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Book of Proverbs rings true: words matter

Aug 08, 2023

An unexpected conversation with a college acquaintance recently had me thinking about the power of words.

I first met Bill 40 years ago when I was a freshman in college. I was going through a rough time. I was away from home for the first time and was a assigned a roommate who I just couldn’t stand.

Bill was a community-college transfer from the Chicago suburbs. He had grown up in a devout home but wasn’t regularly attending church. One day, I was sitting in the laundromat in the basement of my dorm when he came and sat beside me.

He asked what I was reading, and I told him it was the New Testament. He asked where I went to church, and I explained that I attended a congregation near campus but wasn’t particularly happy there. Although the church was the same denomination that I had grown up in, the pastor’s messages were about as deep as a coat of varnish.

For whatever reason, I shared that with Bill. He told me of a church that he visited once that met in the college’s student union. The pastor was elderly and battling cancer. But, he was sincere. There was no stained glass, pews or organs. Folks sat in folding chairs in a borrowed upper room.

Bill told me I should try that church.

His suggestion altered my life.

I fell in love with the tiny congregation and adored the pastor and his wife. My cynicism dissipated. For the first time since leaving home, I felt like I had a place where I belonged.

The pastor joked that Bill made me a regular attendee, even though he didn’t attend himself.

During the past 40 years, I have lived in cities all over the United States. But, the first thing I would do when moving to a new community was join a church—some advice given 40 years ago by a casual acquaintance that altered the trajectory of my life.

When Bill and I spoke this past week, his recollection of me was dim at best. I’m certain he doesn’t remember that conversation. But, his words mattered.

A number of years ago, a co-worker took me aside and told me how something I had said changed her life.

The two of us were young reporters working the nightshift at a newspaper, and as she tells it, she joked about getting drunk after work and driving home.

According to her, I commented that I didn’t respect that and asked a question.

“How would you feel if you killed someone because you were driving drunk?”

Years later, she took me aside and told me how my words altered her life. She immediately quit drinking and driving.

When she told me this, I was flummoxed. While it sounded like something I might say, I have no memory of that long-ago discourse.

I have chosen a career of words. Words matter particularly when they are delivered with sincerity and kindness.

Another former co-worker, Gary Schneeberger, tells of how a past supervisor’s words changed his life.

“It was my first ever professional job review, and I think it might have been one of his first because he had just become an assistant city editor when he did my evaluation. … In the summary he said, ‘If Gary continues to apply himself and learn his craft, I can see him working his way up into management one day.’ That was the first time I ever thought higher than the byline. I was like, ‘Wow, you mean, being like an editor and a leader and helping other writers and reporters. Is that something that’s open to me, too, someday?’”

Schneeberger has gone on to a distinguished career heading up public relations for Focus on the Family and other endeavors. He noted that the editor who gave him the encouragement has no recollection of doing so.

I’d be remiss in not noting that the person Schneeberger said inspired him to greater things was the worst boss I’ve had in my 35 years in the workforce. He criticized me during a job evaluation for abstaining from alcohol and living too sheltered a life to be a good journalist.

But, good journalists understand the timeless wisdom of the biblical Book of Proverbs.

“The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”

In my 58 years, I too have said things I have regretted. To this I can only ask the listener’s forgiveness. But, I pray that, when I do speak, I’m offering words of encouragement.

I strive to remember an important principle: words matter.

Editor’s note: Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be contacted at [email protected].

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