Last month my wife, Holly, and I spent a week’s vacation canoeing and camping in Quetico Provincial Park in northwest Ontario.  Quetico encompasses two million acres of wilderness with six hundred lakes which only can be accessed by canoe.  The park is so remote that one can still safely drink the water right out of the lakes without even filtering or boiling it.  While the water is safe, there are, however, other dangers that campers are warned about.

One of the the most dangerous threats that humans face in any wilderness, as is evident with what is going on out west right now, is the potential of starting a devastating forest fire.  For this reason, before entering Quetico Park each person receives an education on fire prevention.  Thus, on our trip this year, each time we lit a fire to either cook a meal or to light a camp fire, we remembered what we had learned and were extra careful to make sure no sparks or embers escaped to create a potential hazard.

I was reminded of all this last week when I read a passage from the letter of James, one of the books in the Bible’s New Testament written almost two thousand years ago. James uses the image of fire to make a point about the power of words and the powerful impact we have on one another, simply through the words that we speak.  “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…From the same mouth can come blessing and cursing.”  (James 3:5-6,10).

How true it is that the words we speak to one another can provide blessing and nourishment to others, just as a small fire in the wilderness can help cook food for nourishment or provide warmth and comfort on a cool evening.  James also reminds us though, that the words we speak to one another can just as easily destroy and harm. And like a human caused forest fire it does not matter if the hurtful words we use are used on purpose or are used by carelessness and neglect, they are still destructive either way

Earlier this week I had an experience that reminded me of the power of the words we speak to one another.   I ran into a dentist friend of mine this week who retired about a year ago after fifty years of practice.  When we talked I asked him how his retirement was going and what it had been like to say goodbye to his long term patients.  He shared a story of an eighty year old patient who he had treated for many years.  At her last visit with him she took a few minutes to thank him for his years of care.  She thanked him for his caring service, honesty, and integrity and told him he was by far the best dentist she had ever had.

As my friend told me this story his face was beaming and he added that these words from this woman meant more to him than any amount of money he had ever made as a dentist.  Clearly this eighty year old woman’s words sparked a fire of gratitude and appreciation, a fire that was still burning brightly in my friend a year later.

What  types of fires are you lighting with your words?  Are you lighting fires that cause harm and destruction, or fires that provide nourishment and warmth?  Are your words creating a blessing or a curse?  Our words are powerful and we have the power to choose the words we use and the impact we have on others. With the reminder of my friend’s eighty year old former patient, I know I am going to make a renewed effort to speak words of kindness and affirmation to my family, friends, and colleagues, and heck, even to my dentist!

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