“Once a word leaves your mouth, it leaves your control” is an African dictum. So be careful what you say because your words can go a long way.  

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” A childhood defense against taunts, our parents taught us to repeat after them. Long before anti-bullying campaigns and celebrity spokespersons, we were told that words had little to no effect. 

Our parents said, “Pay them no mind.” My mother said, “Child, people are always going talk. They talked about Jesus!”  

She said this as if my twelve-year-old self had the same supernatural confidence, the same “blessed assurance” as he did. No grand purpose had been revealed to me, and I had no heaven to go home to.

No bruises, no blood, no band-aid, we were told to go back outside and play. As if a magic incantation, we were expected to say these words to keep the bad ones away.

But these wand-words didn’t work. “I’m rubber; you’re glue. Whatever you say, bounces off me and sticks to you” rhymes, but it is also not true. 

Not only did the words stick, they stung. Words that hiss and heckle can hurt more, and for far longer, than sticks and stones. Names have power, and the names we are called follow us from the playground.  

Irish poet Oscar Wilde talks of fighting words: “It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. Names are everything. I never quarrel with actions. My one quarrel is with words.”

Words have a memory, and the names we are called convey meaning. We “name drop” when we want people to think we’re important. Some of us aspire to become household names or to make a name for ourselves.  

On the other hand, if we are accused of something we did not do, we seek to clear our name. And if we don’t like someone, we drag his name through the mud. Still, we are careful to behave in ways that protect our reputation, not wanting to give our family, occupation, or hometown a bad name. 

So then, American children’s writer James Howe offers a corrective on this children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will break our spirit.”

Poet Ruby Redfort would agree:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can also hurt me.
Stones and sticks break only skin, while words are ghosts that haunt me.
Slant and curved the word-swords fall, it pierces and sticks inside me.
Bats and bricks may ache through bones, but words can mortify me.
Pain from words has left its scar, on mind and heart that’s tender.
Cuts and bruises have healed; it’s words that I remember.

During this Lenten season, I am thinking of Peter, who was at a loss for words during Jesus’ arrest. But, later, in Acts 10, he speaks of this division between holy and profane though there was no division between betrayers and disciples. They all sat at the same table with Jesus.

Surely, Peter had been with Jesus, who crossed the triple boundaries of gender, ethnicity, and religion while talking to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus didn’t have to get involved in this historic back-and-forth. He could have kept his nose and name out of it. He could have fallen back on tradition and hurled an insult, but he didn’t. 

Still, Peter needs a remedial vision. Though saved by grace, Peter touts the law: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28). But Peter is not doing them a favor as God has no favorites.

Much like Saul, Peter is blind to the big picture. Because God’s family photo will include all nations. 

Maybe he thought Jesus died and left him in charge. Whatever the reason, Peter shouldn’t point fingers or call names.

Because now he’s in Cornelius’ house, and the people under his roof didn’t come to hear about old hatreds or segregationist laws. As Maya Angelou taught us, “Hate has caused a lot of problems in this world, and it has not solved one yet.” So, be careful of the names you call people because you may have to answer for them like Peter.

His story reminds us that our relationship with Jesus will call into question the way we relate to other people. Sworn enemies, so what! Rivals for years, who cares?

We are all God’s children, so be mindful of what you say. For those en route to the “kin-dom” and thus, in lockstep with Jesus, there is no name-calling, as it only causes more delays.


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