The Words We Speak

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It happened more than 30 years ago.  But I can remember it as if it happened yesterday.
In a quest to be oh-so-funny, I made a comment I still wish I could take back.
The Sunday service at the church I was serving had just begun.  I was the preacher that morning.  Dan, my good friend and pastoral colleague, provided the call to worship – opening remarks that set the tone for the hour to come. 
Dan described a recurring experience that is known to most church leaders – that awful moment where you awaken suddenly, perhaps from a bad dream, stricken with panic that you have forgotten something important.  He said that a few days earlier he had sprung from bed, gripped by fear: “Oh my gosh, I’m supposed to preach today!” – only to realize that it wasn’t even Sunday.  He went on to describe how God powerfully addresses our primal fears – even the terror of pastoral unpreparedness.  
About 20 minutes later it was time for the sermon. 
I stepped into the pulpit and said, “You know, I have firsthand experience of what Dan was talking about earlier in the service.  In fact, this very morning I suddenly awoke, overwhelmed by fear: ‘Oh my gosh, Dan is preaching today!’” 
The congregation laughed.  At least, most people did.
For a number of listeners, however, it was an awkward moment.  They knew Dan and I were friends.  Why was I willing to descend into negative humor just get a cheap laugh – in the middle of a worship service, no less?  Did this mean our friendship was fraying at the edges? 
After the service, I told Dan I was truly sorry.  Without thinking, I had once again surrendered to the middle school mentality of trying to be funny, even at someone else’s expense.
He graciously accepted my apology.  But then he said something I have never forgotten.  “You know, Glenn, it’s true that you can make people laugh.  But sometimes you leave people bleeding.”
Sometimes you leave people bleeding.
That’s the nature of put-down humor.  It’s epidemic in our culture, and the entertainment industry leads the way.  Just listen to stand-up comedians.  Or a trailer for virtually any TV sitcom.  Cleverness, coolness, and hipness are associated with how many “gotcha” moments you can rack up at the expense of someone else’s ethnicity, body shape, competence, or intelligence. 
Ironically, negative humor is a double-edged sword.  It certainly has the capacity to dent the target’s self-confidence.  Most preachers, for instance, are more than a little sensitive about whether they’re effective in the pulpit.
But negative humor probably says more about the one who feels compelled to use it.  It tends to reveal a Grand Canyon of personal insecurity. 
I love humor.  And levity can be a wonderful way to lighten difficult moments.  But comments at someone else’s expense are the proverbial “bridge too far.”  When I reflect upon such moments in my own life, I realize that I have sometimes risked the priceless treasure of a cherished friendship for the momentary thrill of hoping someone in the crowd will think I’m clever. 
The Bible has a great deal to say about the words we speak.  Ephesians 4:29 couldn’t be clearer: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”    
In their book Relationships, Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott point out that friendships are surprisingly fragile. 
We may assume, “Oh, she’ll understand,” or “He knows I’m just kidding.”  But small betrayals (or perceived betrayals) can erode the joy of an otherwise healthy friendship.  
Put-down humor is a tempting move when you’re feeling insecure or don’t know what else to say.
But it’s a card we need to learn not to play.
Instead of leaving others bleeding, let’s go out of our way to leave them encouraged.  Inspired.  And assured of our love.