This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The Power of Words

“Actions speak louder than words”. I hear that quite a lot; but, although I know what is meant, I think it is wrong. To speak is to act. Language is performative – it does something, changes something. For example, it is the speaking of the vows in a wedding that makes the marriage.

The story goes that St Francis of Assisi told his friars to “Go out and preach the Gospel; use words, if you have to.” Well… if he did actually say it, was he right? We use words all the time to think and speak and make sense of the world; so, language matters – words matter. They do something. The fourth Gospel begins with: “In the beginning was the word…”. Go back to Genesis and the word is: “Let there be.”

A few weeks ago I convened an online conference led by scientists for a couple of hundred clergy about the current pandemic. We started off asking why we use particular metaphors as a lens through which to see or think about what is happening. In brief, why is it that in the UK we use language of conflict and combat – fighting, struggling, defeating, cowering, bravery, and so on – whereas in Germany, for example, they seem to have used imagery of “damming a flood” – particularly pertinent at the moment? An enemy is personalised, a flood isn’t.

We normally just accept the language presented as the frame through which we then interpret what is going on. But, like cancer and serious illness, words of combat and fight might not be the best. If your loved one dies, have they been defeated? Were they not up to it? You see what I mean? Words are never neutral and always carry consequences – think of the impact of blessing or cursing. They also have limits.

One of the metaphors I take from my reading of the Bible is that of “running the race that is before you” – and not just because the Olympics are on in Japan. This image insists on agency, seeing value in how I live and behave in whatever circumstances I find myself. Yet, racing conjures up different notions: a sprint is pure competition; a relay involves both competitiveness and cooperation.

At the heart of all this is an appreciation that we cannot control – or win – everything. Coming full circle, words matter because they unconsciously shape how we see and look and think and act. The question I am left with is: do I pay enough attention to the words and metaphors I use – and the way they shape the world?

Yesterday I was at St Francis, West Wickham, to celebrate 75 years of the church being there and to dedicate a window. The word ‘dedicate’ matters. At a conference the day before, when I was asked what I was doing on Sunday, I said I was ‘opening a window.’ Naturally, this drew derisory remarks about whether such basic activities really demand a liturgy.

It reminded me of a society we started at Trinity College when I was studying there in the mid-1980s. Some of us were (a) bored with some elements of Pauline theology and (b) spotted the gaps in the curriculum. So, we set up a group called the ‘Eutychus Society’ in honour of the man who fell out of a window in Troas when he fell asleep listening to Paul preach. I typed up and edited the journal (on an Amstrad 8256!) which we called The Window. We designed a logo of an open window and then realised we needed a Latin motto to complete our credibility. Unfortunately, none of us knew much Latin; so, I came up with ‘Nils fallem ex fenestra’ (‘let us not fall out of the window’) – which survived until some cleverer and more literate member of staff cried with horror and translated it properly.

The new window in West Wickham is simply wonderful and needs to be seen. Designed and made by Andrew Taylor, it replaces a 1970s depiction of a rather effete St Francis indulging his usual predilection for fluffy animals and birdies. Which, of course, misses the point of the bloke. The new window opens up the heart of Francis’s response to God – looking at the world through Francis’s eyes. My picture doesn’t do it justice, but it brings nature and city together around the cross and the fire of God’s love. The wording at the bottom of the second panel is taken from Micah 6:8:

And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

The wording on the sixth panel is taken from the Prayer of St Francis:

 for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

The workmanship is stunning, the design beautiful, the effect simply to draw us through the images to the reality of Francis’s discipleship – one that took Jesus with the utmost seriousness and cost him everything. Nothing romantic here.