Imagine opening a brand new tube of toothpaste. It feels heavy, round and smooth in your hands. Unscrew the top and start squeezing - but not onto your toothbrush. Squeeze the whole tube out into your other hand. Look at your hand full of squishy minty goo. This was not a good idea, you think.
Now try to get the toothpaste back in the tube. Really, try to get it back in the tube. All of it.
The phone rings. And your nose itches.
What a mess.
We've been talking about talking in our house. Talking and toothpaste. The conversation started with some particularly hurtful words from one child to another, which made us sad. Then we were sadder still to recognize that destructive patterns of communication had started to take root in our family without our realizing it. Perhaps you know some of these: sarcasm, disrespect, unkindness, bragging, tattling, nagging, meanness, impatience, raised voices, whining ... and that's just mom and dad.
Words can hurt. Just like toothpaste, once they are out, words can't be taken back. Words can make a big mess. So we've started talking about our words and about making sure we think before we speak. I made a poster for each one of us with a picture of squeezed out toothpaste and the reminder: "You can't take it back."
It's not just our words. It's also our attitudes, our faces, our tone - really, it's about our heart. There are some bible verses on our toothpaste poster. We now have a family challenge to memorize these verses and kids love competition. Proverbs 12:18 says: "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." The kids liked this one because it is short and easy to memorize. But they started yelling it out at each other, proving who knew it best, wielding it like a sword itself. Not really the goal! Words without the right heart are meaningless.
But as this verse notes, words with the right heart also have incredible power. Our words can heal, offer forgiveness, instill confidence and self-esteem, bring joy, give direction and show love.
There is another verse on our poster: "Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift..." (Ephesians 4:29, The Message).
What would happen if we thought of each word we speak as a gift? I like to give gifts to my children. I think carefully about what would make a good gift, about what they need and want. I wrap the gift up nicely, present it to them and then eagerly watch them open it. Did I pick the right gift? Do they like it?
What if I was as careful, thoughtful and intentional as that with my words? Each word a gift. A powerful picture.
Did you scratch your nose with the toothpaste on your hands? You can get cleaned up now. The minty smell will linger for a while though. Go ahead and brush your teeth and enjoy that nice clean feeling in your mouth. And the next time you use toothpaste, think about your words. Will they make a big mess? Or will they be a gift?
Jennifer Zach lives in Ahwatukee Foothills with her husband and three children. They are members of Bridgeway Community Church. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.