More than mere words: The Power of Speech | September 16, 2018

In the midst of the regular news cycle this past week, we had cause to remember September 11. The fact that it fell on a Tuesday this year made it feel more remarkable to me as I remembered that same day of the week in 2001. Most of us have our memories of that day: the trauma, the fear, the horror, the disbelief. But when I remember that day, quickly behind that memory is another from three days later.

I was watching TV, trying to get the latest news on Friday, September 14. Coverage turned to a live shot of ground zero where President Bush had just ascended a pile of rubble, holding a bullhorn. He began his remarks by saying, “As we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens…” only to be interrupted by a man from the crowd yelling, “President Bush, we can’t hear you!” President Bush, on the spur of the moment, said back,

“I can hear you! I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people…who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

His impromptu comments brought comfort and resilience. His speech, even in these simple words, declared that he understood, he got it, he knew the task before him, and he empathized with all of us and especially the victims and first responders. A Twenty-nine word quote held within it an entire world of promise, hope, and empathy.

Such is the power of speech. Within simple words put together into phrases and speeches are entire worlds of power, for the things we speak often convey more meaning than the words themselves. Consider how much of our nation’s history can be summed up by famous quotes. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” or “a house divided cannot stand,” or “December 7, 1941, a day which will live in infamy…” Each of these, along with many others, conveys not only the meaning of the individual words themselves, but the promise, potential, and hope of our country and our values as a people for equality, unity, and security. Speech isn’t just words strung together: it’s the creation of whole worlds of meaning.

Here in Eastman, we have our own powerful words. When you enter town from Cochran or Hawkinsville or McRae, a sign greets you that says that we’re “focused on the future.” This is not simply a statement, it’s a declaration of values and the hope we have that our future is bright. Those four words contain within them our point of view, the world we hope for, as a community.

When we speak of the airport, our manufacturing facilities, and our agriculture, we speak not just of what they are but also of what they mean. To declare that we have a great airport is not only to say that the airport is good, it’s also to say that it’s a point of pride for the community. To note that Dodge County cucumbers end up in Mt. Olive pickle jars is not just a statement of fact, it’s a declaration that what we do here is good and valuable far beyond our little corner of Georgia. When we make statements, we convey a meaning that is deeper than the words we construct into phrases.

That’s because our speech conveys more than just the meaning of the words. Speech has the power to convey whole worlds of meaning.

Which is why James has so much to say about it in our scripture this morning. For James, how we speak is one of the three marks of having “true religion.” It ranks with the other two: care for orphans and widows and remaining unstained by the world. He notes these three marks in chapter 1 and then, upon reaching chapter 3, he tells us what he means by right speech. Hear now James’s comments on the power of speech in 3:1-12

Scripture

When we hear this scripture, we usually hear it in terms of the following: don’t cuss, don’t say mean things, don’t gossip, don’t say hurtful things. Basically, watch what you say. These statements remind me of what my ninth grade geometry teacher, Mrs. Griffith, told us every Friday as we left class: “Don’t curse, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex.” Every Friday. Growing up in the faith, I think we learned to read James as Mrs. Griffith in Biblical form declaring to us: don’t curse, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex. These are the marks of a Christian, right speech and remaining unstained by the world; the marks of the true religion James proclaims.

These are good pieces of advice for teenagers, they’re relevant to being a Christian for we certainly don’t want to do harm in the world, but these sentiments miss the power of James’s language. Just like with our comments about our cucumbers, our airport, our our focus on the future, James’s words here convey a whole world of meaning that goes deeper than the words on the page, deeper than simply not cursing, not gossiping, or not saying hurtful things.

Consider verse 6: “The tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” That’s more than just watching what you say. I like how the NIV states “the cycle of nature,” a very difficult phrase in the Greek to translate. The NIV says verse 6 this way: “a world of evil…[which] sets the whole course of…life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell.” The tongue sets the whole course of life on fire.

Just prior to these verses, James makes it clear that the tongue is like a bridle in a horses’s mouth or the rudder of a ship: it’s a small thing that steers a course, usually, in James’s mind, for evil. In verse 8, he declares that “no one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The course steered by the tongue is a course steered toward nothing less than the fires of hell.

And so James doesn’t mean simply not cursing or not gossiping. He means that we have, within our mouths, a small part of our body that can set a course for evil and, for Christians, set a course for hypocrisy. Speech is of the utmost importance because it holds the power for blessing or cursing, the power for good or, as James makes quite clear, the power of hell itself.

We tend, though, to downplay speech as a faith. Consider this famous statement: “Preach the gospel to all the world and, if necessary, use words.” So goes the apocryphal statement by St. Francis of Assisi some eight hundred years ago. Our lives, St. Francis supposedly said, should so exude love of God and love of neighbor that our actions reveal the gospel message of the saving power of God’s love.

Such is undoubtedly what Peter Scholtes had in mind when he wrote these famous words that get to the heart of the St. Francis quote: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yeah they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Actions, we think, speak louder than words.

But James won’t let us have it that way this morning. Actions may speak, but speech matters at least as much in James’s mind. He wants us to understand that our speech conveys more than just the meaning of the words we string together. We have the power in what we say to convey a world of faith in God, a world of hypocrisy, or a world of evil.

Where our actions and speech align, we are conveying either Christ in us or the evil that lives within us. Where our actions and speech do not align, we convey that we are hypocrites.

Hypocrites, a word from the Greek that literally means to play a part in a play, to act. James is saying, without any question, that where our speech and our actions do not align, we are playing the part of a Christian; we are not really a Christian.

Not only that, but such hypocrisy is destructive. For him, “Nothing so reveals the destructive power of speech than the cursing of another human. Nothing so vividly reveals double-mindedness than to have that curse proceed from the same mouth that blesses God.” pg. 203 My brothers and sisters, he says, this should not be, any more than salt and fresh water cannot flow from the same source; any more than a fig tree cannot yield olives.

The central point, then, is what he says in verse 9: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” That kind of hypocrisy is unfathomable to James; and yet, it was apparently true of his contemporaries. James asks his readers, and us this morning, if we speak about God, if we believe in God, if we pray to God, then how can we speak ill of any of our fellow humans who bear the image of God?

With our speech, we hold creative power: the power to create good through words of encouragement, love, peace, resilience, hope, and the like. But through words that discourage, cut down, insult, stereotype, desecrate, and curse, we have the power to create “worlds of iniquity;” the power to promote evil.

Every day, in the way we speak about ourselves, about others, about anything at all, we can convey either the blessings of God or we convey “a world of evil.” In what we say, we either reveal that our lives are “set on fire by hell” or that we are in Christ Jesus. Speech, for James, has the power to create truth: the truth of how we are known and if Christ is known in us.

Those are the options according to our scripture this morning. Which means James is hard. James is pretty black and white. It’s either this or that. Which means, if we’re willing to grapple with James’s challenging rhetoric, we must take a hard, long, look at how we speak.

Around here, in my experience, we seem to do well about not speaking poorly of others. We tend to affirm more than disparage and encourage rather than degrade. Where there are problems, we tend to be honest to each others’ faces about those shortcomings, seeking peace and resolution, which is exactly what scripture tells us to do. In this church community, when we speak of others, we tend to be loving, even if that’s sometimes tough love. That’s healthy and exactly the kind of speech that James would call us to.

But consider how we speak about ourselves. Self-deprecating humor often turns to unhealthy self-deprecation. There’s a time for self-reflection that leads to self-awareness of our flaws. We cross a line from self-awareness to self-deprecation, though, when we mostly speak ill of ourselves, when we only seem to understand and recount the challenging things we find in our bodies, minds, and spirits. When we do that; when we declare that we’re not good, we convey the meaning that God’s craftsmanship of our bodies and lives is bad or imperfect. Which makes us hypocrites because we say, as a faith, that everything God made is good, including ourselves. And to the world, that conveys a meaning that we don’t really believe what we declare.

Consider that when we complain for the sake of complaining, when we join in with a negative conversation that’s negative for the sake of talking and connecting, we declare by our speech that we do not see the world with the hope of Christ, that we do not think God can conquer all things, that we think God is inactive or unconcerned with our plight, which reveals us to be hypocrites in our faith; a faith which declares that God is active and moving in the world, always concerned for our well-being and the well-being of all of creation.

Consider that when we do say harmful things born of anger or contempt, when we gossip, when we curse, we deny that peace, hope, joy, and love, live within us and reveal ourselves to be hypocrites as we speak evil.

Indeed, any of us who have experienced verbal abuse understand the power of words to do harm and destruction. We can relate to the power of James’s language when he says the tongue is set on fire by hell itself. Any of us who have known speech that betrays in our friendships or family lives understand how speech can reveal “a world of evil.” The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is not true. It’s a lie, perhaps itself from hell, because it suggests that words have no power, that speech conveys no meaning. For James, for our lived experience, that is not true.

Speech is powerful, for good or for ill. President Bush on the pile of rubble and a parent verbally bullying; both of these are examples of the power of speech, one for good and one for evil. With the same tongue, we “bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

It ought not to be so. But how do we make it not so? We’re all guilty of hypocrisy. We’re all guilty of playing the part of a Christian at times. We’ve all said things we regret, we’ve all known what it is to look back on our speech and feel like it was set on fire by hell. But we’ve also known what it’s like to say the kind word, the encouraging word, the word that “builds each other up in love.” We’ve all known what it is to receive that type of kind word, how it really impacts our souls in a deep way to hear a high compliment, to receive praise, to be rewarded verbally.

How do we do more of the latter and less of the former?

In early October, several years ago, I received a phone call while on break during a class in seminary. It was a member of one of the three churches I served in my first appointment. She reported to me that their family patriarch, fondly known by all as Mr. Robert, had passed away. They had planned the funeral for the next day, with visitation to commence in three hours. I was in Atlanta, the visitation in Milledgeville. I dashed out the door, after telling my professor what had happened, and drove as fast as I reasonably could to Milledgeville.

I vividly remember frantically calling pastor mentors asking them what to do with such little time to construct a funeral. I’d never done a funeral before; I’d been trained, but I’d never actually done one. They calmly walked me through what to do, but I was terribly nervous.

At the visitation, I could tell the family was nervous, too. They knew I’d only been a pastor a matter of months, they knew that my sermons were not very good, so I assume they did not expect much from the eulogy. Their nervousness only made me more nervous.

When I arrived at the funeral home chapel the next day, I was terribly nervous. By the time it was over and I was in my car, alone, waiting to drive to the cemetery, I could feel myself shaking, my heart racing, my head hurting from the rise in my blood pressure. I was still terribly nervous, knowing the burial was to come next.

I got through the committal and we all went to a reception hall to gather post-funeral. There, I made myself into a wall flower, being courteous and making sure I kept food in my hand so I had something to do. I was still terribly nervous. The family matriarch approached me from across the room. She never said much but I knew that, when she spoke, what she had to say mattered. She approached me and said, “what you said today about Robert was very meaningful. You’ve done a great service to our family.” And walked off. All the nerves melted away. I felt a tremendous amount of relief welling up within me.

Over the course of the next year and a half I had with the church, Ms. Dot would occasionally speak a kind word to me that carried great meaning. Near the end of my tenure, I asked her how she was able to say such kind, meaningful, things. She looked puzzled at first, thought to herself, started to say, “I don’t know,” but caught herself and replied, “I pray a lot.”

And therein lies the answer we seek. How do tame our tongues to not speak evil and, instead, speak blessing? We pray a lot.

How we speak to God and how we speak to others should be the same. That’s the message of verse 9. Instead of blessing God and cursing God’s image by how we speak to others, we should speak to God and humans in the same way. A deep prayer life, one where the prayer is sincere, where there is time set aside purposefully for prayer, where, as the Psalmist says, we experience “deep calling to deep;” that kind of prayer life teaches us how to speak to others. It’s the same principle that the gospel of Luke gives us when Jesus says, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45) If our hearts are dwelling in Christ through a robust prayer life, out of the overflow of a heart grounded in God we will speak blessing.

But if we have a superficial prayer life of occasionally offering our needs to God, if we are not setting aside time purposefully for prayer, if we are not seeking to grow in our prayer lives, then our hearts are not grounded in God and, out of the overflow of a heart unmoored from it’s true home in Christ, we will not speak blessings but, instead, be like James declares in verse 9: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

A deep and robust prayer life will cause us to offer blessing to the world. James calls on us to bridle our tongues, to tame them, to get them under control. With our mouths we should bless God and bless each other. Such is a tall order, for our tongues can start forest fires of hurt, pain, and suffering. We can speak evil so easily and say the wrong thing so quickly. Speech is powerful, speech can change a life for better or worse, including our own. Speech holds the power to create whole worlds of meaning. We must learn to tame our tongues, and that comes from a robust prayer life; the example of Ms. Dot when she said, “I pray a lot.”

So commit yourself to a more robust prayer life this morning. Set aside time each day purposefully for the act of praying. This can mean talking to God, it can mean sitting in silence, it can mean reading a daily prayer book like the Daily Office, it can mean prayerfully reading scripture. Prayer takes many forms, but it begins with the intentional setting aside of time. To learn how to form such a habit or to learn how to pray in different ways, seek out those in your life who serve as examples for you in their prayer lives. Come talk to me. I’d love to have this kind of conversation with you.

This morning, also commit to self-reflection about your speech. It can be so easy to write off the power of our words by saying “actions speak louder than words,” by quoting St. Francis, or by declaring that people will know of our faith through our love. James demands that we see the power of our speech to do good or evil. He requires that we reflect upon what we’ve said to ensure that we are not being hypocritical. The tongue is a small member, but its potential for good and evil is huge.

Prayer is the answer to taming the tongue. How do we speak blessings rather than curses? How do we speak well of ourselves instead of ill? How do we ensure that our tongue does not steer a course toward evil?

As Ms. Dot said: I pray a lot. How we speak to God should be the same as how we speak to God’s image: our fellow human beings. May our speech be so positive, so affirming, so hopeful, so often, that others hear only Christ in us. My brothers and sisters, this ought to be so.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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