Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Words Create Realities

Last Sunday morning happened to be the day before the Martin Luther King Jr. observance, but more importantly it was the weekend after the shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona which took 6 lives and injured 14 other people, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). That morning, Rev. John Nash, the associate pastor at the church where I “church-gig”, delivered a sermon that was unique in my four decades at that church. It got a spontaneous round of applause.

Now, I struggle with the question “when is it appropriate to applaud in church?”, particularly from the viewpoint of a musician. We don’t clap after Serious Baroque Music, but we do tend to clap after a rousing spiritual. There aren’t really rules; and different people have slightly different thoughts about when applause is appropriate. But there was no question about this. It may have been the finest sermon I’ve ever heard delivered; unquestionably in the top three or four.

The title was, “Words Matter”. It had everything to do with the issue that has been on the lips of political pundits and news anchors (and many others) this last fortnight: “vitriolic rhetoric”. As a nation, are we still capable of disagreeing agreeably? Are we still capable of expressing ourselves with anything other than (at best) insult humor or (at worst) demonization of the other guy for the sake of making him look as bad as possible?

(If you’d like to read the sermon, and I highly recommend this, follow this link to Pastor John’s blog, where he’s posted the text. If you’d like to hear it, follow this link to the church website and click on the “Words Matter” sermon title – a downloadable MP3 file. John quite selflessly edited out all the applause at the end, which actually I think is a shame, but it’s still a good listen.)

I’m going to attempt to steer clear of the political, here, and possibly fail; but these are some thoughts which occurred to me as John spoke.


Pastor John began, “We find ourselves in a time in which our rhetoric, our words and even our actions have become full of hatred and vileness. This is not limited to one political party or group of people; this is true across the spectrum.”

On each side of the political spectrum, the people think the other side is more hate-spewing. I have my own thoughts about that; and each side does have its extreme-fringe wacko element, but I’m not going to argue for one side or the other in this particular moment. Instead, I’ll say this: many weeknights, I spend a couple of hours tuned in to the news and commentary programs of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. It happens to be true that their left-leaning approach to interpreting the news lines up fairly well with mine; it happens to be true that I appreciate Olbermann’s and Maddow’s particular senses of humor; but some time ago I figured out the real reason why I genuinely enjoy those two hours.

On those two programs – and those two only, so far as I can tell – one single guest pundit / expert / commentator / information source is brought on to converse with the program host at a time. On most other programs, including Fox News, CNN, even PBS sometimes!, and the remainder of MSNBC’s programming, at least two guests are brought into conversation with the host and seem to be there for the sole purpose of shouting each other down the most. One time, on one of the cable news channels, I saw an alleged conversation amongst no fewer than five pundits and a host person. Ridiculous! I have nothing but pity for the poor sap whose job it is to create transcripts of the exchanges – the crosstalk is astounding. And, most importantly, no one really listens to anyone else.

On the Olbermann and Maddow programs, they come closer than anyone else to an important journalism technique: one person asks a question, the other person responds to the question; the first person asks a follow-up question, the other person responds to that; and by the end of the segment, perhaps some new understanding or better grasp of the subject might be reached. And this viewer’s blood pressure remains low.

(Lest you think perhaps I’m lifting up the liberal talkers and dumping on the conservatives: over on MSNBC, I like Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell very much, but they play the multiple-talker game, so I don’t watch.)

In one sense, I hesitate to seem like I’m going down this next road absolutely all the time; in another sense, it works very well. My experience with the band at UMass, and with the Drum Major Academy that George Parks founded, has helped me store away some terrific “starred thoughts”, many of which deal with this very subject. So…

Starred Thought: “Make sure that when you go after attention, you get it for the right reasons.”

Starred Thought: “Every Drum Major has the right to free speech, but as a leader, you have a responsibility to show good judgement and taste.”


Pastor John’s sermon continued: “Now the response is often made that they [e.g. television talkers like American Idol’s Simon Cowell] are just telling the truth, or ‘keeping it real’ as the case may be, but when did honesty become brutal and violent? When did we move from telling the truth in love to telling the truth in vicious, sadistic, cruel and aggressive ways?”

Me, I’m one of those people who is admittedly conflict-averse. Sometimes this has not served me well; sometimes it’s worked to my advantage. This is a personality trait for another session. (–I mean, blog post.) So obviously I don’t care much for the style of verbal expression that has become standard in the American media over the last ten or fifteen years. I grew up listening to old records of the Marx Brothers, and watching Monty Python re-runs, so I’m not without a certain appreciation for snark and pointed remarks; but subtle is so much more attractive to me than verbal “blunt instruments”.

Starred Thought: “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.”


More from Pastor John: “One of our biggest problems at the moment is that we are so inundated with ratcheted-up rhetoric that we can no longer properly identify things – if everyone with whom we disagree is said to be Hitler or a Nazi or a socialist or out to destroy the very fabric of our society, then how do we distinguish them with those are truly are evil?”

There are times when I think we should just unofficially (non-legislatively) outlaw the casual throwing-around of the term “Nazi”, no matter how funny the Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” bit was. It’s like the nuclear warhead of conversation.

Starred thought: “As soon as you call someone a jerk, you forfeit your right to the other person’s respect.” (… “Nazi” would seem to be just about the ultimate version of “jerk”.)

Starred Thought: “Choose your battles carefully.”


Pastor John’s big push to the main point: “Sometimes vitriol is necessary to make a point, but when everything is vitriol there is no way to compare it to anything else, and we lose the primary understanding that words matter. That rhetoric matters. It misses the point that words do mean something, that words do create actions and words do create realities. Words matter. … Words matter. Words become flesh. Words create. Words corrupt. Words make realities. If all we ever hear are words of hate, or fear, or rage or animosity or wrath, then we are swimming in a toxic pool which can only corrupt us and fill us with the poisons which surround us.”

Starred Thought: “There are two types of people in this world: contributors and contaminators; there is no such thing as a spectator.”


And as Pastor John finished, this occurred to me:

Starred Thought: “Be a builder, not a wrecker.”

He finished, gloriously: “Let us not let this tragedy pass us by, instead let us allow this tragedy to change us, to alter the way we live our lives, to alter the way we talk, and to alter the way we interact with our neighbors and all those with whom we come into contact. Words can inspire and words can tear down. Words can build up and words can destroy. Words can offer love and words can offer hate. Words can offer hope and words can bring despair. The words we use reflect the values we hold dear. Jesus said ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Words create realities, words shape lives. Words matter.”


January 21, 2011 - Posted by | DMA, journalism, media, news, Starred Thoughts, SUMC, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. for the future, “starred thought” is one step away from becoming in a registered trademark…..which I’m sure Jeanne will give sanction to your use if you add the ® symbol.

    Love ya! 🙂

    Comment by Heidi Sarver | January 21, 2011 | Reply

    • Actually glad to hear that. And that adjustment can be made instantly if need be!

      Comment by rhammerton1 | January 21, 2011 | Reply

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