As a child, I was a lover of all things E.B. White. It started with The Trumpeter’s Swan and, later, Stuart Little, but in the end it was impossible to keep from falling in love with White’s masterpiece, Charlotte’s Web.
For those who may not know the story, Charlotte’s Web tells the story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur is in danger of being slaughtered by the farmer, Charlotte writes messages in her web praising Wilbur in order to persuade the farmer to let him live. Through these short messages, Charlotte changes the way that the farmer and others see Wilbur no longer as a commodity for consumption but as a creature to be cherished.
There are powerful lessons in this classic tale, but one that stuck with me early on as a boy was the power of words to frame what we call reality. As children this world is overwhelming to us. It’s with words that we remake what we see and hear into something that we can understand, something that we can wrap our arms around. Words make the world make sense.
Words are also the way that we can destroy worlds. We often demean and belittle others to force our way of thinking and feeling on them. We can use words to define those we like as human like us and those we don’t like as something less than human. It’s no surprise that so often before we can commit atrocities against our neighbors we first use our words to deny them equal humanity with us. Like evil spiders, we can weave lies and innuendos into our webs to make others appear less than they were created by God to be.
In the Epistle reading for this coming Sunday, Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians that when he came to them he didn’t speak “words of flattery or with a pretext for greed.” Rather, “we were gentle among you.” Instead of weaving webs of “deceit or impure motives or trickery,” Paul asserts that he came “to declare to you the gospel of God.” Paul spoke words that framed the Thessalonians as children of God, beloved recipients of God’s grace. In doing so, he made it possible for them to see one another through that lens as well and so come to love one another.
You don’t need me to tell you that unkind and hateful words are flung around like confetti these days. We are saturated by them. Our world is shrouded in cobwebs that choke us with fear, deception, violence and dehumanization. It can be hard to know what to do.
Like Charlotte, weave wonderful words about the world. Speak God’s unearned, unexplainable grace to those around you. Catch people in webs that spell out peace, love and joy. Frame the world as God sees it, and as the world listens it will begin to believe.