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Putting in a Good Word

August 15, 2011

A phone call came last week from a church member who has been unemployed for way too long. “Dr. Kirk, I have a job interview next week. Could I give your name as a reference? I need somebody to put in a good word for me.”

Of course, I agreed. This fellow is a husband and father, a dependable worker and solid citizen. I will be delighted to give him a positive recommendation.

Like many other pastors, I am frequently asked to serve as a reference for individuals applying for jobs. Youth applying to college or seminary often ask me to write letters of recommendation.  From the late fall into early spring, those requests come through my office in a steady stream.

Everybody needs a good word, even the most difficult people. My dad had a knack for finding a positive way to affirm everybody. His motto was “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

Even when an annoying person has raised our hackles or ruffled our feathers, we can respond in a way that is helpful. My grandmother often quoted a passage from the King James Version of Scripture on such occasions. “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

We have all heard the old adage, “If you can’t think of something good to say about a person, say nothing at all.” That folk wisdom bears heeding. Remaining silent when we could say something positive can be condemning. The practice of affirmation, speaking an uplifting word about others, requires deliberate effort. We are so easily tempted to criticize and to yield to gossip. Putting in a good word builds up instead of tearing down another.

Twenty-five years ago, I drove to Tennessee with my eighty-year-old great uncle Hugh, who was my grandfather’s brother. His request had been simply put, “Kirk, I’d like to see my cousins one more time before I die.” Uncle Hugh had three living first cousins, all in their eighties, all older than he. I took a tape recorder on the trip and obtained six to eight hours of these four octogenarians, talking about their family and remembering their grandfather, Major Hugh Neely.

I had always heard that my great-great-grandfather was a heavy man with a full reddish-gray beard. He was a schoolteacher in Christiana, Tennessee, and served as postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee.  When I was young, I fancied him a hero of the Confederacy, but I learned from his grandchildren that Major Hugh Neely had no military rank. Major was his given name.

Major Hugh lived through the Civil War and tried, on two occasions, to enlist in the Confederate Army. Early in the war he was not allowed to join because he was a schoolteacher.  As the war wore on, he tried again to enlist.  This time he was rejected as a soldier because of his poor eyesight.  Cross-eyed, he could have never fired a rifle safely. Though unable to shoot straight with a firearm, Major Hugh Neely had the reputation of being a straight shooter in his conversation.

As I listened to his elderly grandchildren share their memories, I also learned that though he would have been a Confederate soldier, Major Hugh Neely opposed slavery. After the death of his father, his mother married a slaveholder named Moses Swan. In his will, Mr. Swan bequeathed to Major Hugh Neely a slave woman named Mariah. The day the will was probated, my great-great-grandfather set free Mariah. He is reported to have said, “No person ought to own another person.”

Following her emancipation, Mariah took the Neely surname as her own. She made that decision out of respect for this man who had granted her freedom.

Major Hugh Neely’s grandchildren all agreed that he had the reputation for finding something good to say about every person.

One night Joe Foster, the town drunk of Fosterville, was staggering down the railroad track when he was hit and killed by an advancing train.  Two of the young men in town decided to challenge my great-great-grandfather.  They agreed, “Let’s tell Mr. Neely that old drunken Joe was killed by the train, and see what he says.”

When they approached Major Hugh at the post office, they were sure that even he could not find anything good to say anything about Joe Foster. One of the men posed the question, “Mr. Neely, I guess you heard that old Joe was killed by the train?”

My great-great-grandfather listened and thought before he spoke. “No, I hadn’t heard that, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Nobody had much good to say about Joe.”  After a pause he added, “But I think Joe could whistle a tune better than anybody I have ever known. Yep, he was the best whistler I ever heard.”

The world would be a better place if we all made a habit of being positive and affirming.

Putting in a good word for folks can also have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  As a pastor, I am frequently asked to pray for people. These requests sometimes come with the appeal, “Please put in a good word for me.”

I always honor those requests.


Kirk H. Neely
© August 2011





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