Sometimes on the last day of my Public Speaking class, we do impromptu speeches. When it is their turn to speak, each student will draw two topics out of an envelope. They select the one they want to speak about, and then they have two minutes to prepare a one-minute speech on the topic they chose. I also tell them that after they have all spoken, the class can choose any topic they want me to do (keep it clean! I say), and I will speak on it for one minute, without preparation and without notes.
It is always a lot of fun, and I have been given some wild topics to speak on over the years. My favorite topic was in a class last spring, when they asked me to speak on the question, “Who is your favorite student?” This one surprised me, because I am usually asked to speak about, “Your most embarrassing moment,” or, “Your thoughts on safe sex,” or similar topics.
I said a quick prayer as I walked to the front, really not sure at all how I was going to handle this. I smiled and named the young man right in front of me as my “favorite,” and several students yelled, “I knew it!” I spoke for a few seconds about him, telling the class why this guy was the best.
Then I looked at the next student and said that she was my favorite student, and shared some things about why she comes out on top. When I looked at the student beside her and named him my favorite, the whole class burst into laughter. They realized that I was going to go through the whole class, and I watched them all settle into their seats with eager smiles, as they waited until it was their turn to be praised.
I had a blast doing that and got a round of applause and a few “thank-you” comments as they filed out. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about that exercise any, until this week, when I got an email from one of the students who was there that day. She gave me permission to use her comments in this column.
She wrote, “I’m not sure if you knew this about me but I am [a leader] in the school of communication. With this position I had to go on a retreat this weekend to the Outer Banks with the rest of the [student government leaders]. On this retreat we had an awesome presentation on how to deal with biases and pre-judgments and we talked about how that has affected our lives. I said how since I’m a girl with blonde hair and my big/hyper personality, people tend to have this idea that I’m not as smart or shallow. We reflected on this and talked about the best affirmation you’ve ever received. I will never forget the last day of class where you looked at me and said, ‘You are so smart.’ That was the first time a teacher has ever said that to me. It clearly stuck with me for a long time and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.
“I wanted to let you know how much that small compliment meant to me. I think sometimes people tend to forget how much their words have an impact on someone else positive or negative.”
My former student is right, and we all know it, don’t we? Our words are powerful, and can build up or tear down, and yet we are often much too careless about what we say and how we say it.
The Bible has much to say about our words, but a verse that says it clearly is this one from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Lives are changed by grace, and grace-filled speech can bring healing and help. That is powerful truth, and news we can use.
Once as a teenager I went on a double date with my cousin. Halfway through the date, I found out the girl I was with had an insanely jealous boyfriend named Marty. He was also big, she said. “And,” she added, “he has a nasty temper.” I figured that to be a deadly combination, so I filed that information away, reminding myself to avoid this boyfriend of hers at all costs. We were driving home later that night when all of a sudden my cousin said, “Uh-oh.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked, thinking maybe we were running out of gas. “Don’t look now,” he said, “but Marty is right on our tail.” I looked anyway and saw a car about two inches from our bumper, and we were doing 60 miles an hour on the interstate.
Now, up until this point I had only done one thing I regretted, and that was to go out with this girl in the first place. But now I became a willing participant in a series of stupid mistakes. May I say to any teens who happen to be reading this: “Don’t try this at home … or on the interstate.” My cousin floored the car, a 1972 Camaro Z-28, and we took off like a rocket. We were going over 90 with Marty right on our tail, and it is only by the grace of God, gentle readers, that I am here to tell the story.
We finally reached our exit, careened onto the ramp, and headed for my cousin’s house. Marty was only seconds behind us. My cousin realized we weren’t going to outrun him, so he said something like, “Good luck, Mark,” as we screamed into his driveway on two wheels. I was shaking with adrenalin and fear, and could hear the words “big … nasty temper … insanely jealous” reverberating in my skull. My legs felt like jelly, and my mouth was dry as dust.
About that time my cousin slammed on the brakes in his carport, and I managed to fall out of the car to face my attacker, who was leaping from his car as it slid to a stop in the driveway.
Now you have to realize that at this time in my life I had not yet had my growth spurt. In fact, I still haven’t had it, but I was a skinny 16-year-old then, only about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and maybe 110 pounds soaking wet. As I recall it, Marty seemed to tower over me by at least a foot. But what I remember most of all was the purple rage that consumed him. He was so filled with wrath that he had no control of his body. He couldn’t swing his fists because his anger controlled them. He couldn’t speak, but sputtered and spat, because the anger had his tongue. As he stumbled toward me I bent over, and he pounded me on my back. The blows were nothing, dissipated by the rage that shook Marty like a ragdoll.
I saw something that day I will never forget. Whatever fills you controls you, whether it is wine, anger, lust or greed. That’s why the Bible says, “Make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man do not go.” And, “Do not get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions, but be filled with the Spirit.”
After the dust cleared and the rage subsided that day, Marty and I had a friendly exchange. He gave me my life back, and I gave him his girlfriend. Seemed like the right thing at the time.
Imagine this scenario. A man has a teenager who, since he was a child, has been subject to violent seizures. His mouth foams and his teeth grind and his body bucks and lurches, raging with convulsion. The young man is deaf and unable to speak. He cannot talk to his father about the terror that he feels, never knowing when the next attack will occur. He cannot hear his father’s cries of anguish as he prays for his son. He can see his face, though, and the lines of worry have grown deeper on his father’s brow. His hair is gray and his shoulders are stooped and his hope is almost gone. The father has to watch his son every second because the attacks have happened frequently near fire or water and dragging his son from the flames or from the deep has taken its toll on both of them. The scars from the burns are testimonies to the torment a father and his son have endured together. How much longer?
You don’t have to imagine this scene. You can read about it in Mark 9. The story is true. The young man was not just under attack; the source was a demon. When his father heard that Jesus was passing through the region, he had hope for the first time, perhaps, in many years. He took his son to see Jesus, only to find that the Master and His three closest disciples were not there. The father turned to Jesus’ other disciples for help. They tried, but they failed. As the religious leaders of the day taunted the nine and argued with them, Jesus showed up on the scene. This is where the story really gets interesting.
As soon as the demon in the young man sees Jesus, he throws his host into a convulsion. The word in the text literally means the demon “tore him from side to side.” The young man fell on the ground at Jesus’ feet, his mouth foaming and his teeth grinding. Jesus asked the father how long this had been happening to his son, and the man replied, “From childhood.” The he said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus responds with the man’s own words: “If you can!” Then He added, “All things are possible for one who believes.” The man cried out with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Now, you have to get this picture clear in your mind. This man’s son is possessed and has almost been destroyed many times by a demon. The father is desperate for his son’s deliverance. Jesus sees that. He sees the son writhing at His feet. In perhaps the most astonishing triage in history, Jesus decides that the immediate need is not the son but the father. The greatest evil was not in the boy but in the man. Even the father saw it.
Charles Spurgeon wrote, “It is very noticeable that the man did not say, ‘Lord I believe; help my child!’ Not at all. He perceives that his own unbelief is harder to overcome than the demon. And that to heal him of his spiritual disease was a more needful work than even to heal his child of the sad malady under which he labored.”
Jesus had compassion on the man as He spoke to his unbelief, and compassion on his son as He delivered him to wholeness.
What can be worse than unbelief? Not even a demon. The evil spirit may kill your body, but unbelief will do much worse.
When I was 13 years old, and weighed about 95 pounds, I joined my junior high school football team. At one of the first practices where contact was involved, we got introduced to what the coach called “the meat grinder.”
The name fit. Two boys lined up facing each other, 10 yards apart. On either side were tackling dummies, laid end to end, to create a narrow channel within which the “meat” could be ground. One boy was designated the runner, and handed a football, the other designated the tackler, and was given jeers and whistles and other forms of encouragement by the rest of the team.
I was called into the meat grinder, and the coach gave me the ball. A 14-year-old named C.D. (who as I recall was already shaving, stood 6 feet tall and weighed in at 165 pounds) crouched on the other end, ready to grind me into powder.
If this were a Disney movie, I would have bowled C.D. over, knocking him senseless, and the other boys would have carried me on their shoulders to the locker room, the coach running to catch us, anxious to talk to me about being their star running back that year. This was not a Disney movie.
C.D. hit me like a freight train, driving me back past the point where I had started running, and finished the job by landing with his full weight on my skinny frame. I lay there for a few minutes as the team snickered into their hands, and then I slowly raised my body from the dust, mentally checking to see if I still had all of my body parts. The only thing I can figure is, the coach was trying to get me to quit, but I was too stupid or too proud or both. I stayed on the team … but not really.
You see, though our team went undefeated that year, I never saw one minute of playing time. It wasn’t because the coach didn’t try to get me in the game. We would be up by 45 points at halftime, usually, and in the second half the coach would start putting in the scrubs. Eventually he made his way to me.
“Fox, have you been in the game yet?” he would always ask.
“Yes sir!” I would always squeak, mortified that he would call my bluff and make me play. But the coach knew what was going on, and he didn’t push it.
I was a part of a championship team, but I never got in the game. I was on the sidelines the whole year, cheering on my teammates, thankful to be there, but praying I would not have to actually go on the field and face my opponents.
I am still part of a championship team, the undefeatable church of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul said, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.” I think he knew something about being in the meat grinder. His response was never to retreat to the bench and the protection of the sideline. Paul, like his Savior, endured the trials, knowing that victory would come to those who put their trust in God.
I have been through a few “meat grinders” since that year in junior high. Not on the football field but in ministry, in marriage, and in the day to day challenges that can leave us all bruised and bewildered. But by God’s grace, I will never retreat to the bench again.