A decade ago my husband and I were raising our school-age children in the German-speaking canton of Zurich, Switzerland. Our move had occurred with little warning, and we found ourselves in the country with no working knowledge of how to speak Swiss-German. The day after our arrival, we were driving to buy groceries, and as my husband attempted to comply with the German signage, the Zurich police pulled us over for some unknown infraction.
Their English was limited, and our German non-existent. Michael attempted to explain he was newly arrived with a U.S. driver’s license, driving a rental car, and suffering from a bad case of jetlag. From their stern facial expressions and hands-on-hips stance, they didn’t buy it. As the kids and I sat in the car, my pulse thrummed in my ears. I watched anxiously in the side mirror as my husband attempted to explain we had set foot on Swiss soil less than 24 hours prior and we couldn’t read the signs. Eventually, after a long discussion that made little sense to either party, they waved Michael back to the car. With steady hands, he carefully drove us toward the highway, but both of our hearts were beating harder.
We lived in Zurich for over three years—three years in which I found myself frequently surrounded by people but unable to verbally communicate with them. I learned to pantomime my needs in the most bizarre fashion. It takes a certain skill to use one’s body to describe a particular vegetable in the grocery store, or perform the act of one’s ceiling falling down due to a leak in the roof. How does one explain to a neighbor with hand gestures that their car is obstructing the trash bin, or tell the dry cleaner to leave the shirts unstarched? It was frustrating at best, and impossible at worst. It left me feeling isolated and alone.
I have always known that the power of life and death is in the tongue. But the ability to speak in a way that brings healing feels even more vital right now.
While we’ve been under an extended stay-at-home order as a result of COVID-19, my experience is nothing like the time in Switzerland, and yet it has unearthed similar feelings of tension and anxiety in me. Where I once walked about freely in public and brought my physical presence into every awkward language-barrier moment, I now find myself physically removed, and my written and verbal skills take on a heightened importance. It’s a strange new world, in which my body language means little when facilitating online discussions with my students, and I increasingly struggle to understand the tone behind the constant stream of emails I receive.
As I scrolled through social media recently, I saw someone lament a small loss, and a follower replied with a meme saying, “Ghost hug. You can’t see it, but it’s there.” Even those of us who aren’t particularly affectionate feel the loss of comfort when we no longer have someone’s bodily presence. We’re wired for the healthy physical connection found in embraces and handshakes. We warm our bodies and souls in the lovely heat generated when friends and communities gather together in person. For most of us, our words have become a surrogate for the physical connection we often find in community.
As believers, we can look to Jesus as an example of the embodied, physical presence we all need and desire right now. In addition, He also exemplifies how to use words to bring healing. I’m reminded of one particular instance in Matthew, where the apostle writes of Jesus’ encounter with a centurion. The soldier comes in search of healing for his servant, and Jesus offers to attend to the ailing man. But the centurion, in an act of true faith, tells Jesus that merely His word is enough. The servant is healed at a distance—a result of one powerful, life-giving conversation. (See Matthew 8:5-13.)
While my conversations in the time of COVID may not lead to physical healing, I am increasingly aware of how I use my words—how I use speech as a source of creative power. I have always known that the power of life and death is in the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). But the ability to speak in a way that brings healing feels even more vital right now.
Our good, healthy, helpful words can bring comfort and consolation to one another. How can we speak life in a time when death seems more present?
I recently phoned a friend, seeking comfort about a frustration I’d experienced. Getting no answer, I left a voicemail, and she messaged me back within minutes. While I detailed my anger over that minor situation, she sat in a doctor’s office across the ocean in London, preparing for a tumor biopsy. Without shaming my small problem, my friend lovingly, gently helped me gain much needed perspective. In light of her positive diagnosis of cancer weeks later, I’ve offered her the only thing I have to give at this time: my conversation and prayers as consolation. Without the physical care of her friends and church community during her personal crisis, my friend, like the centurion, has relied on the words of others lifted in prayer for her healing. She has said she feels the prayers ushering her into a place of supernatural peace as she battles this new illness.
Another friend, who lives in New Jersey, now finds herself navigating how to care for her elderly parents in Ireland. While trying to find solutions for obtaining their groceries from this side of the Atlantic, she used social media as a last resort to ask her contacts if anyone was available to drop off food for her parents. To her surprise, a former schoolmate—one my friend laughingly described as a “frenemy”—offered to help. She has since had numerous honest conversations with her former schoolmate about the emotional pain of caring for aging parents—conversations she could never have imagined months ago.
As we communicate in new ways and perhaps more intimately than before, I am left thinking about how our good, healthy, helpful words can bring comfort and consolation to one another. What are some ways we can use this same God-given creative power of speaking life in a time when death seems more present? In part, our words will be shaped and formed by the thoughts on which we dwell. I’m reminded of Philippians 4:8, where Paul writes, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”
This is not to say we ignore the difficult and seek out only the lighthearted. We must both speak and hear truth, and the truth of COVID-19 is that we are lonely. We are anxious. We are hurt. We are afraid. But we must also seek to see and name the good. Where is God at work in us and in others?
We may not be physically present with one another for now, but we can make a true or pure or excellent thing visible through supportive conversation. We can use our words to make each other feel known.
Art by Jonathan Todryk