As I read through Leonard Stern’s obituary - with my mouth agape and hand rested on my neck - my level of grief surprised me. I mean, I’d never even heard of the guy. And yet, this man I never knew, never really thought about, was one of the biggest influences on my life. He was an instrument of God, really, whether he knew it or not. Because Leonard Stern was among the handful of reasons I knew I wanted - and was called - to write.
Leonard Stern co-created Mad Libs, that funny, fill-in-the-blanks story game. I still remember the first time I played it: My friend’s big sister asking for a noun, then another noun, then an adjective, adverb, then a verb. And I remember the thrill of hearing what we’d created. A crazy story more likely than not filled with body parts and bathroom humor. But one that was our own because of the words we chose.
While Shel Silverstein ignited my love of the lyrical and Maurice Sendak my love of story (he did nothing, however, for my drawing), Leonard Stern - and his Mad Libs co-creator Roger Price - gave me perhaps the best gift: An understanding of the tremendous power of one word.
One word changes everything. Any writer understands this. While some writers argue whether we really love words or sentences or stories or ideas best, it all comes down to words. And, really, one word, after one word, after another.
Good writers work hard to increase our vocabularies so the right words sit at our disposal. We understand when to use a certain word and when to haul out another. We know when a word detracts from a sentence and when a word cues the angel choirs. We know that one word can take a story from blah to hilarious to heartbreaking and back to blah.
But it’s not only writers who need to grasp the power of one word. It’s a concept central to the Christian faith. For Christians, one Word - the Word made flesh - changed everything.
Jesus, that Word made flesh, spoke often about a word’s power. In Matthew 5:37, Jesus tells us to make promises with a simple yes or no. He even kicks in an ominous, “anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Words matter.
"The Message" translates what Jesus had to say about the power of words in Matthew 12:36-37 this way: “Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation.”
Yikes. Words matter. Really matter. Each one we choose and use makes a difference. For our lives here on earth. And for our eternity.
In a very weird way, our faith is a Mad Lib. The words we choose to fill in the great blanks of life make all the difference. "I am (a/an) ____________." My God is (a/an) __________ God." "Jesus is (the/a) ______________."
How would you fill those spaces? What words would you choose to Mad Lib the story of your life?