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Words have the power to define us

The Rev. Rebecca Taylor

I am a word nerd. I enjoy using words, playing with words, learning about words, reading words cobbled together in sentences and paragraphs and novels. As a student of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, I often research words in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. I find it fascinating to uncover the nuances and layers of meaning which are not often reflected in translations. For instance, lest any of us believe that being a “soul” is a mysterious, spiritual experience, the Hebrew word would suggest otherwise. It is literally “gullet.” That part of our bodies that keeps us alive by taking in food and drink. As the author from whom I learned this little nugget suggests, that means being a soul is a needy, dependent experience. Now that’s rather humbling, isn’t it?

One of my favorite words garnered me a date decades ago. I was asked if I could spell eleemosynary. I did and enjoyed the dinner with which I was rewarded for doing so. Imagine my delight when I learned years later that the origin of eleemosynary is the New Testament Greek word for mercy! Makes sense that a person who is charitable is motivated by mercy.

Beyond the words themselves, the ability to communicate is, in my opinion, one of life’s most extraordinary gifts. To express, whether with voices or hands (or both!), how we feel and what we think about something or someone is nothing short of a miracle. Author and preacher Frederick Buechner wrote of the word “word,” “In Hebrew the term dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed.’ Thus to say something is to do something. I love you. I hate you. I forgive you. I am afraid. Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly. Words are power, essentially the power of creation. By my words I both discover and create who I am. By my words I elicit a word from you. Through our converse we create each other.” (Wishful Thinking, 1973).

Yet we often use words recklessly. We speak a promise but wiggle our way out of the bind it creates. We say something we believe someone wants to hear but that we don’t mean. A proponent of Toltec wisdom, don Miguel Ruiz, has written of the Four Agreements anchoring an honorable code of conduct. The first agreement is to “be impeccable with your word.” Ruiz summaries this practice with these words, “Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” I was reared by parents who embodied this principle long before Ruiz published his book in 1997.

As I am preparing to move from Warren, I would be remiss if I did not express my deep gratitude for the opportunity I have been afforded to regularly write words for publication. It has been an honor to have my compositions expressing my reflections take up space on a page of the Times Observer. Partings are seldom painless. I take comfort in the realization that the word goodbye is an ancient shortening of the phrase God be with ye. And so I say goodbye and I mean it: God be with you, Times Observer readers and staff. God be with you, residents of Warren County and beyond. God be with us all!

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

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