I am always very wary of hype… words like iconic / amazing / radical / life changing / once in a lifetime usually mean that I pay less attention to what is being promoted than I might otherwise have done. What is being offered is often little more than an attention seeking slogan or a call to join in with another new idea or project. However, just occasionally, something takes place that does justify attention-grabbing language – but is promoted without actually using any hype.
Such an event was the keynote address by Senator George Mitchell at the conference in April at Queen’s University Belfast to mark the 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. As a member of the audience that day, I was not at all clear what to expect. However, what he said, and how he said it, was a masterclass in powerful communication steeped in graciousness, sensitivity, warmth, humility, self-effacing humour, and powerful personal testimony. He spoke for forty-four minutes, yet it seemed like only ten.
Like many others reading this article, I regularly speak in public – as when leading public worship on a Sunday or at a midweek gathering. George Mitchell’s speech that day reminded me yet again that tone is every bit as important as content. That it is not what you say that matters. It is what people hear that counts.
The more I have reflected on that speech, the more I have become conscious that these are qualities echoed throughout Scripture by the prophets, the apostles and Jesus himself. For example, the sorrow of David in Psalm 51; the distress of Christ in Gethsemane; the humility of Moses in Exodus 4; the statement by Paul of lowliness in 1 Corinthians; the constant graciousness of warmth, welcome and forgiveness in the ministry of Jesus throughout the gospels. Moreover, all the time, we can read and see for ourselves the power of words carefully chosen and carefully spoken, so that the message is carefully communicated.
I have also reflected on the times when my words were far from helpful – or worse; on the occasions when I should have spoken, but did not – alongside the times when I spoke when saying nothing would have been much better. When a critical spirit overpowered listening and understanding; when doing something now took precedence over taking time to figure out what would be the right and God honouring thing to do; when frustration squeezed out ‘agape’ love; and when emphasis on the right content overtook emphasis on the right tone.
One of the most powerful moments in Senator Mitchell’s speech was when he spoke of the personal cost to his wife Heather and himself of what he was seeking to do in Northern Ireland. He said this:
Then our son Andrew was born. And, as every parent knows, my life and my responsibilities would change, irreversibly. I flew home for his birth, and I also made plans to travel to Washington.
My wife Heather had to remain in the hospital with Andrew for a few days. So, it was there that we had a long and sombre talk about the future. I had asked and was told that on the day of Andrew’s birth, sixty-one children were born in Northern Ireland. We talked about what his life might be like, and about the lives of the sixty-one children from Northern Ireland. Then I told her that I was going to Washington, and why. Her reaction was immediate and strong.
She said: “You have to go back until it ends, one way or the other. If you leave now and the fighting resumes and lots of people die, you will never be able to forgive yourself. Go back, give it one last try. I will take good care of Andrew. You think about those sixty-one children.”
So, I cancelled the trip to Washington and returned to Northern Ireland. When I got back to Belfast, I felt as though I was coming home.
But coming home doesn’t always mean returning to safety. … For the first time I felt a sense of defeat. Then, it quickly got even worse.
What a massive commitment by both of them to the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland, at huge personal cost, over a long period of time.
It is not hype to say that I was genuinely touched and inspired by George Mitchell at that event in Queen’s. Nor is it hype to say when the Holy Spirt is allowed to work in my life, His wisdom and enabling can bring to my own life those memorable words of Paul… “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Even when I feel defeated and deflated.
And that promise is surely for us all – today and for every day.
Here is a YouTube link to Senator George Mitchell’s Speech at GFA 25 Years QUB Conference.
Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a retired Presbyterian minister, former Moderator of the General Assembly, and Chair of Contemporary Christianity.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.