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How do your words land?

Land is one of those words that can either be a noun or a verb. It usually shows up as a noun. Like the listing of land transfers published in the newspaper. A place. Something solid. Space on which to stand.

But sometimes it’s a verb. As in what a plane does when the wheels appear and extend to meet the runway. Or a bird fluttering from perch to earth in search of a worm. When something or someone lands it may be an easy movement from being up to down. Or it might be a painful passage from one position to another.

It happens with words too. I have a friend who refers to how words “land.” And we all know what that means even if we wouldn’t say it that way. What is said, how it is said can feel like a solid punch in the gut. Or like a soft blanket against the chill of a winter’s night. The key is in the intent with which they are spoken. To harm or heal? Stir up or settle down? Divide or unite?

Political campaigns are filled with words. Those words presumably hold promises. Perhaps plans. Sometimes strategies. Words intending to sway, convince, persuade. Words offered with calculated care. Or flung off the cuff. Even in everyday conversation words are powerful. We know this. But we don’t always handle our words with care.

Tucked into one of the books of the Bible considered to be wisdom literature is the simple statement “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1). Easy to tell the difference in how those words land, isn’t it?

I recently stumbled on a great story. It’s a true story which makes it all the better. The true story of a young boy named Heinz growing up in Bavaria in the 1930s. If you know history and have some sense of geography that adds up to Europe during Hitler’s regime. And Heinz was a Jew.

Max Lucado includes this true story in his book “The Applause of Heaven.” Lucado writes, “Hitler youth roamed the neighborhoods looking for trouble. Young Heinz learned to keep his eyes open. Sometimes he would escape a fight — sometimes not.

“One day, in 1934, a pivotal confrontation occurred. Heinz found himself face-to-face with a Hitler bully. A beating appeared inevitable. This time, however, he walked away unhurt — not because of what he did, but because of what he said. He didn’t fight back; he spoke up. His words kept battle at bay. Heinz saw firsthand how the tongue can create peace.”

Lucado continues the true story by reporting that Heinz’s family escaped Bavaria and landed in America. But the young boy had learned important lessons about negotiating peaceful coexistence between people perceived to be enemies on the streets of Bavaria. This invaluable training afforded a solid space to stand in the world for the person we know by his anglicized name, Henry Kissinger. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient handled his words with care as he extended them like expansion bridges between nations.

Perhaps all streets where people live offer their lessons in coexistence. While Hitler’s regime is yet unparalleled in history perhaps all conflict teaches us to handle our words with utmost care. All freedoms including speech can be misused. Will we keep battle at bay or escalate the fray as we launch our words? How do they land?

The Rev. Rebecca Taylor is pastor at First Presbyterian Church. She can be reached at rebecca@presbyterianwarren.com

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