The power to effect change

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Alfred Nobel was appalled at what he read.

In 1888, a French newspaper reported erroneously that the Swedish chemist and armaments manufacturer had died. A very much alive Nobel obtained a copy of the report and was startled to read in the obituary the following sentence: "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." (Nobel is the inventor of dynamite.)

A single sentence caused Nobel to think about his legacy. He did not wish to go down in history as the man whose work was used to destroy. In 1895, Nobel rewrote his last will and testament, leaving the bulk of his estate to the creation of the famous Nobel Prizes, bestowing large cash awards without regard to nationality in the fields of physical science, medical science/physiology, chemistry, literature and, most poignantly, peace. Less than 11 months later, Nobel was dead, and his money went to work. Today, hardly anyone remembers Nobel made his fortunate in dynamite because of his late-in-life philanthropy.

Saul of Tarsus was appalled at what he heard.

"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4)

Saul was the legendary persecutor of Christians, whom he considered heretics to Judaism. With vigor, he pursued them, with the aim of bringing them to justice. We know that he was not opposed to the most extreme methods of punishment. The New Testament records Saul stood by and held the coats of those men who stoned Stephen to death (Acts 7:58). In case there is any doubt of Saul's attitude about the execution, Acts 8:1 reads: "And Saul approved of their killing him."

On the road to Damascus, a single question caused Saul to think about his life. He'd been killing people for following Jesus and now Jesus was asking him why. Saul's life, not unlike Alfred Nobel's, quickly swung 180 degrees. The most vigorous opponent of what was once called "The Way," was now Christianity's most ardent proponent. The change was marked by a change in name -- from Saul to Paul. Paul brought Jesus to the Gentiles. Nearly everyone reading this column is technically a Gentile, so his contribution to each of us is incalculable. Today, we strain to remember Saul the Christian persecutor. Yet we can recall with precision, Paul the first-century evangelist.

A single sentence in an newspaper obituary changed a life for the better. And that life then changed the world. A single question heard on a dusty Syrian road changed a life forever. And that life brought Christ to the world. Never dismiss the power of a single sentence or question. We can change others; we ourselves might also be changed. Each of us has the power to change lives -- with a well-placed and much-needed comment at just the right time. Who might you speak to today whose life you might help transform? You might just be doing God's work with your mouth.

As long as we have the ability to speak or to use a pen or a computer keyboard, no one is powerless.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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