In our lections the past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. This Letter, I think, presents one of the most important themes that we of modern times need to consider closely: that of integrity of speech. At the outset, it reads like a collection of lessons straight out of a book of social etiquette. James’ words recall in my memory my mother’s admonishment: “Jimmy, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I suspect most of us would consider this maxim to be good and sound. But, I also think to the days of my childhood when someone would speak to another person ungraciously, perhaps calling them a name. You may know the famous playground retort: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Unlike my mother’s advice, this saying I find questionable at best.
What is striking to me about James’ wise council, is that it goes deeper than just manners and childhood retorts. Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, James’ Letter draws a correlation between word and action. And, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to identify yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
Bits in the mouths of horses, small rudders guiding large ships, great forests being set ablaze by small sparks: all of these poetically call into question our mastery over this small, unruly member of our body: the tongue. I have a hunch that we all are familiar with the struggle for integrity in speech. How many of us have said things in the heat of the moment or without thinking about the consequences that come with a certain choice of words. Certainly, I have. Sometimes, our brakes fail and before we know it, we have involved ourselves and others in a calamity, sometimes with devasting consequences. In my experience, words can be just as injurious as sticks and stones and equally as lethal. This is especially true when the words we aim at each other are seasoned with shame and propelled by anger. Whether you are playing Offense or Defense in a war of words, someone will be injured, and truth be told, both sides suffer diminishment.
If you are like me, you may know the experience of having been bullied as a child. You may have been singled out for ridicule based on your looks, your clothes, your interests, or your intellect. Perhaps you have been at the receiving end of verbal abuse from a teacher, mentor, employer, or someone whom you have held in high esteem. Maybe you have felt dismissed by a friend, family member, or spouse and have felt unworthy of love, respect, and dignity. You may bear the scars of these incidents mentally as well as physically. According to an article published online by Psychology Today, verbal aggression not only damages self-esteem but also has been found to alter the development of a child’s brain.[i] This is especially the case when the injury occurs before the child knows how to speak or comprehend the meaning of words and is party to a heated argument. Anxiety can present itself without cognitive memory of the injury.
Other studies show that emotional pain effects the same part of the brain as physical pain and how verbal aggression can be internally absorbed by the body. Author Peg Streep goes on to summarize the science this way, “Words are powerful: They can lift us up and beat us down, soothe us or wound us.”[ii] Once we have been subjected to effects of violent verbal communication, we learn that it is a powerful weapon which we can put in our own arsenal just in case we need it. In our public discourse in recent years, we have seen the destructive results of the tongue when used as a weapon, and that of its minion, the fingers through the medium of social media. You may have experienced a war of words on FaceBook or Twitter, or even been involved yourself. When you are not intentional about the very powerful gift of words, you are apt to speak without realizing the damage you are inflicting. These patterns are toxic.
So how can we strive for perfection in conciliatory speech? Let me suggest two ways. First, we have seen how words can be used destructively. But, I think it is important to use the gift of speech with the intention of creating. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, eloquently describes creative speech this way: “The word of God is the word of the Creator, and so the word of God never comes forth from God without a creation following it.”[iii] Fr. Benson’s reference takes us back to the first chapter of Genesis, which gives us a descriptive narrative of God creating the heavens and the earth. The first words of God we read in this account are: “Let there be,” and over the course of six days we hear what is created. After each act of creation, we see God reflecting on that creation and seeing it to be good. Each word proclaimed by God creates something out of joy for the sake of love.
It is in this first account that we hear about our own creation on the sixth day. The second chapter of Genesis gives us an even more descriptive account of how God creates Adam from the dust of the ground and breathes the breath of life in his nostrils, the animating Ruach of God. In his teaching on the creative word, Fr. Benson continues: “It is not a mere passing articulation of sound, it is the abiding presence of the creative Word which has come to that soul. And what does He create in that soul? He creates some affections, for God is love, and God creates in the soul that which is akin to Himself, faculties in which He Himself may live and act.”[iv]
When we know of ourselves created in the image of God, we realize that we were created with the same capacity for speaking a new creation into being. If we are to be intentional about what we are creating with the gift of speech, it is necessary to consider whether you and God (who spoke you into being) will find it to be good. In order to do that we must first recognize the place we are in when speaking the word. Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? Do I feel frustration or am I triggered by something that I have been unable to unpack and process? Do I feel defensive? These are usually not conducive for creating something out of joy for the sake of love. It might be wise to attend to some self-care, spend some quiet time processing what has made you feel triggered, or talk it out with someone you trust. Then you will be able to speak from a place that will enable freedom for yourself and others, rather than hurt, maim, or destroy. Speaking the truth in love is not always easy, but it is a good thing. I am reminded of the Twelve-Step slogan: “Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But, don’t say it mean.”
Second, I would say we have to think about speech ‘sacramentally,’ a sacrament being an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. God took on our human nature in the person of Jesus Christ in order to redeem that nature and restore us to the joyful goodness out of which we were created. Jesus presence in our life transfigures us completely, and that includes the affections, emotions, intentions, and actions out of which our creative words arise. We read in the New Testament that Jesus experienced the full range of emotions that we do including anger. But the anger he expressed was the sometimes difficult ‘speaking the truth in love,’ and it was always seasoned with compassion. This led to actions that aimed to heal us and restore us to wholeness through the giving of his own life. And this is what we as Christians are called to: the giving of our lives in the spirit of redemption, transfiguration, and restoration to all that God called good. Sometimes that means holding back on the use of speech. Pointing to this, Fr. Benson says: “Example is powerful without words, words are powerless without example. How we should gain in sanctity, if we lived as our words require!”[v] And I would say as the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord has shown us.
The Psalmist writes: Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well. For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling. I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.[vi] Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord, and guard the door of my lips.[vii] Amen.
Lectionary Year/Proper: Year B; Proper 19
[i] Streep, Peg. “5 Things Everyone Must Understand about Verbal Abuse.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 19 Feb. 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-support/201602/5-things-everyone-must-understand-about-verbal-abuse.
[iii] Benson, Richard Meux. A Cowley Calendar. London: Mowbrays, 1932. Print.
[vi] Psalm 116:6-8
[vii] Psalm 141:3
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