One Perfect Word
UPON MY WORD
–noun A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning.1
I am often reminded of the power of words. In my office I have a number of author autographs lining the wall of my stairwell. Mark Twain. Harper Lee. Charles Dickens. Ernest Hemingway. Harriet Beecher Stowe. These writers are my mentors. As a young woman I read and cherished their stories. They remind me of my responsibility as a writer of fiction and most recently in my venture into the world of nonfiction. Indeed there is tremendous power in words.
Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth actually changed foreign policy between the United States and China. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who caused the great war.”
The definition I’ve given takes one of the most potent elements of communication—the word—and makes it sound almost innocuous. Yes, words have tremendous power. So much meaning can be packed into a word.
In the book Simple Little Words: What You Say Can Change a Life, Dr. Dennis Hensley tells the story of how one perfect word changed a life.
In my capacity as a professor of English at Taylor University Fort Wayne, I teach a survey course in world literature that students of all majors are assigned to take as part of their liberal-arts requirements.
A few years ago, I met Sean, a junior and wrestling-squad member who was majoring in elementary education. Sean had a shaved bullet head, legs like fire hydrants, a back that could put Atlas to shame, and biceps that looked like the drawing on boxes of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. This guy was tough.
Sean enjoyed sports, and he excelled at weightlifting and track-and-field events such as discus and hammer throwing. However, he wasn’t overly keen on literature. I knew quickly I’d have my work cut out in making him an admirer of Keats, Shakespeare, Dante, and Melville.
I modified Sean’s reading list for that semester to include high-seas adventures by Jack London, mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and military works by Rudyard Kipling. We met in my office once each week to discuss the books and short stories, and I constantly praised Sean’s ability to recognize symbolism, foreshadowing, flashbacks, and other elements of literary expressions that I had lectured about in class.
As the semester advanced, so did Sean’s grades. He had started as a C student, then rose to the B level. As I showed the class how the applications of literary analysis could help them better appreciate plays and movies, they all became more and more eager to get to class each day. Sean started sitting in the front row, taking copious notes, and I continued to compliment him on his diligence and studiousness.
Then, one day, as I was grading papers, I was delighted to be able to give a perfect A to Sean on one of his quizzes over a new short story I’d had the students read for that week. At the end of the quiz I wrote, “This is superb work, son. I congratulate you. You’ve been working hard, and this is the payoff. Well done!”
I passed the papers back, and I watched as Sean’s face lit up in a grin when he saw the huge red A atop his quiz. However, when he turned the page over and read my personal note to him, his countenance changed entirely. He lowered his face, avoided eye contact with me the entire rest of the class, and left just as soon as the bell rang. I was thoroughly confused by such behavior until two days later.
During office hours, I glanced up to Sean’s hulking frame taking up my entire doorway. “Can I come in for a moment, Dr. Hensley?” he asked me. I motioned him toward a chair, and he closed the door behind him. I could see that he had his quiz in his hand.
“Sir,” he began, but then stopped. He lowered his head, and suddenly I realized that this giant of a man was actually weeping. I was stunned. I gave him a moment to collect himself. “Sir, you don’t know my background.”
I said nothing as Sean fished a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his eyes.
“My dad left my mom and me when I was only seven,” Sean said in a low voice. “I somehow felt it was my fault that he left. I got it into my head that if I could just be a better son, my dad would come back and live with us again. We’d all be happy then.”
He paused, then added, “So, I played every sport at my schools and all the summer sports I could sign up for. I thought that if I could just hit enough home runs or score enough touchdowns or shoot enough baskets, my dad would be proud of me and would come back.”
“Did it work?” I asked gently.
Sean shook his head. “My dad only showed up at three of my games during ten years that I was involved in sports. It was no big deal to him. I tried my best to impress him, but I always felt that I’d failed. I haven’t heard from my dad for the past two years, and I probably never will. I thought I had gotten past caring, until . . .”
I leaned forward a little.
“Until what, Sean?”
“Until I got my quiz back from you day before yesterday,” he said, looking directly at me. “You praised me . . . and you called me son. You might have meant it just as a passing catchphrase from an older man to a younger fellow, but it hit me like a freight train. I realized at that moment, that all my life I’ve wanted to have a man whom I looked up to, to tell me he was proud of me and to call me son. You have no idea what this note on this paper means to me. I plan to keep this for the rest of my life.”
Sean wiped another sudden rush of tears from his eyes.
“I came here to tell you something, Dr. Hensley. I want you to know that I’m going to conduct my life from here on out—in everything I do—so that you will always be proud enough to call me son. I won’t ever let you down. I promise you that. You’ve given me something that I’ve been yearning for my entire life, and I want to protect it.”
He rose, and so did I. I shook his hand and gave him a manly hug, concluding with a slap on the shoulder. “You’re a fine man, Sean,” I assured him. “I have no doubt you’ll make me proud of you in whatever you do in life.”
A year later, Sean graduated with his degree in elementary education. He passed the licensing examination for Indiana and took a job in one of the worst elementary schools in inner-city Indianapolis. Most of the students there were from single-parent families, and all were desperately poor. Sean became a surrogate father to many of them. He would take his old van into the projects and ghettos and pick up dozens of children and take them to sporting events, Saturday movies, or vacation Bible school. He called the boys “son” and the girls “daughter,” and they loved it.
In calling Sean “son,” I not only changed his life, I gave him a focus on the ministry he wanted for his lifetime calling. He’s now changing the lives of hundreds of other fatherless children.
Yes, indeed, one word of encouragement can change the world.*
BREAKING IT DOWN
That’s power. One perfect word. Yet in this information age words swirl around us every day. Tens of thousands of words— maybe a hundred thousand words on a crazy, busy day. We read newspapers, we check out blogs, we may follow Facebook and even Twitter. We respond to e-mail and we listen to real people talking ...and talking...and talking. We drive with the radio on. We try to squeeze in time to read books and magazines. We may turn on the television at night. Words come at us incessantly.
But God says in Ecclesiastes 6:11, “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?”
Hmmm. Maybe we need to go on a word diet. My children loved Dr. Seuss’s books, especially Green Eggs and Ham. Did you know that book grew out of a challenge? After Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, had written several books, his editor Bennett Cerf challenged him to write a story using no more than fifty different words. Green Eggs and Ham was the result. What a delightfully madcap story to be penned out of a strict word budget.2
So, what if, instead of tens of thousands of words every day, we meditated on just one book for a lifetime? That narrows it down. My NIV Bible weighs in at 727,969 words, according to the New International Version Exhaustive Concordance. Each year has a little more than 525,900 minutes in it. If we live to be eighty years old, that’s about 42,000,000 minutes. If you subtract time for working, sleeping, and play, that still leaves a few million minutes. Meditating on one book is definitely doable in a lifetime, right?
But what if we focused on only one passage? I started memorizing Scripture years ago when I first moved to Port Orchard, Washington. Those were some troubling times for me. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was going through a deep spiritual battle. In retrospect I look back on that battle and see it as a major milestone in my spiritual life because it was then I started memorizing the Bible. One verse at a time, I made God’s Word a living, breathing part of who I am. I can’t even imagine who I’d be today if I had not taken that step.
In 1999, I memorized the third chapter of Ephesians. In my prayer journal toward the end of that year I wrote,
Help me to know You more and more. Plant Your words in my heart so that all I need do is recall a verse and instantly feel its power, instantly feel the immeasurable sense of Your love engulf me. This year has been an incredible experience. Each day as I recite the passage I’m touched again by the sheer wonder and depth of emotion I feel in Paul’s prayer.
I closed my written prayer with a request: “May my own words touch lives for You.” That one book, the Bible, has changed my life.
But forget whole passages for now. Let’s break it down even further. What if I had one word—just one word—to meditate on for a whole day? How rich would that day be? Being a word person, I can’t think of anything quite as fun as to luxuriate in one single word for the whole day, turning it around and looking at it from every angle.
And it doesn’t have to be a complicated word. In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton says, “Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable.”3
God continues to tell us, “Be still . . .” In this barrage of wordiness, what does stillness look like? Maybe it means we take it one step farther and explore just one word for a whole year.
ONE PERFECT WORD
For almost twenty years I’ve been meeting with a group of women entrepreneurs for breakfast once a week. Many years back, my breakfast-club ladies and I decided to do just that: every January we’ve each selected a word to serve as a personal focus for the year. Over time the words I’ve chosen have had a powerful impact on my life.
But the title of this book is One Perfect Word. Perfect. Talk about pressure. If I was the one doing the word choice for each year I’d never be so bold as to call that choice perfect. The surprising thing is that when we decide we want to focus on one word for the year, God takes part in the choosing. That’s why the word is perfect for us. We may not see it at the time, but as we look back we see that it all worked together—our word, our life, our journey.
When I find my word and begin to explore it, God takes me deep into that one word. Because I’ve kept journals nearly my entire life, I have been able to look back at them in the light of my word of the year and see how my life experiences dovetailed with my exploration of that year’s word. Preparing to write this book has been an eye-opening journey.
In John 15:7, the Lord says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” That could be the story of my life. As I’ve tried to remain in Him and tuck His words deep in my soul, I’ve asked, I’ve imagined, and I’ve dreamed. The second part of that verse says, “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” I have to confess, God’s blessed me far beyond that for which I have asked. Why should that be such a big surprise? That verse carries a promise. And God always keeps His promises.
When we choose one single word from His Word and spend a year with it, I’ve found that the Lord takes us by the hand and walks us through the year, teaching us about that word, about ourselves, and even more, about God Himself.
There are two things I hope to accomplish in the pages of this book. First, I want to encourage you to begin the practice of focusing on one perfect word each year. We’ll talk about how to find the word, how to explore it, and how to recognize the life lessons that grow out of that exploration.
Second, I’ve chosen fourteen of my own words of the year to share with you. By telling stories that illustrate each particular word—some from my life and some from others’ lives—and showing some of what I’ve learned about the word, I’m hoping you’ll see God’s fingerprints all over the exercise.
Sometimes my entries in my prayer journal over the years—my written prayers—express my one perfect word in the moment of discovery. In that case, you’ll see the prayer set alongside the text.
Once in a while, I’ll have a practical tip as to how to make a word come alive in a different medium. Some of us are more visual or tactile. I will share hints I’ve gleaned on making the word of the year tangible. You’ll find those tips labeled “Wordplay” and set apart in a box.
CHOOSING THE WORD
In preparing for the start of a new year, I always go over my goals for the previous year, doing an intensive postmortem, so to speak. Which goals did I reach? Which did I exceed? Which do I need to rethink or restrategize? I usually read over my journals to get an overview of the year past. Often my word becomes clear during this time of introspection.
Sometimes, though, I don’t get the word until a couple of weeks into the new year.
I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions because they usually don’t lend themselves to developing the strategy needed to carry them out. I am a goal-oriented person. I set goals and then go about devising ways to reach my yearly objectives.
Your word for the year is different from goals and resolutions. You don’t necessarily choose a goal word like, say, advancement. The word is likely to be a complex concept that you will use throughout the year to explore a new aspect of your relationship with God and others. It needs to be something you will be happy to chew on for fifty-two weeks.
LISTENING FOR THE WORD
My friend, fellow writer, and plotting partner Rachel Hauck also chooses a word each year. Sometimes it takes a good bit of prayer for her to discover her word. This year, however, the word chose her. She told me,
Throughout fall, the word and emotion of joy has been prevalent in my life. I had these waves of joy on Thanksgiving and the day before. The holiday saying on the McDonald’s cup was “Joy.” My November book release was Dining with Joy. A worship CD came out about the same time entitled Joy. I went to visit friends in Nashville in December. Our hostess friend gave me an ornament with the word Joy stenciled on it. Earlier in the year, I gained a greater understanding of “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). God’s joy is my strength. He gives me His joy so I can be strong. A few weeks after that a friend gave me a mug that read, “The Joy of the Lord is my strength.” She had no idea that had been a key verse for me in the spring. Second, Peter 1 talks about how we can actually partake of God’s divine nature. So that’s my focus this New Year, to partake of His divine nature in the realm of joy!
Needless to say, Rachel had her word. And she didn’t even have to listen that hard.
By just picking one word, we start out with a simple “I can do that,” and we end up with richness far beyond anything we’ve ever imagined. So come along with me and let’s explore one perfect word together.
From My Prayer Journal
Dearest Lord, my prayer is that I might walk the walk with You in all things. May every area of my life be open and exposed to Your light. Every crevice illuminated by Your love. I want to hide nothing. To leave nothing concealed so that those who look at me might see a reflection of You and Your love. Amen.