My sophomore year of college had just come to a close. The spring was a wonderful three months studying abroad in France, and the summer would be spent traveling throughout the United States and Canada with a musical group of about 40 singers and 20 musicians. I had two weeks to learn all the songs and get to Southern California for a week of rehearsals.

I had spent my whole life singing. People had always told me I was pretty good at it. I was excited. But I had never sung with a group – not a school choir, not a garage band – only solos.

Our director was a pretty nice guy, but I am pretty sure his picture is in the dictionary right next to the word “details.” Let’s just say we had our share of – ahem – run-ins. The first of those came on day three of practice. As a soloist, I was used to singing the melody. On this particular song, I was assigned the baritone harmony.

There came a point in the song when I was supposed to harmonize down while the melody line went up. Seems easy enough, but I could not get it. Over and over, I messed it up. After the third time, the director shouted,

“Keith! Could you just stop singing so we could hear how this is supposed to sound?!”

It was more than 20 years ago. I can still hear it. I can still feel it.

His words left me broken.

Built up

It was the spring of my senior year of college, with only a few classes left to take. With the lighter schedule, I decided to go out for the tennis team. To my surprise, I made it. I was number 12 (out of 12), but hey, I was on the team.

Since only six players participated in each match, I didn’t get to play in a lot of matches. But one time, several of the “top six” couldn’t make it, and I was invited to board the bus and head down to Oregon. Now was my time.

I still don’t know how it happened, but I ended up playing my singles match against one of our opponents’ top players! I could tell during warm-ups that I was about to be crushed. He hit the ball harder. His strokes were smoother. He was more accurate. Yup. This was going to be a long – or very short – day. I decided that I had one goal: this guy was going to finish the match exhausted!

Sure enough, he beat me pretty handily. If I remember correctly, it was 6-4, 6-3. (And that may be a little generous memory-altering on my part.)

After the match, I was standing with my coach. He was doing his best to encourage me: “Some days are like that. He was really good. You put up a good fight.”

Honestly, I don’t remember what my coach said. What I DO remember was the other coach walking up to us, putting his hand on my shoulder, and saying to my coach,

“I wish I had even one player on my team that worked as hard as this guy.”

It was more than 20 years ago. I can still hear it. I can still feel it.

His words built me up.

The Result of a Spark

Last Monday, two buddies and I climbed Mt. Adams in Southern Washington. As we started out, one of them asked me if I would quote the Book of James as we walked.

As we listened to James’ words, one of them would occasionally ask me to repeat a section, or they would ask a question and we would simply chat about what we were hearing. A book that normally takes about 15-20 minutes to walk through took us nearly an hour.

About halfway through, we came to this section at the beginning of Chapter 3:

“Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.

We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.

People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” (NLT)

Never had those words meant more; never had they come so alive. I was seeing the result of an entire forest, devastated a year earlier by a “tiny spark.”

I paused. It took me a few minutes to start up again.

James tells us our words our like that fire. So, so true. I have experienced both sides. So have you, I would imagine: the breaking down and the building up.

Check out an earlier post by Keith here.