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October 14, 2019

I am frequently asked to serve as a reference for people applying for jobs and to write letters of recommendation for applicants to college or seminary. Often these requests come with a comment such as, “Please put in a good word for me.”

Many famous people have opined upon this. Erma Bombeck said, “Some people think that baseball is our national pastime. I say it is gossip.”

Ellen DeGeneres is reported to have said that gossip keeps the entertainment industry going because people love gossip so much.

It was Aesop who first spoke the well-known adage, “If you can’t think of something good to say about a person, say nothing at all.” It is folk wisdom that bears heeding. However, remaining silent when we could say something positive can be condemning. The practice of affirmation, speaking an uplifting word about others, requires deliberate effort.

Scripture gives us this admonition. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) We are so easily tempted to criticize and to yield to gossip. Putting in a good word builds up instead of tearing down another.

Benjamin Franklin put it this way, “I resolve to speak ill of no one, not even if it is the truth, but to speak all the good I know about everybody.”

Eleanor Roosevelt summed the matter up with these words, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss other people.”

Twenty-five years ago, I drove to Tennessee with my eighty-year-old great-uncle, Hugh. Uncle Hugh was my grandfather’s brother. His request was 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 eight hours of recordings of these four octogenarians, talking about their family and remembering their grandfather who was my great-great-grandfather.

Major Hugh Neely, my great-great-grandfather, was a large man with a full reddish-gray beard. When I was young, I fancied him as a hero of the Confederacy, but I learned that Major was not a military rank. It was his given name. He was actually a schoolteacher in Christiana, Tennessee, and the postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee. He owned a fifty-acre farm along the Shelbyville Pike at the base of Short Mountain.

Major Hugh Neely 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 not accepted as a soldier because he could not see.  He was cross-eyed and could have never fired a rifle safely. Though he was 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 his father, William, died, his mother, Tabitha, remarried a slaveholder named Moses Swan. In his will, Mr. Swan left a slave woman named Mariah to Hugh Neely. The day the will was probated, my great-great-grandfather freed her. He is reported to have said, “No person can own another person.”

As a free woman, Mariah took the last name Neely.

The grandchildren of Major Hugh Neely agreed that he had the reputation for always finding something good to say about everybody. No matter their character flaws, my great-great-grandfather could find something positive about any person.

One night, Joe Foster, the town drunk of Fosterville, was staggering down the railroad track when he was hit and killed by a train.  Two of the young men in town decided to challenge my great-great-grandfather.  One told the other, “Let’s go to the post office and speak to Mr. Neely. We’ll tell him that old Joe was killed by the train.  Then, let’s see what he says.”

They found Major Hugh Neely and posed the question.  They were sure that even he would not be able to say anything good about Joe Foster. “Mr. Neely, I guess you heard that old Joe was killed by the train. He was just a no-good drunk.”

My great-great-grandfather listened and thought before he spoke. “No, I had not heard of his death, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. Old Joe didn’t have much to commend him. Nobody had much good to say about Joe.”

After a pause, Major Hugh Neely added, “Joe could whistle a tune better than anybody I have ever known. Yep, I think he was the best whistler I ever heard.”

Finding something positive about other people makes a difference in our life together. The gift of affirming, building up rather than tearing down, putting in a good word whenever we have the opportunity is the art of being an encourager.

My mother often quoted Edward Wallis Hoch’s brief poem.

There is so much good in the worst of us,

And so much bad in the best of us,

That it hardly behooves any of us

To talk about the rest of us.

The world would be a better place if all of us made a habit of putting in a good word for other folks.

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