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The Good Word

By The Ven David Gunn-Johnson

All writers but especially poets have to endure having their words paraphrased, adapted and, as William Shakespeare ought to have said, “Jolly well messed about.” You may recall The Arrow and the Song by Longfellow, which has been particularly subjected to such depredation. Here I do it again.

“I breathed a word into the air,
It fell to earth I knew not where,
And then at last, near my journey’s end
I found it again in the heart of a friend”

Words breathed into the air.

On this Good Friday what more apposite than to recall the last words of Jesus, spoken into the air as he hung on the cross. Seven utterances which have echoed down the centuries ever since ending, according to John, with “It is finished.” After which came desolation and darkness; for a time.

I suspect that none of us, this day, will breathe words that will touch others so profoundly, nevertheless, caution is needed. We simply do not know where and how our words will land in another’s heart. The rather splendid Stephen Fry wrote of words that they are, “an arsenal… you must expect to have them explode in your face from time to time.”

Perhaps explosions happen less often than the uneasy feeling we sometimes have replaying a conversation and thinking, “I wish I hadn’t said that.” Or the sense of a missed opportunity to say something that might have been good for the hearer to hear. And then there are words we have long forgotten but are remembered by others. In some instances, we might be glad to have forgotten what we said but sometimes, just sometimes, there are words which have lodged in another’s heart and mind for the good.

Ten years ago, it was my privilege to lead an ordination retreat. This week I met one of those ordinands, now a splendid and seasoned parish priest. “I’ve never forgotten what you said to us when someone was kicking off about being made to wear a ‘dog collar’ at the ordination service,” claiming to have used those words many times since. I had forgotten but in that moment it flooded back. “The priest’s collar is not a sign of status it is a sign of sacrificial availability. The collar is not at issue, it is the person who is to wear it that is.”

I breathed a word into the air and found it again, to my encouragement and reassurance, in the heart of a friend. I shall try to watch my words today hoping that perhaps one or two might make a difference, someday, to someone. I may never know.

That does not matter at all so long as I breathe the right word, the Good Word.