We are in a season of transitions, of newness, of celebration as school starts up again and fall brings about a sense of renewal. We are celebrating going back to Sunday school this week as we just resumed Sunday school this morning and the classrooms were once again a buzz after spending the summer in a more quiet state. We will celebrate all things back to school at our potluck today when we have a backpack fashion show, and a blessing for the backpacks, students, teachers and administrators among us. We even have a seasonal scripture passage which talks about teachers!
However, after reading a text that starts like the James 3 passage today warning teachers that they will be called to stricter account – it is a wonder that I even have the nerve to stand up here at all and try to offer a sermon. Luckily for me we are an Anabaptist community where our pattern of practice is not so much focused on the preacher as teacher but instead as a community who learns together – from and with each other – at least I comfort myself with that reminder. But it doesn’t let me off the hook from getting the ball of conversation rolling about today’s scripture readings.
Also luckily for me, I really like today’s scripture selections. Well, at least I really like Psalm 19 with its beautiful imagery of the heavens telling the glory of God and the skies displaying God’s handiwork. What a lovely reminder of the marvels of God’s creation.
As a visual artist I also delight in the revealed power of communication through a means other than words:
Day after day [the skies] tell their story,
and night after night they reveal
the depth of their understanding.
Without speech, without words,
without even an audible voice,
their cry echoes through all the world,
and their message reaches the ends of the earth.
It is beautiful language about a beauty that speaks beyond language.
And then there is the James text, which also has some moments of beautiful language in it in the imagery of large ships being guided by small rudders but also speaks to the potent power of language to be anything but beautiful. The James passage names the destructive ability of language, when used carelessly, or in some cases very carefully to boast about ourselves or to curse others. In brief James 3 is a clear reminder that our tongues house power.
When we speak, we help to create the world around us. We can use the power of language to speak goodness into the world, to praise God and to offer life giving messages to those around us. We can also use that same power to deflate one another and enflame the world with life draining messages.
In the technological and social media age and culture in which we live, we have ample opportunities to witness the workings of the power of language to build up and to distort. We interact with it through the continuously voiced opinions of others and through countless options to throw our own voices into the mix of endless expression. Beyond the opportunities afforded us through technology, when we, as relational beings, choose to live in community and relationship with each other (not solely, but uniquely in a faith community) we open ourselves up to yet other venues of communication exchange. Which begs the question: what are we doing with all of these opportunities?
The writer of James is less than optimistic about our human ability to consistently choose to use the power of language for good and spends a lot of energy lamenting our inability to control our tongues putting it this way:
[The tongue is] a small part of the body, yet it makes great boasts. See how tiny the spark is that sets a huge forest ablaze! The tongue is such a flame. Among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a whole wicked world in itself. It infects the entire body…All kinds of animals – birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea – can be tamed by us, but no one can tame the tongue. It’s a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We use it to say, “Praised be our God and Creator”; then we use it to curse each other – we who are created in the image of God. Blessing and curse come out of the same mouth.
While the text may seem mostly disparaging to us about our abilities to use the resident power within us for good, it also offers us some insight into the potential we do have within us when we use language mindfully.
A few verses before this lament we see that a small tool can make a big impact. A horse can be controlled by a simple bit being placed in the horse’s mouth. An entire ship can change direction through the use of a small rudder. The tongue is a small part of the body, yet it holds within it a mighty spark of power a spark that can be used to start a devastating fire, or a spark that can be used to ignite action for good. Just as a bit can guide a horse’s entire body or a rudder a massive ship, our tongues can change the course of our lives and re-shape the world around us when used with intentionality and awareness. A ship goes in the direction the captain chooses to turn the rudder – so we too can choose how to use our words.
Mindful use of language takes practice. One way to learn how to be mindful of what and how we speak may be through the practice of listening and silence. A practice that the broader book of James would surely support. James chapter 1 verse 19 offers these words of encouragement: be quick to hear, slow to speak. Not speaking is not always the answer to the troubles our tongues can create. But not speaking may help us become aware of how to best make use of our language when we do use it. Take the following examples:
Andrew Tash, a contributor to the blog: Practicing Families [an exploration of life, faith, and grace in the gritty context of daily family life] wrote this week about practicing different spiritual disciplines. He noted that on one particular day his chosen spiritual discipline to practice was silence and so he sought to live in silence for 24 hours. He chose a weekend day and was therefore able to shelter himself somewhat from the need to talk as he wasn’t at work, but still found it to be a challenging task – it was hard not to speak. What he also discovered was that many things that take place in life didn’t require his input and that the world kept spinning without his vocalizing his perspective on everything.
As happens through the modeling of life from parents to children, Andrew’s practice of different spiritual disciplines has spilled over from his life into the lives of his kids who have watched him as he has explored and practiced these disciplines for the past seven years. This past week his daughter decided to spend a day in silence as her own act of spiritual discipline practice. As school is back in session this was not a particularly easy task – but around the exceptions that participating in classes required, she wrote a note on her hand that said “I am spending today in silence” so that she could show that to anyone who tried to strike up a conversation with her. Her reflections on the experience included the observation that from her perspective “words don’t mean as much as they used to. People talk all the time.”
A mindfulness practice towards the use of language encourages us learn how to use our voices in positive, powerful, and meaningful ways. It challenges us to consider when the use of our voice may not be beneficial or even necessary. It empowers us to either speak up for, or step aside and make space for other voices in need of being heard. It holds in delicate balance the awareness that our tongue is ready and willing, at our choosing, to both bless and curse.
This delicate balance points to a faith struggle referred to in the book of James as double-mindedness. The double-mindedness found in James is not simply that we are able to speak both positive and negative messages. It is also about the struggle we step into when we choose to pursue a life of faith – the ongoing struggle to be a human, seeking to live out God’s calling. It is the struggle to look beyond our own human vision, desires and understanding and pursue instead the vision, desires and wisdom of God.
A wisdom that the Psalmist recounts this way in Psalm 19:
Your law, YHWH, is perfect;
it refreshes the soul.
Your rule is to be trusted;
it gives wisdom to the naïve.
Your purposes, O God, are right;
they gladden the heart.
Your command is clear;
it gives light to the eyes.
Holding you in awe, YHWH, is purifying;
Your decrees are steadfast,
and all of them just.
They are more precious than gold,
than the purest of gold,
and sweeter than honey,
than honey fresh from the comb.
In them your faithful people find instruction;
there is great reward in keeping them.
There is goodness to be found in the ways of God – and our understanding of that goodness grows the more we explore and encounter it. As creations of God, just like the sun which powerfully arcs across the sky celebrating and proclaiming the glory of the Lord, we too are invited to explore and display that goodness in our lives.
We live with a powerful spark on our tongues at all times and we are constantly learning, through practice and mostly by trial and error, how that spark reacts when we release it into the world around us. We have each, in our own ways, experienced the bitter taste left in the mouth when our words have sparked destructive flames. Likewise, we each also know, in our own ways, the sweetness left on the tongue when we speak out with love, grace, and justice.
As we live with awareness to the resident power present in our words and deeds, may we seek to be people who choose to live in the goodness of God:
May the words of our mouths
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable in your sight, O God.