“Did you go home for Christmas?” That’s a question you’re likely to hear these days. “Were you at home for the holidays?” “Did the kids come home for Christmas?” It’s a common theme at this time of year. We naturally associate the holiday season with “coming home.” Retailers pick up on the theme, offering us images of families gathered before the fireplace or around the Christmas tree. “I’ll be home for Christmas” plays over the loudspeaker in the grocery store. The idea of being “home” for the holidays appeals to many of us.
But what does “home” mean, really? Is it a place we can return to, or is it more of a longing? For many of us, the word “home” summons up a whole range of things that are past and that cannot be retrieved. The house we grew up in belongs to someone else. Our parents may have divorced – or died. Our siblings may be scattered across the country. The neighbors we once knew have drifted away. For us, “home” isn’t a specific place anymore; it’s more like a whole set of longings… or a collection of special people… or a treasure chest of memories that combine to make us feel safe and loved.
Many of us love the idea of “coming home.” But for others of us, perhaps, “home” was never that fine a place to begin with. Home was the place where mom and dad argued all the time until they finally split up, or where unkind and even abusive words were spoken. For us, “home” wasn’t a place where we felt safe or loved. We’ve had to find our “home” elsewhere – with different people and in different surroundings.
There was once a young man who was beginning his spiritual journey in the religious life. He sought the council of an old man who was well versed in spirituality, and asked him what all he must do to live a disciplined religious life. The old man opened his Psalter and read the first verse of Psalm 39: I said, I will keep watch upon my ways, so that I do not offend with my tongue. “STOP!” cried the young man as the older was about to proceed; “when I have learned that I will come and receive further rules.” And so he went away and at the end of six months, the older man, curious about the progress of the younger, sought him out and asked, “Are you ready to continue with the other lessons?” “Not yet,” he replied. “I have not yet mastered the first one.” Another five years passed and curiously the older man again sought out the younger. This time the young man replied, “I have no need of the other lessons, for, having learned that first rule, to master the tongue, I have gained discipline and control over my whole nature.”[i]
The past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. I am struck by one of the Letter’s reoccurring themes: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness; if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.[ii] Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, the author of the Letter is admonishing his audience to put right words into right action. Certainly, 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 comprehend 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. With it, he says, we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. You might summarize this major theme of James’ Letter this way: words matter. What is your experience of this? What metaphor would you use to illustrate the power of speech? How have you come to know that words matter?
1 John 2:18-21
On this last day of the current year we can look back over the year now coming to an end. We can repent of our failures, and we give thanks for our blessings.
As we look forward to the New Year about to begin we can expect challenges. We should look with courage and hope, and we give thanks for rewards.