Monday, July 5, 2010


I make a lot of typographical errors myself and so I am not hard on others, particularly bloggers and Facebook note writers who don’t have the advantage (or disadvantage) of an editor, when they do—but occasionally one will catch my eye.

Such was the case today. A friend was writing about watching a July 4 fireworks show but his middle left finger acted when his middle right should have and he thus typed a “d” rather than a “k” with the result that he produced the (non)word “firewords.”

I decided that he had inadvertently coined a word that we should add to our vocabulary.

As a human being I am aware of the power of words; as a preacher I am keenly aware of the power of words. My friend’s new word set me to thinking about some of the “firewords” that we use, by which I mean words that are incendiary, that kindle fires in the people who hear them.

I have in mind not specific words but rather categories of words, some of which are harmful.

First, there are destructive words, by which I mean words that have the effect of tearing people down. The use of such words unfortunately characterizes many relationships, either on the part of one party or on the part of both parties. Now, sometimes a corrective statement must be made but when such a thing needs to be said it should be said in love and humility and with a view toward helping and not hurting.

Too often, though, people use words against other people—even people with whom they have the closest relationships—in order to tear them down. In my work as a pastor I have heard far too many accounts, for example, of spouses belittling spouses.

I imagine that such a use of words says more about the person who sends them out than it does about the person who has to receive them. He or she may be motivated, for example, by a desire to keep other persons down so they can be controlled or by a sense of inferiority that creates a need to try to put others in a position beneath him or her.

Regardless, such words are firewords because of the power they have to singe or even to scorch the lives of those against whom they are targeted.

Second, there are demagogic words, by which I mean words that are used in a manipulative way by people in positions of influence to play on a particular group’s fears or prejudices in order to incite greater fear or to arouse anger. Some politicians are guilty of using such words and some radio and television talking heads are notorious in their use of them. Perhaps most unfortunately, some preachers are prone to such verbal shenanigans as well.

We live in a society in which freedom of speech is not only a cherished value but a constitutionally guaranteed one. Moreover, I do not doubt that many people who use what I would regard as inflammatory language in fact hold strong convictions and their passion comes out in their language.

Nonetheless, too often a politician panders to her or his base through the use of such statements and too often the talking heads rile people up for the sake of ego and ratings rather than for the sake of making a meaningful contribution to the discussion and too often preachers confuse their cultural assumptions and their own fears with the biblical message and crave the affirmation that comes from having the congregation respond enthusiastically to having their biases confirmed from the pulpit.

Such demagogic words are firewords because of the power they have to singe or even to scorch the lives of those against whom they are targeted, both in the sense of those who are being attacked and those who are being affirmed.

Not all firewords are harmful though because not all fires are harmful; a fire properly used offers heat and light rather than destruction. What are some categories of helpful firewords?

First, there are constructive words, by which I mean words that are used to build another person up. Positive words spoken consistently make a positive difference. In a recent sermon on the family, I said, “None of you probably has the world’s greatest spouse (because I do!) but, based on the things that you say to your spouses, they should think that they are.” It is hard to overstate how important it is that parents build up their children in the ways they talk to them just as it hard to overstate how vital it is that we encourage each other in the church or in the neighborhood or in the workplace.

Constructive words spoken sincerely and consistently can kindle life-affirming and even life-giving fire in others.

Second, there are prophetic words, by which I mean words that challenge the status quo in ways that properly align with the Word of God as it is revealed in the Bible and as it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate. Prophetic words as they are presented in the Bible might be negative or they might be positive but they are always intended accurately to bring the Word of God to bear in a particular historical circumstance for the sake of affecting that circumstance.

Not all challenging words, though, not even those spoken from Christian pulpits, are prophetic, because they can be based in the preacher’s biases or fears or assumptions rather than in the Word of God.

Prophetic preaching is hard work—work that requires careful reading of the Bible, careful reading of the situation, and careful listening to the Spirit in prayer. Sometimes, after such hard work, the preacher’s conclusion is that the hard and challenging word must be spoken. Such a word, when it is presented with the motivation of helping God’s people and out of a heart brimming with the love and grace of Jesus Christ, is a positive thing.

Prophetic words spoken carefully and humbly can kindle church and community-changing fires.

Third, there are gospel words, by which I mean words that proclaim the good news of the life, teachings, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such words may be prophetic or they may be pastoral but the main things about them are that they accurately reflect who Jesus is and what he did and that they come out of a life that is doing its best, by the grace and Spirit of God, to walk humbly with Jesus.

Such words, whether they are challenging or comforting, will be covered up with grace, love, and mercy, just as Jesus Christ was. Such words will be motivated by and will inspire a servant and sacrificial spirit, just as Jesus Christ was.

Our imaginations can hardly contain the possibilities of what kinds of fires might be kindled if we preachers—if all Christians—could and would live and speak the firewords of the good news of Jesus Christ.

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