It’s been said of old that “there are three items that don’t come back—a spent arrow, a spoken word and a lost opportunity.” Is this simply a trite phrase of days gone by or is there a powerful lesson for us to consider? You might want to call up U.S. Senator Trent Lott and ask him what he thinks. I’m sure he has a few words to share on the subject, but only now after uttering a string of 27 unforgettable words that will trail him the rest of his life.
Until recently, Lott was expected to resume the office of Senate majority leader, which is arguably the second or third most influential office in American politics. Lott had certainly come a long way from his humble beginnings as the son of a sharecropper turned shipbuilder in Pascagoula, Mississippi. But how far he had stepped out of his past remained uncertain to some of his fellow citizens, especially after comments made at a gathering for a retiring senator.
Let’s rewind the tape
Let’s rewind the tape so we can understand what happened. In the beginning of December there was a birthday celebration for retiring 100-year-old Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Many assembled dignitaries offered congratulations and sentimental thoughts regarding the Senate’s senior member. But what Lott said regarding the legacy of the retiring centenarian is what would be remembered. More than birthday candles were about to be blown out that day.
Lott rose and offered what he considered a friendly and gracious reminiscence regarding the retiring senator. He began by reminding the audience that Mississippi was one of four states that had voted for Thurmond on the Dixiecrat ticket of 1948. And then the inflammatory 27 words would follow as Lott further embellished, “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”
The meaning of “problems” and “followed our lead” were left to the imagination and interpretation of the hearer. “Problems?” What problems? And where would such a vote for Thurmond have led if more states had “followed our lead”? What political platform was Thurmond promoting on the heels of World War II?
Let’s understand the times. America was still a politically and institutionally segregated society. Black servicemen returning from Europe, who had helped free the world from tyranny, now had to go back to using restricted restrooms and drinking fountains, sitting on seats at the back of the bus, sitting on the second floor of movie houses and being challenged as they went to vote. Strom Thurmond at that time was running on a “States’ Rights” platform that endorsed the status quo of enforced racial segregation. Was Lott suggesting that not having this system currently in place was somehow a “problem”? Was his head and heart stuck in 1948 or 2002?
Groping in verbal quicksand
What started as a small flicker on the media radar screen swiftly became a blaze that would engulf Lott. Did he really mean it? Did he simply trip over his words? Or did he mean something else? Did he put his foot in his mouth or had he swallowed his whole leg? Would people accept the response of “this is what I really meant to say”? Was there any way back? Should he come back? He went on what might literally be called an “apology tour.” But the damage was done. The president publicly chastised him; some Democrats called for his ouster; and eventually some of his Republican colleagues fled their leader, striving to distance themselves from the perceived odious comments. Lott had no other course but to resign as majority leader.
This tragic episode is far too important as a teaching tool to melt away in the recesses of our mind. Words are the sparks that light the fires of biblical episodes, fuel the emotions of current dilemmas in world news and, to a great degree, enflame prophetic events yet ahead. Words are what convey Adam’s folly when he sheepishly replies to his Maker, “I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10 Genesis 3:10And he said, I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
American King James Version×). Words make up Cain’s weak-spined retort, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9 Genesis 4:9And the LORD said to Cain, Where is Abel your brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?
American King James Version×). Words coupled with actions make up the prophesied arrogance of “the man of sin” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-5 2 Thessalonians 2:3-5 3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; 4 Who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sits in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. 5 Remember you not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?
American King James Version×. Imagine! A human being who will proclaim himself as God.
Dynamite in our dentures?
Yes, what we say and how we say it says a lot about us. Even when we don’t think anyone is listening or taking us seriously—like a birthday toast or a chat in a hallway or a joke in a locker room. And, yes, it can change the course of history of a nation, a church or a family.
Over 800 years ago, Henry II of England fell into a verbal rage because of his perceived conflict with Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, over the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts. King Henry raged, “What a pack of fools and cowards I have nourished in my house, that not one of them will avenge me of this turbulent priest.”
What did he mean by this? It seemed plain and clear. At least to four men within earshot who took it as license to slay the archbishop right on the steps of his cathedral. Others perceived it meant more aggressive council action to wrest power from the archbishop. But it was too late! The spoken word had gone out. Henry II would go on his own apology tour from castle to castle and abbey to abbey and make all the ample penance he could for his one time closest associate. But one man would never have a chance to hear “I’m sorry.” Who was that? Thomas Becket!
So where do we personally go from here? Our parents told us over and over again to “think before you speak.” Yet so often we recklessly utter our words in the sequence of “fire, ready, aim.” We would never carelessly shoot off a firearm without the sequential thought of “ready, aim, fire.” Yet how often do we just shoot off our mouths with the live ammo of hurtful words with damaging results? It’s almost as if we have dynamite in our dentures! So what do you and I gain from the current sad episode of “this is what I really meant to say”?
Your heart has a shadow
Most importantly, we need to firmly grasp that our tongue is tied to our heart. They are tightly woven in a knot. As your body has a shadow, so the heart has a tongue. Both travel together. Wherever your heart is headed, you can be assured your tongue isn’t too far behind. So it is wise to contemplate the travel plans of your life for, as Christ plainly stated in Matthew 12:34 Matthew 12:34O generation of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
American King James Version×, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Yes, at times we speak before we think, and at other times, we speak exactly what we are thinking! That’s when it can get scary. Sometimes we say “silence is golden,” but let’s get real—it is no substitute for the wise use of speech. Holding your tongue or transforming your heart because you are thoughtful and caring are two very different values with two distinct destinations. I’ll give you a hint. One will last only so long, and ultimately send you back on the apology circuit. Hmm?
It’s good to remember that so often we can speak too quickly and be too slow in forgiving. People who live in “glass houses” love—and yes, I do mean love—to keep people sweltering in the mud hovel of their own mistakes. Oh, how easy it is to condemn others when they are dangling on the ropes. In John 8:7 John 8:7So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said to them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
American King James Version×Christ’s words are important: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” Not once did Christ excuse the sin, but He asked for those who witnessed the sin to undergo serious self-examination of their own lives. Not once did Christ excuse the sin, but He chose to forgive the sinner.
Hmm? For those who still choose to fancy themselves living in “glass houses,” a suggestion— be careful! Is Trent Lott a racist in 2003? I don’t think so. And I don’t condemn him. But I do think he made an incredibly foolish and distasteful comment that revealed to him and all of us that we have some distance yet to travel to understand the wounds and sensitivities created by our common past.
What wounds? Shakespeare said it best when he stated, “He jests at scars that never felt the wounds.” What wounds? Just go to an American history book and start by looking in the index for “Jim Crow laws.”
Let’s remember that getting the “art of apology” down to a fine science is no substitute for speaking correctly the first time around with truth, love and maturity. We are indeed known by our words, and our words know us, for our words are us. We own them, so it’s important to take inventory of ourselves before we display our wares.
Wisdom from “the Word” of wisdom
What a joy it is that we can look forward to the loving and sensitive reign of Jesus Christ upon this earth. It is of significance to understand that the Holy Scriptures reveal that one of His names is “the Word” (John 1:1 John 1:1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
American King James Version×). But oh, what a difference. Why? Because He knows how to use words correctly the first time. Isaiah prophetically speaks of His coming rule over all the earth as, “The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel” (Isaiah 11:2 Isaiah 11:2And the spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;
American King James Version×). Oh, to have such leadership not based on election by men, but selection by God. Someone like “the Word” who will speak with prudence, comfort and unifying words that bring together all people.
Edmund Morrison understood the reality that there are three items that do not return— a spent arrow, a spoken word and a missed opportunity. He once said, “Like stones, words are laborious and unforgiving, and the fitting of them together, like the fitting of stones, demands great patience and strength of purpose and particular skill.” Morrison’s words are but a reverberation of the wisdom of old by another man of politics—King Solomon.
It is his God-inspired utterance of Proverbs 15:28 Proverbs 15:28The heart of the righteous studies to answer: but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
American King James Version×that captures the spirit of Isaiah 30:21 Isaiah 30:21And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk you in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.
American King James Version×;of “This is the way, walk in it.” (Or should I say, “This is the way, talk you in it”?) It’s nearly 3,000 years old, but not a moment too late for any of us—”The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil.” No “fire, ready, aim” here. God means every word of it! —WNP