Did I get the right milk? Thinking back I can’t remember exactly what took me so far away in thought. But I was obviously not paying too much attention to my surroundings. I was too far away in my head to see what was coming.
She was only about 18 at most I would guess. But, then again, I was never any good at guessing anyone’s age, so who knows! The thing I do know for sure was that her ring left an imprint on my cheek after her hand landed.
"Wat kyk jy vir my, jou hotnot!" ("Why are you looking at me, you hotnot") was her exclamation of disgust that caught my attention and when I realised her vocalisation was directed at me, it was already too late; the blow had landed. I dropped the milk, out of sheer shock! Oh man, did it sting! And as the snot and tears started to flow I clutched my cheek and ran to my mom who had started walking down the road already.
A "hotnot" is a derogatory term for a brown-skinned person in South Africa. It’s a shortened form of ‘Hottentot’ and was the name given to the indigenous people along the coast who encountered the first Dutch settlers in South Africa in the 17th century. It’s a horrible term. And even at 7 or 8 years old you knew it meant you were unwelcome and seen as somehow dirty or unworthy; a third or lesser class citizen.
Why am I telling you this story from way back?
I have been reminded about it recently a few times and have ended up thinking about it, and some aspect of it, again and again – the importance of my speech. Through the sermons, the blogs, the testimonies of how God has been speaking to us, I have also been reminded of my own experiences.
We all go through experiences in life that have the potential to leave a mark on us – either for a short time, or a long time. Dave preached a message on the power of the tongue a few weeks back and mentioned that well-known rhyme "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" and how untrue that phrase is!
Words have the potential to hurt us quite severely sometimes. As children of God, we have a great responsibility to watch what we say to one another. The wonderful thing is that when we master our mouths; or tame our tongues, we show that we belong to Him. Our speech becomes the evidence of our maturity in Christ. And at times I am acutely aware of falling short so very easily when it comes to this.
We’re just about to come to the end of a very challenging series of sermons in the short book of James. So much was James’ passion on living in such a way as to attain the "crown of life" that he specifically mentioned the tongue six times within the first three chapters of the letter that is the book of James! I’m challenged – and I challenge you – let’s watch and listen and read the messages and think about this very important issue some more even after we’re finished on our sojourn through the book.
Praise God, His Grace is powerful and effective to help us in our speech! And whether we have been hurt by words spoken to us or we have hurt others by the words we have spoken to them, the grace of God can come and heal and restore and forgive us of those marks – scars – that words leave on us.
Vernon Martin, worship leader and Life Group leader, Jubilee Church Wirral, with his wife Yvonne