I have a pretty high regard for the power of speech. Throughout my time at seminary I experienced the ability of words to shape my thoughts and my faith in wonderful ways. These were wise words, thoughtful words, challenging words. This past week our nation remembered the attacks of September 11, 2001. The days after that event five years ago are a perfect example of the power of the spoken word. In the midst of the chaos and the silence, everyone was looking for words to make sense of things and to provide a direction. The words that were spoken by many in our government in the following months provided a certain meaning and a certain direction that in many ways still holds strong today. The words were carefully constructed to produce a unifying effect and take the nation down a militant path. They were powerful and there are many in our country still captivated by their simplistic reduction of the world into black and white, us and them, good and evil.
The Hebrews held such a high regard for the spoken word, that when they pictured the way the world was created, they envisioned the words spoken by God, forming the earth out of the chaos. They knew that’s what words do. Speech is a creative act. Words have the ability to create light out of darkness. Words have the ability to separate night from day, to call out life where there was no life before. All this is given to us at the very beginning of Scripture, Genesis 1. In the beginning, God created, and God spoke the world into being. Words shaping and giving structure to our world.
James knows words are powerful. So powerful, that we should be extremely cautious with how we use them. Sure, words can be creative, but they can also be quite destructive. God’s words may form beauty out of dust, but our words usually aren’t quite so lovely. The tongue isn’t always a friendly thing. It’s small, but according to James, dangerous things come in small packages.
I’m going to try something out this morning. Occasionally I want to let the sermon be shaped by the experiences represented in this fellowship. My hope is that by hearing from each other’s reflections and stories, we can have a deeper understanding of how the teaching from Scripture works in our lives. So this week I sent out notes to several of you asking about how the power of the tongue, the spoken word, has been both destructive and constructive in your lives or in the lives of people you know. And this morning I will share these responses with you all as they were written, often in the first person. I invite you to think of these as living sermon illustrations, alive within this congregation.
So listen now, as we hear again from James and as we hear from each other.
Read James 3:1-5
I once worked for a person who employed harmful speech as something akin to one of the basic food groups (he seemed to need it to survive). His skill was so polished (as in brutal, unmistakeable, and exquisitely honed) that some people would literally go home sick rather than subject themselves to even the potential of being the target of his vitriolic rantings. Some of these people’s careers/reputations suffered as a consequence. His justification for his actions was that he wasn’t crucifying the person, he was trying to improve the situation. His “proof” was that, in his opinion at least, he and [whoever] had a very good social relationship.
Then again, there’s the other approach to harmful speech – backstabbing (that is to say, doing the equivalent of the above but only in the absence of the “recipient”). I’ve seen that too. All smiles to your face, but an enemy to your back. These people tend to rationalize their behavior as “being kind to the victim, yet doing what needs to be done for the organization”.
Read James 3:5b-8
Imagine an angry, unhappy parent saying to their child, “What are you stupid or something?, Use that head for something more than a hat rack, you kids don’t have the brains you were born with, Don’t you understand?!!!? “It’s as plain as the nose on your face.” These words are spewed out of a person filled with rage and accompanied by a slap on the back of the head, or a lash with a leather belt. Imagine the other parent as the most passive person on earth, not repeating this kind of destructive speech, but ignoring the words, never recognizing the pain on a child’s face, rarely offering an affirmation to offset the damage being done. These parents, and those angry, critical, rage filled words produced this family: one child suffers from mental instability;, another child – a walking skeleton, unable to demonstrate any emotion; another child who is angry and critical – who repeats the same words to his child, has high blood pressure and a temper which sometimes erupts with internalized rage; Several others have the “I have to please all people and be perfect” disease, accompanied by major depression and no self esteem. Still another commits suicide at age 40, by his own parent’s gun, and the last child, who is estranged from all the siblings, thinks, “this family causes me too much pain”. ———
I was in the midst of my 4th parent conference at the end of a long evening after teaching all day, when I suggested to the parent with whom I was speaking that her 2nd grade child was having anger management problems. She immediately screamed at me saying, “Anger management problems!! What do you mean he has anger management problems?!”
Her son coped with frustration the way he had learned from his mother. He would push over desks and cry and scream whenever he was frustrated, which often happened. It took all of us: my assistant, the school counselor, the principal, his classmates, and myself the rest of the school year to help him find other ways of coping with anger and frustration. He needed a different example to follow. Modeling and patience was the answer.
Up through verse 8 James is completely negative about the role of the tongue and the spoken word. It’s just plain dangerous – it’s a deadly poison, its untamable, its on fire, its from hell.
At verse 9 we begin to see a shift. The tongue can be destructive, but also constructive, it can be a source of cursing, but also blessing. So I’ll read on in James, but this time give some responses from CMF members of ways they have experienced speech as a blessing, able to turn a difficult situation in a healthier direction.
Read James 3:9-10
I remember once when a timely word came from a parent in the hospital where I was working. The child had relapsed. Did we miss it? We always ask ourselves this when it happens… we review the MRIs until we dream in black and white and gray tones. I felt wholly responsible, though others reassured that this was destined to be (a bad prognosis to begin with). Still, I avoided going to see her in the hospital. Why? Still don’t know fully. But eventually I went. I sheepishly walked into her room and said hi. The father immediately said, “Don’t be coming in here all mopey and sad, we just wanted to see you! Stop dragging your feet, pick your head up. We did the best we could. Mopey is a dwarf in Snow White and isn’t allowed here in this room” What I thought was going to be a “are you sure we did everything possible” inquisition, turned into a celebration of the child’s life, who died later that year…
I find it very interesting that I could not think of ONE example where a thoughtful word has helped to move a potential conflict towards reconciliation. The best examples I can come up with are “Let’s agree that we disagree” and “You are entitled to your opinion, and I am entitled to mine.”——-A number of years ago, I was working with inner-city kids, and not really prepared for it. One of my co-workers, in particular, had a very gentle of way of speaking with the children and calming down fairly intense situations. It was a good opportunity for me to try to model my speech and behavior to be more like hers.Read James 3:11-12 and v. 10.
I often find that simply asking the question “What do you think will help the situation?” can be very helpful. In certain settings, I might also ask, “What has God said to you about this?”
Regrettably, the circles that I have been in have never offered any examples I can think of how I timely word brought healing into a situation. I personally have tried to counsel, after the fact, what I considered to be a balanced opinion, but that seems to be like holding the hand of the crash victim. The damage has been done, and there may be no surgeon who can fix it.
It was really gratifying to work with young children on problem solving techniques. Whenever there was a conflict, each person was given a voice, (They got to explain their side of the story without interruption.) and then an ear. (We listened to each other’s perceptions of what happened and how each person felt.) Then they would problem solve from there. At first they needed my help, and as time went on, the children usually did it on their own. It was always amazing to observe how well this worked! They were given tools, the process was modeled for them, and eventually it became their own.
This passage from James doesn’t need a whole lot of explaining. It is clear to me from these voices among you that the power of the tongue has left its mark, both for harm and for good. Each of us lives with some kind of legacy of how words have been used in our lives as weapons inflicting pain, as medicine offering healing.
I find it interesting that James eludes to humanity as being made in the likeness of God. This means that we are to respect everyone, even as we respect God, but it also points to our gift of speech. What makes us human is our ability to communicate with one another in ways that no other animal in creation can do. Just as God spoke the world into being, we also speak our world into being. The good news here is that we have a God who offers us healing for harmful words spoken to us, forgiveness for destructive words we have spoken, and the gift of the Spirit for speaking words that create life.
In many ways this reading from James ties in with what the adults are looking at for Sunday school for this quarter. Too bad destructive speech doesn’t end after high school. It’s something we’re always working at. As people of peace, we receive healing, and offer our own speech to a world in need of healing.
I would like to close this time with a period of silence. No words. Simply ourselves, before our God. Maybe reflecting on what has just been said, a particular story that spoke to you, or a particular line from James that seems pertinent. Maybe listening for a gentle word from God. Maybe just finding a sacred space of quietness in the midst of a world where we are bombarded with words. Please have your bulletins open to the prayer of confession. I’ll allow this silence to continue for several minutes, and then we’ll pray this prayer together.
Prayer of Confession
God of the spoken word, God of the silence.
We confess that our mouths are often like confused fountains,
sending out fresh water and salt water, blessing and cursing.
Forgive us for this.
Give us your words,
which create light out of darkness, hope out of fear, life out of death.
Words of Assurance
God hears and forgives, and gives us the Spirit that we may have new life. Amen.
Let’s sing together now from Sing the Journey #67 “Let there be light, Lord God”