It’s an old story, but a good one. I’ve used it as a sermon illustration several times.
A woman went to see her pastor. She confessed she had gossiped about him, telling half-truths and creating a false picture of his character. The Holy Spirit convicted her, she said, and she had come to apologize and ask forgiveness. The pastor told her that he forgave her, as did God. Still the woman’s soul was troubled. “What else can I do to make it up to you?” she tearfully asked.
The pastor thought for a moment. He stood up, walked across to the room to the couch where she was sitting. He reached down for a throw pillow and said to the woman, “Please come with me.” She stood and followed him to a window, which was opened to catch the steady breeze. He asked her to hold the pillow, and then he took out his pocket-knife. With quick flash of steel, he slit the pillow from top to bottom. Then he took the pillow from the startled woman, held it out the window and began to shake it vigorously. Hundreds of feathers fell, and then were caught by the breeze.
Some of the feathers floated gently up on the breeze and began to ascend out of sight. Some were lifted up to rooftops and stuck there. Others were tangled in treetops, while heavier ones descended gently onto the grass.
The woman looked at the pastor with wondering eyes, seeking an explanation. The pastor said, “What can you do to make up to me your gossip? You can go and collect all these feathers – every one of them – put them back in this pillow and sow the pillow back together.”
“But that’s impossible,” she stammered. “There are hundreds of feathers, maybe thousands. They are scattered everywhere.”
With wise eyes and a gentle tone, the pastor replied, “So it is with words. Once they are released, they can never be gathered up and contained again.”
Last week I wrote about a lady I met on a plane. She was traveling to a Dan Fogelberg fan gathering while I was going to a Leadership Conference. We had a pleasant conversation, and she shared her enthusiasm for Dan Fogelberg.
If you write a regular column like I do, you are always on the look out for another idea. Deadlines come every seven days. I had what I thought was a good idea: talk about this woman’s enthusiasm for Dan Fogelberg and contrast it with my enthusiasm for Jesus.
When it came time to write the column, I compressed her story, and reshaped it to better fit my point. I thought it was a good column. Maybe not Writer’s Hall of Fame material, but good.
My column is published in one paper the Friday after I write it. Saturday morning, I received an email from the woman I wrote about. She expressed her displeasure about how I portrayed her, how I omitted parts of her story to suit my purposes. What I had written hurt her; that was obvious.
As I read her email, I was simultaneously convicted and surprised. Convicted because she was correct: I had not told her whole story, just the parts that suited me. Surprised because I thought there was no way she would ever read what I wrote. I never dreamed my words would float that far.
I don’t like to hurt people. I felt the Spirit tell me I owed this woman an apology. I wrote it and sent it to her. She thanked me for the apology, which was very gracious of her to do.
I thought the episode was behind me, but on Monday I received another email from someone in another part of the country who had also read my column about the Dan Fogelberg Obsession. She also expressed outrage on behalf of her friend. I apologized again and wondered how many apologies I would have to write. There were apparently a lot of feathers floating out there.
Words are like that. They are more powerful than we know, bringing hope and healing, or harm and hurt. Once we release them from our mouths, they scatter. Their impact can be wide and they can sting deep.
In this age of Twitter, we’d be wise to remember the words of Solomon in Proverbs 17:27-28: “The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered. Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.”
Please excuse me now. I have to go pick up feathers.