Listen again to the words of our epistle lesson from The Letter of James as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in The Message:
“A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it!
“It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke…”
Words are powerful, aren’t they? By speaking a word, God brought the universe into existence, and we who are made in the image of God have a similar power – the power to use words to create or to destroy, to bless or to curse, to heal or to hurt. Words matter. Right speech matters.
This morning I’d like to reflect with you on the power of our words. Being mindful of how we speak is a value we Christians share with those who follow the Buddhist tradition. For Buddhists, right speech is the third of eight factors in the Noble Eightfold Path. According to Buddhist thought,
“Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech:
lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth);
divisive speech (words spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people);
harsh speech (words spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings);
and idle chatter (words spoken with no purposeful intent at all).”
Notice the focus here on the intention of the speaker. What we intend by our words can be more important than the words themselves. The same words can be used to bless or to curse, to deceive or to enlighten.
Most of us can recall times in our lives when we’ve been lied to or spoken about or shouted at by another person. That one person’s words, spoken with anger or bitterness or ill intent, have marked us forever. They cannot be withdrawn or erased. We carry them with us. They are like scars that will never go away. We can recall not only the words, but the feelings they evoked in us, in an instant.
Words have the power to hurt, but they also have the power to heal. Did you catch the beautiful phrase in the reading from Isaiah?
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
If you can recall words that hurt you, you can probably also recall words that sustained you, encouraged you, lifted you up. Words have power, power to create and power to destroy, power to bless and power to curse, power to heal and power to hurt.
“Right speech (explained in positive terms) means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting and worth taking to heart. When [we] make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, [our] words become a gift to others.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
You already know this, don’t you? I’m telling you nothing new. You know that words can be harmful or helpful, that they can tear us down or build us up. You’ve experienced this in the words others have spoken to you – and you’ve observed the powerful effect your words can have on others. You are not surprised that the Scriptures call us to speak in ways that are life-giving, not death-dealing. “Let your speech always be gracious,” says St. Paul (Col. 4:6).
But you may also know the challenge of trying to put this knowledge into practice.
“This is scary,” writes Peterson, again paraphrasing the letter of James, “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue – it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongue we bless God our Father; with the same tongue we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings come out of the same mouth!”
So, what can help us? What sort of practice will transform our speech and make our words a gift and a blessing to others? What can we do?
First, we can pay attention to what we say and to the effect our words have on others. There is nothing more important than awareness. Conversion begins with awareness. Buddhist teachers point out that there are five keys to right speech:
“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.” [AN 5.198]
Attending to our speech, we can ask ourselves:
- Am I speaking these words at the right time, or not?
- Am I speaking of facts, or not? Is what I am saying truthful?
- Am I speaking gently or harshly?
- Am I speaking profitable words, or not?
- Am I speaking with a kind heart, or am I inwardly malicious?
We can pay attention then to what we are saying and the tone in which we are saying it, and when we find ourselves resorting to negative patterns of speech, we can say to ourselves, “Stop!” We can continually ask ourselves, “Is what I am about to say true? Is it necessary? Is it helpful?”
But in order to be truly converted we must go beyond the words we say to the deeper levels of our hearts. There we must examine our intentions. Why am I tempted to speak in a hurtful way to this person? Where are these critical words coming from? What insight can I gain by examining my thoughts? How can I begin to change the way I think about this person or this situation? What is God’s invitation to me now?
This descent into the heart is crucial because unless our hearts are converted we will never have much success transforming our words and our conversation. Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”
We cannot speak peaceful words if there is no peace in our hearts. We cannot offer life-giving words unless the Divine life is within us, ready to be offered to others. We cannot speak with compassion and love unless these virtues are actually growing in our own hearts. Our words reveal what is in our hearts.
“A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?” (from the Letter of James, as paraphrased in by Eugene Peterson in The Message).
We need pure hearts in order to utter pure words. Which is why we will be working on this for the rest of our lives. Purifying our hearts is a continuous process which involves opening our hearts to God day by day so that they can be transformed by Divine Love. We cannot do this on our own, which is why we so need God’s help. Only God’s power working within us can bring about deep and lasting change.
Ask God to help you every day, every moment of the day. Keep watch on your tongue. Remember that what you say powerfully shapes your life and the lives of those around you. Let your words be carriers of God’s grace and blessing.
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