Leaving Salem

There may be no more hostile crowd than a horde of tanked-up adults cheering for their children in the heat of competition. Moms and dads shrieking and squalling; grandparents riding the umpire’s backside like a cheap suit; armchair coaches managing from the bleachers: Watching children play can devolve into nothing more than a war of angry words.

A friend of mine recently attended her own son’s game. And this time, harsh words were not coming from the stands. They were spewing from the coach’s box. The coach lost his composure and control over his tongue. Not with the opposing team, but with the children under his tutelage. He launched into a four-letter barrage that could have peeled the paint off the inside walls of the dugout. When he finished, his team – particularly individuals on that team – was demoralized and embarrassed. While it is hard to estimate how badly this wounded the hearts of these boys, it is even harder to estimate the long-term damage this kind of behavior can have.

When my friend told me what had happened I immediately remembered another dramatic story: A teenage gas attendant, Juergen Peters, was like so many young men and women. At nineteen he had life and love before him, but he was often troubled and depressed. After a dispute at work Peters turned especially dark. He left the gas station and climbed to the top of his small town’s water tower. In his unstable mindset he threatened to commit suicide. A crowd of onlookers joined the local authorities to watch these events transpire. At some point young Juergen, thankfully, changed his mind and began climbing back down the narrow iron ladder to the ground. The crowd, deprived of a sensational conclusion, did not take their disappointment lying down.  Someone yelled out to the boy, “Jump, you coward, jump!”

This led to a kind of mob scene. As Peters descended the tower more and more spectators began to jeer and deride him. He hesitated, looked down at the crowd, and then began to climb back up. When he reached the top again, he moved out on the ledge and flung himself off. He fell more than ten stories to his death. The cause of death may have read “suicide,” but those in the crowd could have been detained as accomplices to the crime.

The New Testament diagnosis for such stories – on playing fields and water towers – reads this way: “A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of 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” (See James 3:5-8).

Deadly poison. Like the venom of some slithering snake. All of us have this potential to strike out with words that kill and destroy. At our spouse. At the other driver on the highway. At the umpire on the field. At children in the dugout. The outcome is devastating. Toxic words paralyze the spirit. They shock the senses. These words sometimes lodge so deep in the memory that decades of living cannot erase the words or the pain they generate.

Maybe this is why humiliating a child is so very offensive. That child must live with those words for the rest of his or her life. That is a heavy load for a little one to carry. But something some One once said about a mill stone being tied around our neck springs to mind. So in the end, maybe the heavier load will be carried by those who cannot keep their mouths shut. Little ears are listening. Be careful what you say.

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