Here’s how John Hockenberry of National Public Radio’s “The Takeaway” opened his show on Friday: “What happened this week? What happened this week? …[O]nly in America do you have in the same week a network anchor who lied and tells America he wants to be trusted, a woman who’s white who tells America she wants to be considered black, and a white man with a gun who kills nine black people in a church in Charleston and says to police he wants to start a race war. One week. But is it one America? Trust, race, and violence, all three, that’s the big construct, right there, in one crazy, only-in-America, kind of Biblical parable. What does it mean?”
Hockenberry’s show goes on to consider the connections between our difficulties in trusting one another and our government to speak truth and to follow words with actions; the ongoing history of discrimination and violence against African Americans, and the continuing rise of gun violence, constantly asking, what lessons can be learned? What wisdom can be gleaned from the ruination of lives and the murders of innocent people in a house of worship?
The pain is deep and the issues are complex.Everyone has a theory on the roots of our problems. But this morning, the book of James cuts through the layers. Each of the stories Hockenberry named exemplify the dangers of an untamed tongue. Each person made choices to use his or her speech, sparking “forest fires” of distrust and violence, not merely “staining” their own lives but also setting ablaze what James calls “the cycle of nature,” creating with their words—and the actions flowing out of them—an environment of distrust, a climate for violence, a world of hurt.
They may seem so small, but our tongues do have a power disproportionate to their size. With them we exercise the creative capacity for speech, given to us by the God in whose image we are created, who spoke a Word into the chaotic void and created a universe.
Adam named the animals, and we continue to name the world and each other, which, “in some sense…creates a genuine reality,” notes author Dan Clendinnen. Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “Whether we mean to or not, we construct worlds with speech. Describing the world we see, we mistake it for the whole world. Making meaning of what we see, we conflate this with God’s meaning. Then we behave according the world we have constructed with our speech, even when that causes us to dismiss or harm those who construe the world differently.” We are all connected to one another in a web of relationships in which our words have world-formational power.
We know from our own experience that the childhood rhyme is a thin defiance against the truly hurtful power of words: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Hateful remarks, shaming criticisms, and glib gossip can leave more enduring wounds than broken bones.
I can’t help but think of the collision of worlds between the African-American Bible study group in Charleston and the young white stranger they graciously welcomed and hosted, living out the Word of God they were studying. But even after receiving their hospitality, face to face, he continued to live according to the ways of a world constructed by hate speech, as he turned on them with words of hate and a gun.
That is why it is vital that we Christians are people who know and live out of the power of the Word to heal and to bless. We believe in God’s creative Word made flesh, and we proclaim Jesus Christ, in whose life of teaching and healing, in whose unjust death and unexpected resurrection,
our universe is created anew. We receive the power of speech as part of God’s gracious invitation to participate in the ongoing recreation and restoration of the world.
Our speech is a Christian practice, by which we live out our love of God and neighbor. But James does not underestimate the challenge, saying wild animals are tamed more easily than our tongues, and seeming gloomy on our prospects in controlling our speech.
Indeed, even in our churches, where we intend the best use of our speech, without realizing it, we sometimes find ourselves speculating about others in ways that are subtly harmful. Especially here, we must take seriously James’ wisdom from ch.1, “Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak.” We are being restored to God’s image, but sin is pervasive and tenacious, and we do make many mistakes.
But James also tells us that the capacity to control our speech is a sign of maturity in the faith, which suggests that there is hope for us yet! We can choose to pray and practice to learn to use our speech for healing and not harm.
Of course, like any spiritual practice—loving speech takes practice! It is a process in which we notice and learn about God and ourselves. We can observe our speech and notice how it reveals our inner life, what we truly value and depend upon. Comparing our words to our actions, noticing the degree to which they have integrity, we will know how we have been growing in Christlikeness.
The Renovare workbook we are using in this summer’s Spiritual Formation Group suggests ways to engage in practicing loving speech:
–Be a gossip-buster. Whenever someone you are with begins to gossip, quickly end it. Guide the conversation to a different subject.
–Practice the art of speaking positively. Resolve to make two positive remarks about someone or something for every negative remark you make.
–Cultivate integrity in your speech by focusing on simplicity and honesty in all that you say.
These practices sound so simple and obvious, but trying them for a week is revealing! The point of them is not to get it perfect, but to see what we see. Sometimes we won’t like what we notice.
The awareness of what we don’t like in our words and actions is an invitation to ask for God to change us.
The good news is that we can learn to use our speech to bless others and share the truly good news of Jesus Christ; we can learn to discern when to speak and when to stay silent, and we can learn to speak in the Spirit to create worlds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness.
Do you see my stole? It’s my ordination stole from Alaska, and it features a raven and eagle with little crosses in their bellies, wings, and especially in their beaks. It reminds me of James’ metaphor of the bit and bridle guiding and directing the horse. There is a prayer inside which says, “May the Word of Christ be always in your heart, in your words, and in your actions.”
Those three aspects of our lives are brought into integrity as Christ speaks his transforming Word into our lives. Christ is already present with and within us,and by the power of the Spirit, we can ask and receive God’s help: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach,” James says in ch.1. As we ask, receive and accept, lean into and depend upon the Holy Spirit that God has given us, Christ becomes the one who controls our speech and our whole bodies.
Friends, our speech has creative power. God gives us the freedom to use it for harm or for healing. Jan L. Richardson writes, “Offering a blessing is an act of profound hope. In blessing one another, we recognize and ally ourselves with the presence of God who ever works to bring about the healing of the world.” Let us invite God to shape us anew, that we may offer blessing.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009, 67.
James Brian Smith and Linda Graybeal, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
Jan L. Richardson, In the Sanctuary of Women, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010: 18.