James 3: 1-12
The very first time my family and I visited and worshipped here at St Andrew’s will forever be a bright moment in my life. A day easily and fondly remembered. Of course, this was also Rally Day, and watching the rector getting pummeled with water balloons by a wild horde of children would be unforgettable. So, Padre: watch out! Those kids will get you! Another one of the many reasons I will cherish that day forever has also to do with children, it was the children’s blessing. Watching the clergy being surrounded by a sea of children, some of the kids expectantly raising their little faces, some goofing of with their siblings, some dancing, some, like my youngest at the time, playfully trying to dodge the priest’s hands… it is a beautiful sight! And then of course the words of the blessing itself; they are profound, fitting, and quite beautiful. Today’s lesson from James’ letter brought to mind this part of the children’s blessing: “Loosen their tongues to speak words of love and reconciliation.” From these words in the blessing, it is clear that we believe God calls us to use our tongue, our words, spoken and written, to speak love into life. Words have that power, our tongue, our typing fingers, have that power. If we use them wisely, we can bring about God’s Kingdom among us.
However, James is right when he states that with the tongue, “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.” James even goes so far as to call the tongue a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Man, that’s harsh. That is not good news. Is it true? Are our tongues evil in nature? Do we use our words, spoken and written, for ill?
I have to be honest with you, sometimes I am tempted to believe that. We are living through such a stressful time. The discourse in this country has become rapidly uncivil. So many conversations seem infused with divisive politics. We all know the subjects, this virus, that new reproductive law, those new refugees, these shootings… on and on it goes. We all have our opinions, we all have our fears, we all feel angry at times. So, we use our words not to speak words of love and reconciliation like we wish for our children to do. We sometimes use our tongues and our typing fingers to tell those we disagree with what’s what! And where they can put their opinion. In the trash, where it belongs!
One look into the comment section of a simple covid numbers update from our city’s facebook page, and you know what I’m talking about. Mistrust, vitriol, name-calling, blaming, ridicule it’s all there. From people on both sides of the divide. But this is not by any means a new phenomenon. James’ letter was written at the turn of the 1st century! Obviously, humankind has been at this for a while now. James calls the tongue a fire that sets ablaze a whole forest. Maybe that is why today we say that rumors spread like wildfire…In any case, it may appear to us that the tongue is indeed inherently evil. Is it? Or is its purpose divine but we use it for evil instead? We, all of us were created by God. That is why I simply do not believe that our tongues, created by God, could possibly be inherently evil. God does not create evil. Sadly, that is what we do. Our tongue is small, but with it we create great evil words that cut to the quick and destroy life. Words that divide us. But we as Christians are called to speak love into life! We are called to speak words of love and reconciliation. However, that is not always easy, is it? In fact, it can be very hard.
I like the picture James painted, how a horse is made to obey by the means of a bit in its mouth, a bridle. I have loved horses all my life, so this image really stuck with me. And it got me thinking, would we also behave better with a bridle in our mouth? Would we obey God’s commandment to love our neighbor better if we guarded our words with such a bridle? And what does a bridle for humans look like? What kind of bridle can help us speak words of love and reconciliation? When we are faced with a situation that makes our tongue itch to spit fire and our typing fingers poised to light the match, how can we bridle ourselves?
The great philosopher, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl had very wise words on the subject. He said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Space. A pause, if you will. That can be our bridle. When we are faced with an irritating situation, a negative stimulus, we can make the time to pause before we speak, before we write, before we respond. And in that space, during that pause we can remind ourselves of our calling as Christians: to speak words of love and reconciliation. This pause can be a powerful tool! It can be the bridle that guards our tongue. We can use that pause to ask ourselves three questions about the words we are about to use.
1. Is it true? Sometimes, we react so quickly that we do not necessarily know beyond the shadow of a doubt that what we say is factual. Perhaps we heard it from someone else, someone who shares our opinion and therefore it sounds factual to us. We should take the time, the space, the pause, to make sure it is true or else not state it at all.
2. Is it kind? Now, this one can be tricky. Sometimes we confuse kind with simply agreeing. That’s not what I mean here. We do not need to agree with each other’s opinion, but we can disagree in a kind manner. And that is hard to do. Pausing can give us the time we need to find those kind words.
3. Is it necessary? Not every situation requires our response. In that space we give ourselves, we can determine if a response is even needed or helpful. What can be gained by responding truthfully and kindly? If the answer is nothing, or worse more division, then maybe we can decide not to respond at all.
Our words have power. They can destroy and be painful and divisive. And, when we make good use of the pause, of our bridle, words can speak love and life into the world, they can bring about God’s Kingdom. I pray to God: loosen our tongues to speak words of love and reconciliation.