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Powerful Words – Br. David Vryhof

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James 3:1-12

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  They cannot be withdrawn or erased.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:  

  1. Am I speaking these words at the right time, or not?
  2. Am I speaking of facts, or not?  Is what I am saying truthful?
  3. Am I speaking gently or harshly?
  4. Am I speaking profitable words, or not?
  5. 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.

© 2009

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29 Comments

  1. Rhode on July 21, 2017 at 08:25

    This is a powerful sermon and the beauty of the 8 fold path is a wonderful ancillary meditation about right thinking, doing, speaking.
    Ancillary still to the greatest gift of the Word coming down to us as Jesus the Christ. For in him there is grace and forgiveness for words and deeds and thoughts birthed and hurled in anger. There is no grace given to us in any other name. This grace is huge in that Christ died for our yet unspoken, undone sins. He knew us before we were born and provided a way of salvation from our steps off of right thinking, right doing. Grace becomes the best foundation of love for lives that are asked to forgive as we are forgiven.

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  3. Dee Dee on May 29, 2016 at 16:26

    What a powerful sermon. Thank you for these reminders of how important it is to speak and think kindly towards others, especially when we are hurting. Please join me in asking God to give us courage to love in response to painful words. Peace be with us all. +

  4. Ellen Nelson on May 29, 2016 at 09:20

    How absolutely appropriate and needed given our national dialogue. Very hopeful

  5. Leslie on May 29, 2016 at 05:45

    Thank you, everyone, for this helpful discussion. I use the Collect for Purity.

  6. anders on June 18, 2015 at 12:29

    I appreciate your thoughts of the power of words. Saul of Tarsus masters both gracious and ungracious words. I admire his willigness to live out his struggle in community, but will draw the line that Jesus, not he, is the one to follow. “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an example.” (Philippians 3:17)

  7. Christina on June 18, 2015 at 10:15

    Thank you for your words this morning, Brother David. I don’t know which is worse: the spoken hurtful words, or the written hurtful words. The justified thought of one daughter to another 3,000 miles apart. More than a year has passed and the rift and the hurt goes on.
    Like the previous correspondent, Roderick, I thought about sending a copy of this sermon to my daughter, but have refrained.
    A long time ago I read: ‘Be impeccable with your words,’ and ‘Don’t make assumptions.’
    I try.
    Christina

    • Christina on June 1, 2016 at 09:24

      A year later the rift is still there. c

  8. Ed Greene on June 18, 2015 at 09:12

    This was a very helpful confirmation of what I was praying about in my meditation today — asking God to help me with the constant chatter in my stream of consciousness. So often it dwells on resentments, fears, negative impressions and judgments. I am poisoning myself, and I need God’s help in purifying this well of discontent.

    • Michael on July 21, 2017 at 08:29

      Nice to know I’m not the only one struggling with “poisoning myself” One day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time. BE as gentle with yourself as you are trying to be with others

  9. Roderic Brawn on June 18, 2015 at 07:58

    I have been in an e-mail battle with a sibling, a brother. He and I seem to contest as to which one of us has the better lifestyle. I was going to forward him this sermon, but on reflection, that would be trying to have a victory. This is not the time. The thing is I don’t think there will ever be a time.

  10. gwedhn nicholas on August 17, 2014 at 17:18

    Thank you Br David. I learned today, that not only our words, but our thoughts and actions can also bless, or hurt. If we think only of ourselves, then it is likely we will hurt someone, at or at least make life awkward for them. This leads to blame from our mouths. Actions of course are fed by thoughts, just as words are. We can either hurt or bless with our actions. Keeping silent with intent to hurt, for example, rather than speaking words of kindness and encouragement come from our thoughts about the person.
    Today I blamed my ten year old daughter for making us late for church. This was unfair, because if I had been truly thinking about her, I would have done things(action) for her when they should have been done. She would not have had to scramble at the last moment. It was actually my fault that we were late. So my thoughts, words and actions were to blame.
    (As it turned out though we by Gods’ grace, not late but exactly on time. God was able to make things good despite my indifference.)

  11. Phil Flaherty on July 2, 2014 at 08:45

    Br. David, thank you so much for brining to the fore the eightfold path. We all have so much to learn from this noble tradition. I find the greatest challenge, despite right intention, of finding my self in situations that place one at the edge of a maelstrom of negative conversation, in danger of being drawn in. For me, your reflection renews the importance of meditating on right speech in the last line of my daily morning devotions (BCP p.137), “Preserve us with thy mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity, and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
    Namaste
    Phil

  12. Jeanne Cleary on July 2, 2014 at 08:01

    Thank you.

  13. Charles morgan on November 22, 2013 at 22:37

    Thank you for this sermon. I wish I had taken the time to read it before going to work. I would have certainly been less bruised by the words of others and be kinder in my own responses. I pray tomorrow I can be more mindful.
    Charles

  14. Ray Escott on November 22, 2013 at 18:30

    Thank you Br. David. Your words are right on time for me.

  15. Lynn Turner on November 22, 2013 at 08:31

    Thank you Brother David. With the first words of your sermon, to be mindful of our words, the word compassion came to mind. That we cannot reign in our words without compassion in our hearts -so hard to do when we feel strongly, or are triggered. I so appreciated the flow of your sermon from “the power of words” to the words of Jesus about the trajectory of our hearts. So much to learn, just listening to Jesus’s words. Even to this day, 2000 plus years along, his words are true and difficult to follow. Best, Lynn

  16. Alison on November 22, 2013 at 06:08

    I am so grateful for your thoughts on words. It is uncanny that I read them now, being in a place of turmoil and negativity. I have been given an answer to my prayers through this sermon. Thank you so much. Blessings on you and your brothers for your marvelous ministry.

  17. Barbara Harris on June 25, 2013 at 16:32

    Thank you Brother David, Words are my cross and struggle. Your words so gently and thoughtfully spoken today are a balm to by wounded soul.

  18. Christopher Engle Barnhart on June 24, 2013 at 08:14

    “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, always be acceptable in Thy sight, Oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”

    • Barbara Harris on June 25, 2013 at 16:18

      Amen

  19. Lily on June 24, 2013 at 07:19

    Thank you for this sermon. Said so simply and clearly.

  20. DLa Rue on June 24, 2013 at 06:14

    I’m also reminded of C.S. Lewis’ injunction in ‘Screwtape Letters’ that families are prone to be duplicitous in this regard. I did not, thankfully, experience as a child the kinds of rude, unkind, destructive, clueless characterizations I hear people making of their own children, in their hearing, on buses and trains and in shops and malls, in public. (And one can only wonder how much worse it can get in private).

    Lewis noted that families are rude to each other in the name of a perverted misunderstanding of “honesty” that suggests license to say whatever one wants to among one’s ‘own’ and that people wonder why their family relationships are so sour when this seed finally comes to fruition. They say things they would never dream of saying in public or private to others, then wonder why they have such difficulties.

    I saw the difference in this during my brief marriage to an abusive spouse. The level of discourse was disappointingly raw from someone with a very high level of education and the potential to do a lot in the world. Byatt notes in one of her books that some people abuse the intimacy of a loving relationship by taking the exact measure of the supposedly beloved one’s capacity for pain as well as pleasure in all they reveal about themselves, then turn that against them.

    In highly educated settings it’s common to applaud the ‘wit’ of those who can say scathing things of others. The real heroes are those who work even harder, to say what is kind and helpful of their colleagues and ‘intimes,’ instead.

    • Guy on June 18, 2015 at 11:35

      Helpful Insights

  21. Teresa Gocha on October 10, 2012 at 09:51

    I wish someone had articulated that to me a few years BEFORE I had 3 teenagers. It would have helped. But it still will. And I know of other parents who will take in these principles and enhance their care of their children with them. Thank you.

  22. DLa Rue on June 21, 2011 at 04:17

    Wow, right on. I have a talk to give at the end of the week, and I’ve only recently discovered that one of the attendees is someone who is really difficult to work with because of their tendency to say nasty, half-true things about others who are aspiring to be able to do work like theirs.

    Temptations abound to reply in kind, of course, but it really only works to take the high road in these situations.

    Thanks for your supportive explication of HOW to do that.

    Hugs and all good thoughts–DLa Rue

  23. frank redmond on September 20, 2009 at 08:13

    Hello, Brother David! How are you? Well, we hope. I’ve been listening to your readings…..so well done, thanks. Maryal and I have moved back to RI. Drop us a note when you have chance. Bye for now. Frank

  24. Deb Ervin on September 16, 2009 at 18:15

    Thank you Br David for that reminder of what power our tongues have. Something to be mindful of these days!

  25. John West on September 16, 2009 at 06:12

    Dear Br. Vryhof,

    Thank you so much for this most eloquent sermon. As a priest and rector living in a community of faith (parish) with a long history of conflict, your sermon was most helpful in reminding me to mirror Christ’s image through my own responses to crisis. A thoughless response or rude word word can only deepen the chasam between God’s people. After all isn’t that the nature of sin – to divide?

    Thank you for you thoughtful and most helpful words of inspired wisdom. You have helped me this day my friend. God bless and again thank you.

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