As children, I imagine we probably all used the phrase: Sticks and stones make break my bones, but words will never harm me. It is one of those interesting questions that struck me this week: I wonder who the first person was who ever used that phrase? It is certainly a pretty universal saying, that although we have all used it, we all know that it just isn’t true.
We all know from our own experience that some of the most painful and long lasting pain that many of us have experienced have in fact words that have been spoken to us or about us, either intentionally or unintentionally.
In around 2006, I remember sitting at my office desk reading church related emails. I had just received an email from a Church member who was very unhappy about something. It was quite painful to receive it and read it. I noted how quickly my sense of life and spirit took such a sudden dive and a sense of dread hit me. I also realised in that moment how often the negative feed-back so often out-weighed many of the positive messages I had received at other times.
It amazed me at the time that I could receive 10 or 20 affirming, positive and grateful emails from other congregation members, but it took only 1 critical or unhappy email to almost completely obliterate the other 10 or 20. I began to wonder, Why do our brains focus so heavily on the negative feedback so that it completely eclipses the many positive messages one may have had?
I resolved on that day to keep a folder of positive feedback in my computers emails so that when I was feeling flattened or down because of a persons criticism (which would inevitably come again), I would be able to go back to that folder and remind myself of some of the positive feedback I had received.
It was only a few years later that I came across a book that explained that our brains are designed to focus on the negative rather than the positive as a survival strategy. The reason we focus on the negative is because our brains are hard-wired to help us identify danger in order to protect us from that danger. The same is not true of positive messages. Your brain does not need to focus on them to protect you or for survival purposes because that is not where the danger lies.
And so it is that negative voices and negative comments can sometimes loom large in our minds and often live on within us for years and years.
Like those positive emails that I began to store up in a folder in my emails we all need to hear positive messages to affirm us and to help us know that we are on the right track.
Words of affirmation are vital in the life of a child to help them grow and blossom, but if truth be told, we all need words of affirmation.
In fact, as we touched on in last weeks introductory sermon, Gary Chapman regards Words of Affirmation as one of the 5 main languages of love, one of the 5 key ways in which we can show love to other people, and in which we can also receive love from other people.
While all of us need to hear positive affirming words, for some people, affirming words constitute their primary way of giving and receiving love. You may give such a person gifts, you may spend quality time with them, you may show them physical affection, or do loving acts of kindness toward them, but for some people, these are all secondary love languages. Some of these things they may indeed interpret positively. Others of these things may actually make them withdraw and make them feel uncomfortable. For such people, if you really wish to speak to their heart, it will need to be through words of kindness, encouragement and affirmation. For some people, until you have spoken with words of kindness and affirmation, they may not full interpret your actions as Love in the same way that you may intend them as love.
Gary Chapman tells the story of a teenager that he was seeing for counselling. His parents were very concerned about him. He had become a problem child for them. He had even threatened to run away from home. Interactions between the teenager and his parents had become constantly negative and acrimonious.
In listening to the story of this teenager Gary Chapman asked him what life at home had been like when he was younger. The teenager shared that previously things had been good between him and his parents. He shared that they had been kind and supportive of him, constantly encouraging him and saying nice things to him, but in more recent times, he felt that his parents had become constantly critical of him and it felt like they never had anything good to say to him any-more.
The way the teenager spoke particularly about the way his parents had spoken to him as a child and now how they would speak to him as a teenager made Gary Chapman alert and aware to the fact that it was likely that for this young person, affirming words could be his primary language of love, the primary way in which he not only gave love, but also received it. As things began to deteriorate at home, his parents had begun to speak less and less in his primary language of love leaving him feeling empty and devoid of love at home and thus unable to respond in love back to his parents.
In the Gospel stories, we see on many occasions how Jesus knew how to use affirming words to other people as an important language of love.
I think of the story of Simon, who Jesus gives the nickname ‘Peter’ which means ‘The Rock’. Jesus sees not just the surface of Simon’s life. He sees not just the impetuous, head-strong and impulsive person that he seems to be, but Jesus also sees all that Simon can become, the hidden potential that lies within him, and that, one day, he would become a strong foundational leader in community of Jesus. And so as a way of affirming Simon, and this potential which Jesus sees lies within him, and as a way of drawing out Simon’s deeper potential for stability and strength, Jesus gives him the nick-name Peter. Jesus speaks to Simon, the language of affirming words to help him grow into his true potential as Peter, the Rock on which the Church would be built. Every time Jesus, and others would call him by this nickname, Peter, the Rock, it became a word of affirmation, affirming all that Simon could become.
But there are many other stories of Jesus speaking the love language of affirming words.
At the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus finds Philip and says to him “Follow me”. Philip then found Nathaniel and brings him to Jesus. We read that when Jesus sees Nathaniel approaching, he says to him: “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Jesus in seeing Nathaniel perceives something of the essence of his character just by looking at him, perhaps seeing the expression on his face, perhaps it was something in the way in which Nathaniel walked and held himself. But as Jesus perceives this quality in Nathaniel, he doesn’t just keep it to himself, he speaks it out loud as a word of affirmation for who Nathaniel is. This is not Jesus trying to curry favour with Nathaniel, using words to manipulate Nathaniel and try and bring Nathaniel under his power. It is a statement free of any hidden agenda, simply an affirmation of the goodness that Jesus perceives within Nathaniel. The name Nathaniel means ‘The Gift of God’. Jesus sees into Nathaniel’s heart, looks for the gift that God has placed within him, and then affirms to him what he has seen, “Here truly is an Israelite in which there is no deceit.”
I think also of that passage where Jesus is nearing his death. The story appears in Matthew, Mark and John’s Gospels, with a similar, parallel story in Luke 7. The details in John’s version are slightly different from Matthew and Mark. Whereas Matthew and Mark leave her unnamed and simply refer to her as ‘a woman’. In John she is referred to as Mary, the sister of Lazarus. In Mark and Matthew the story takes place in Bethany, the house of of Simon the Leper, whereas in John’s version the impression is given that the event takes place in Lazarus’s home. In Matthew and Mark the incident takes place on a Wednesday, two days prior to the Passover. In John’s version it takes place six days before the Passover. But in both accounts she is criticised for her extravagant act of love towards Jesus of pouring expensive perfume upon him. In Matthew, it is the disciples who are critical. Marks version simply says ‘some’ were critical, and in John’s Gospel it is Judas who is named as the one who speaks critically of her. But in all three versions, Jesus speaks affirming words towards her to deflect the criticism. In John’s Gospel “Leave her alone, it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” The words in Matthew and Mark’s version are even more affirming, “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me.” And Jesus goes on to say “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
Beautiful words of love and affirmation spoken in her defence in the face of criticism.
Lastly, and very briefly, I think also of Barnabas in the book of Acts. The name Barnabas appears to be a nickname, and means the Son of Encouragement. His Hebrew name according to a number of sources appears to have been Joseph. The fact that he was known by the name Barnabas rather than the name of his birth suggests that Barnabas was one of those people who always had something positive to say to other people, always ready to offer words of affirmation and words of encouragement. It would seem likely, that Joseph received the nickname Barnabas because his primary love language was almost certainly the language of speaking loving and affirming and encouraging words to other people.
In closing today, who are the people in your life who have spoken words of affirmation and words of encouragement to you? How have you been touched by other people speaking affirming words as a language of love to you? Who are those in your life, whose love language may be the language of speaking kind, loving and affirming words? In what way may you become an instrument of God’s love as you speak that language of love, words of kindness, love and affirmation towards them. Amen. And lastly, may each of us also hear in our hearts today, those same words of love and affirmation that God spoke over Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved” Amen.