As you know, it’s unusual for me to focus more on one of the other Sunday readings, when ordinarily I focus on the Gospel. Today’s reading from the Book of James was just too intriguing for me to pass up.
James refers to the blessings and curses which come from the use of our tongues … or as we would say, the blessings and curses which come from our mouths and words. I can only imagine what transpired in that early Christian community for James to send this message, and then for it to have survived as sage advice, through all this time, for more than 2000 years.
In my twenties, while in the seminary, I attended an eight day Ignation Silent Retreat in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. While on that retreat I lived in a one room cabin, which thankfully had running water. It was deep in the winter of January and no air conditioning was needed or available, but I was grateful for the heat a small furnace provided. For eight days my time was spent mostly alone; except for an optional one hour daily conversation with my spiritual director [at the time.]
These were the days before cell phones and the internet and a 24/7 culture of news. I didn’t need to detox from technology; but I had never spent that much alone time – alone time as in literal intentional isolation. The first couple of days were understandably hard as it took time to adjust from everything and everyone I usually connected with on a daily basis. This time was designed for me to spend eight silent days in communication with God and God alone. Except, as I shared, for the one optional hour a day which my spiritual director provided should I need a place and time to unpack whatever it was I was learning. I remember not needing to connect with my spiritual director on most days; but on the one or two days I did connect, it was helpful.
I’m sure I learned lots of things about myself and God during that time; but one thing which stands out to me, even to this day, was that I remember discovering that never had I hurt anyone in my life with my hands. If ever I hurt someone, it was with my tongue. It was always something I said which could hurt someone I knew or loved. Thankfully I never hurt anyone physically. The same thing could not be said of my words. Those were the days when I knew everything. When I was smarter than everyone else. It was during that time when I realized the power of the tongue. Oh, if only I knew then what I know now – how very little I know and that I am certainly never ever the smartest person in the room.
This many years later I’d like to think that I am more aware of the power of our words and tongues, what we say and how we say it. Quite frankly, our words are either extensions of God, or they’re not. It’s that simple. That humbling. Where do our words come from and what is our intent? Sobering questions for me and us all.
The ruler of a prosperous kingdom sends for one of his messengers. When the messenger arrives the King tells him to go out and find the worst thing in the entire world, and bring it back within a few days.
The messenger departs, and returns days later, empty-handed. Puzzled, the King asks, ‘What have you discovered? I don’t see anything.’ The messenger says, ‘Right here, Your Majesty,’ and sticks out his tongue. Bewildered, the King asks the young man to explain. The messenger says, ‘My tongue is the worst thing in the world. My tongue can do many horrible things. My tongue speaks evil and tells lies. I can overindulge with my tongue which leaves me feeling tired and sick, and I can say things that hurt other people. My tongue is the worst thing in the world.’
Pleased, the King then commands the messenger to go out and find him the best thing in the entire world.
The messenger leaves hurriedly, and once again he comes back days later with nothing in his hands. ‘Where is it?’ the King shouts out. Again, the messenger sticks out his tongue. ‘Show me,’ the King says. ‘How can it be?’ The messenger replies, ‘My tongue is the best thing in the world, my tongue is a messenger of love. Only with my tongue can I express the overwhelming beauty of poetry. My tongue teaches me refinement in tastes and guides me to choose foods that will nourish my body. My tongue is the best thing in the world because it allows me to chant the name of God.’
The King is well satisfied, and he appoints the messenger to become foremost among his personal advisors.”
It’s true for all of us, right? Our words can be both the best thing in the world and the worse thing in the world. None of us are immune.
To this day I am still amazed at God’s graciousness in giving us tongues at all. I’m struck how trusting and brave of our creator God that God allows us to participate in the building up of His Kingdom on earth by what we say and do.
Can we remember a time when we hurt someone else because of something we said to them?
Can we remember a time when we built someone up, loved them, helped them to heal because of something loving or kind which we said?
We’re capable of both, right?
Today’s Reading from James is an invitation for us to remember the power of our words.
Here are a couple of thoughts which you might find helpful.
When discerning whether or not to say something, consider this acronym: T.H.I.N.K. The
T asks – is it true?
H asks – is it helpful?
I asks – is it inspiring?
N asks – is it necessary?
K asks – is it kind?
And remember the wisdom of those who have found the 12 Steps life-saving. The Eighth step in AA is Making Amends with others who may have been harmed by our use of alcohol or drugs.
Whether or not we abuse substances, we all hurt others, usually by what we say. Let’s spend some time this week thinking of those we need to repair broken relationships with – either because they said something which hurt us; or we said something which hurt them. None of us are immune from this.
As always please keep me in your prayers; and know that you are in mine as well.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog