Of all the human abilities, perhaps the most powerful, and the most dangerous, is language. I think we’ve become really aware of this recently, with the advent of infinitely reproduceable speech through social media, and with the increasingly hostile tone of our civic and political discourse. It can be extremely fraught, these days, just trying to have a conversation. And yet, without conversation, we can’t connect with each other. How do we speak in a way that connects us, rather than divides?
In our reading from the Old Testament, the character of Wisdom gives us an interesting example of speech as condemnation. So it didn’t start with Facebook. The prophets specialized in calling people out, for bad conduct, in the midst of disagreements over religious practice and theology, issuing dire warnings about God’s wrath. Their words are hard to hear for us, now, and must have been agonizing, for those who heard the messages delivered in person, who felt the furious spittle landing on their foreheads. Often the images the prophets used were in themselves damaging, especially since their favorite metaphor for going astray from God’s plan was talking about Israel as an unfaithful wife or a promiscuous woman. Not to criticize biblical figures, but, How well did it work, what the prophets were doing? How well does confrontation work, as a technique for changing people’s hearts, and their actions? When should we go to that nuclear option, how bad do things have to be, before we have to take a stand against society’s wrongs, or risk being hypocrites? Surely some part of the battle is already lost, by the time you feel you have to go to battle, verbally or otherwise? Is there anything we could do, before we get to that point, that might work better?
As always, when we are trying to conform our lives to God’s will, we might take a look at how we are taught to pray. Today’s beautiful psalm guides us to say, “May the words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight.” How can I make my words acceptable to God? Acceptable seems like a good goal, not over-reaching. Pleasing to God seems ambitious, but I might try acceptable. The letter of James, which we’ve been reading for the past few weeks, has moved from telling us about the importance of our actions, to focusing on our words. We often think of the Epistle of James as being about doing, not talking: faith without works is dead, he famously says; don’t pay lip-service to people’s well-being without really helping to meet their needs. And yet, in the passage we’ve come to today, he returns to words, for speech is an action, too, and a crucial one. He reminds us to consider how much what we say (internally or out loud) directs what we do. “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.”
You are most likely more self-disciplined than I am, but do you ever catch yourself , as I do, having conversations, not to say arguments with the people in your life, but when they aren’t there, so just in your own head, and then going forward in your relationship as if those had been real conversations? Then I wonder, why don’t they know how I feel? I’ve been over it so many times! I’ve talked it through! How we frame things for ourselves, how we tell our stories to ourselves, has huge impact on how we live, and the decisions we make. And when we manage to get out of our own heads, and talk to those around us, that is how we create, and destroy, the relationships that can sustain our lives, or hurt them. When we think about how God wants us to live, we have to think about how God wants us to speak. What kinds of words is God looking for?
God has given us this great gift, the creative power of language. From the beginning, made in God’s image, we spoke, we named the animals, we began to know each other and to share our wonder in Creation. We can be a blessing, with our words. A 17 year-old that I love and respect very much told me that it had occurred to her recently, “What if we let ourselves say every good thing we thought?” Now, with the caveat, let’s say appropriate good things. I’m sure we can all think of good things that we think about other people but cannot say, we need to be respectful and polite. But there are so many good things that we don’t have the courage to say out loud, or don’t think are important enough. Taking the time to tell someone that you notice them, you see and are grateful for what they’re doing, the style and grace with which they pass through the world, that can be an enormous thing. We never know how much a kindness will mean to someone on a given day. How much does it mean to us, who often walk through our days counting over the mistakes and failures, to hear from even one person that we were helpful, perhaps even an answer to prayer?
Of course, if we can bless others with our words, we can also curse them. Every power, every good gift, comes with the potential to be twisted and abused. The Old Testament prophets did it, with the best of intentions, and Peter dared to rebuke Jesus himself., as we also heard today We don’t know exactly what Peter said, but the version of this story in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Peter did not want Jesus to talk about his coming death, did not want him to suffer and die. Essentially, he’s asking, Why can’t you be the Messiah I had in mind? Why can’t you stick to things I’d feel comfortable talking about? Why can’t it be my script?
Our words can be good and helpful, or ill-considered and harmful. But, in the end, it is not ourwords that matter most. Our words are not going to save us. We betray ourselves too easily. Jesus shows us the way. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.” To use that power of language against the self, to reject our own claims. He asks, “What can they give, in exchange for their life?” We don’t have anything to bargain with, no fancy speeches, and no threats—they’re all empty, before God. We can give one thing, and that is words. Not our own, that we might make up in our own defense, but God’s, spoken into the world, born into the world, so that we could hear them in a human voice. So that we could follow that voice when it calls our names. So that we could hear the words that matter, the words that give life, cried out from the Cross we put him on to die, “Father, forgive them.”