(A message by Dr. Joe McKeever, delivered at the Installation Luncheon for Dr. Robert Canoy who assumes the presidency of the M. Christopher White Divinity School at Gardner-Webb University on Monday, August 27, 2007.)
“Thou hast given me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word.” –Isaiah 50:4
“You have strengthened tottering knees; your words have stood men on their feet.” –Job 4:4
Someone said Italy is putting a clock on the Tower of Pisa to make the point that just because you have the inclination does not mean you have the time.
The next time someone gives you his life-verse from Scripture, if you have both the time and inclination, ask for the story behind it. Here’s why Job 4:4 means so much to me.
I was a small child for my age. In a class of a hundred seventh graders, I was the shortest boy. As a result, I adopted “the short person syndrome.” To compensate for lack of size, the person with this condition speaks loudly, brashly, and boastfully. He seeks to be the center of attention, often at the expense of others whom he cuts down verbally. In my teens, I grew out of the shortness but, alas, kept the syndrome.
Even after God made me a pastor, I struggled with this weakness, this verbal terrorism. Then, in my 30th year, I experienced what a friend calls a watershed moment.
My wife and I had gone to a movie on Saturday night. The house lights were up and we greeted a number of friends in the audience. Across the auditorium, I spotted 17-year-old Brandi, a member of our church. She was cute and sweet and probably a little too serious about life at that age. Brandi did not get many dates, and tonight she was sitting between Alex and Betty, her next door neighbors. As we waved, I called across the theater, “What’s the matter, Brandi — couldn’t get a date?”
The next morning Brandi’s mother did something wonderful for me and courageous for her — she held me accountable. She phoned the office and said, “Joe, it looks like you go out of your way to hurt my child.” I was so clueless, I had to ask what she was talking about. I apologized to her, to Brandi, to Alex and Betty, and if I could, I would have assembled everyone in the theater to apologize to them. That was the day I began seriously working on mastering my tongue.
Soon after, the Lord led me to a prayer found in Psalm 141. “Set a guard upon my mouth, O Lord. Keep watch over the door of my lips.” That became my daily prayer, and has been every since. It’s a sister verse to Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
You can see why “Your words have stood men on their feet” became the goal for my life. I’ve asked my wife to see that this is inscribed on my tombstone. Not anytime soon, however.
You and I serve a Savior whose words stood people on their feet.
To a paralytic, the Lord Jesus said, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And he did. A moment before, Jesus had said something even more “upstanding,” “Son, your sins be forgiven.” (Mark 2)
To a woman caught in adultery and thrown at his feet, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
To a dying thief, he said, “Today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.”
To a 12-year-old girl who had died an hour before, He spoke, “Little lamb, I say to you, arise.” (Mark 5:41) Perhaps the tenderest words in the Bible.
Like the word of the Lord, our words are double-edged.
In at least two places, Scripture calls God’s word a two-edged sword. The double action of God’s Word refers to its power to cut and heal, tear down and build up, destroy and create. It curses and blesses, kills and gives life.
There is a lesser sense in which your words and mine are also double-edged swords. Our words also cut and heal, curse and bless, tear down and build up.
Think of your childhood. Do you recall a time when a person in authority — a parent or a teacher, particularly — cut you down with harsh words? “You’re stupid.” “I hate you.” “You will always be a failure.” “Where did you get the idea you could sing?” “I wish you’d never been born.”
Here you are 20 years later, 50 years later, and those evil words still ring in your head, lying to you, trying to control you lest you stand on your feet and prove them wrong.
And can you recall also from your youth someone saying positive, healing, empowering words? “I believe in you.” “You can do this.” “I’m proud of you.” “I love you.” “You’re the best.” “You have a great future.”
Eric Plumb missed the first two weeks of the fourth grade due to a case of mumps. As a result, he was forever behind in math and never made up what he had missed. His teacher that year was a nightmare — a woman in her last year before retirement and angry about it. The times Eric went to the board to work a math problem always turned into disasters. As he returned to his seat, the teacher would make fun of him.
She would say, “Eric is dumb. Eric Plumb is dumb. Eric Plumb is plumb dumb.” The children laughed. To no one’s surprise, Eric grew to despise school.
Not until the 10th grade did something happen that began to undo that sad condition. It was an English literature class, they were studying Shakespeare, and it was the period after lunch when no one wanted to do anything but take a nap. Suddenly Eric had an inspiration on the Shakespeare passage and raised his hand. “Yes, Eric?” the teacher said. And Eric made his observation. When he finished, she said, “Why, Eric — how perceptive.”
Eric Plumb lived the rest of the day in the glow of those words. “Why Eric, how perceptive.” He later said, “I’m not going to tell you I became class valedictorian as a result, but her words made me feel differently about myself and thereafter I became a far better student.” He went on to become a successful photographer.
Love stands people on their feet like nothing else.
Preachers in the audience will know the name of Frank Pollard, longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, who retired not long ago. A generation ago, Time magazine named him one of the 10 best preachers in America. Anyone who knew him as a child would have been amazed.
Frank Pollard grew up in Olney, Texas, in the poorest of circumstances. He was shy, withdrawn, introverted. In his teen years, God called him into the ministry. People who knew Frank were aghast. How could he preach when he was so shy he couldn’t even look people in the eye. When his pastor let him preach his first sermon, it was so bad, the congregation filed out without saying anything. Only one man came up to encourage Frank. Mr. Beverly King, the wealthiest man in town, shook his hand and said, ‘You’ve got what it takes, Frank. You’ll make a great preacher.’
In college, Frank Pollard worked as the janitor at the local Baptist Student Center. Sometimes when no one was around and the doors were locked, he would practice preaching to the empty chairs. He grew so discouraged, many a time he would have quit and gone home except for one thing. Every week — every week — a postcard would come from his hometown. Mr. Beverly King would write, “You can do it Frank. I believe in you. I love you.”
Frank would tell that story and say, “I’m in the ministry today because of that man.”
Beverly King — a man whose words stood Frank Pollard on his feet.
Everyone remembers Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” For many years, he spoke through the television set to millions of little children some of the most empowering words they would ever hear. “You are very special. There’s no one else like you. I like you just the way you are.” What you may not know is that he was just repeating what his grandfather had told him.
Fred Rogers grew up in the city and was an only child until he was 11. Often, on weekends, his parents would drive him to the country to visit his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. McFeeley. Always, before the visit ended, the grandfather would take him aside and say, “Freddie, don’t every change. I like you just the way you are. You are so special.”
The biographies of Fred Rogers do not say, but I strongly suspect that that grandfather had good reasons for saying such a thing to his grandson. Sometime in his early years, he must have been the victim of someone putting him down, making him feel badly about himself. He would make sure his grandson was not the victim of such negativism.
In “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt’s autobiography about growing up poor in Ireland, tells of his joy in discovering Shakespeare. The movie shows him lying in the bathtub reading Shakespeare out loud, the only way it should be read. We hear his adult voice saying, “When I read Shakespeare, I felt I had jewels in my mouth.”
Words of beauty, of love and affirmation, are always jewels.
The Lord Jesus had delivered a difficult message, one that left his hearers muttering, “These are hard words; who can hear them?” One by one, they drifted off. Finally, the Lord looked around and saw only the original 12 disciples. We can hear the irritation in his voice as he said, “Well, how about you — will you go away, also?”
Simon Peter, who had the gift for opening mouth and inserting foot, this time got one right. “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
A friend of mine who is a judge was delivering his verdict at the end of a lengthy trial. I will not forget his opening words.
“It’s a heavy responsibility to sit in judgment on another human being. People in this position should always bear in mind that when we make decisions about others we are dealing with the fine China of human lives.”
All around us lie people who have been knocked off their feet by life, by their own foolishness, by circumstances or another person or by the enemy himself. You and I pass them every day, and we’re always faced with a choice — whether to leave them lying there, to make their situation worse by adding to their pain, or to help them to their feet.
God use us to stand them up again.