…so that our words may give grace…
by Louise Westfall
I love you.
Three little words. But oh such powerful ones! Of course the context in which the words are spoken matters: In a beloved’s embrace; as words of parting; from a parent to a child; in a sermon. I’ve heard the phrase used in marketing, and even as an introduction to criticism: I love you, but …
Does anyone doubt the power of the spoken word? We used to say “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” until we encountered broken spirits struck down by verbal judgments, careless speech, and hateful sayings.
Today’s scripture reading is largely about language and how we talk to one another. In my study Bible it’s part of a section entitled “rules for the new life,” implying, I think, that these behaviors are presented to the church as true reflections of Christian faith and its core message of God’s love for all. I have to confess to you that these are not easy words to speak or hear. The writer isn’t proclaiming complex propositions that theologians will debate till kingdom come. No, these are for us. On good days and bad days; with friends and opposers (who are sometimes one-and-the-same); in casual conversations; in topical discussions; over social media. There’s really no mistaking their meaning. So as we read them, I invite us to consider the contexts in our own lives where they apply. A reading from the letter to the Ephesian churches, in the fourth chapter at the 25th verse. Listen for God’s Word to you and me. [Ephesians 4:25-5:2]
Sometimes the preacher has to clear away the cultural trappings of a text in order for us to hear the contemporary meaning. Today, not so much. Speak the truth. Don’t let anger deteriorate into rageful actions. Don’t promote evil. Don’t speak with bitterness. Don’t gossip. Be kind. Forgive.
Speak the truth to our neighbors. The text declares the positive version of one of the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. In just the way it is worded we see why it is forbidden: Lying disrupts and distorts relationships with neighbors by creating an alternative picture of what is real, what is true. Lies erect a wall between people to the effect that the bonds connecting them are severed; neither one can be understood, making empathy difficult. Lies contribute to a sense of disconnection, of isolation and loneliness. We become strangers, even to our very selves.
Okay, so what came to mind when you thought about contemporary contexts for the power of words? Personally, a recent argument with a colleague comes to mind — words spoken out of my own anxiety about a successful start to a new season. Maybe you thought of some similar personal interaction. Or maybe you went straight to our national discourse which seems unsurpassed in demeaning language, equating lies with honest disagreement, and bitter denunciations. Yes, I include many of President Trump’s tweets in this category, but they are only the most public ones — abundant examples from all perspectives litter the landscape of our life together. And just as lying puts up barriers to human connection, so does this toxic talk. To escape its poison, we retreat into the safety of communities of people who see eye to eye with us. Ah, the comfort of being with someone who is “one of us.”
Annoyingly, Jesus calls us to a different — and more difficult — way. Monovision limits our sight, walling in (and walling out!) people intended for beloved community together. Speaking truth means more than not telling outright lies; it is to choose language that will strengthen community and give grace to those who hear it.
Speaking truth means more than not telling outright lies; it is to choose language that will strengthen community and give grace to those who hear it.
At the very least, I think this means giving others the respect of self-naming. I’m a huge baseball fan, and am glad to live in a National League city so I can cheer for the Rockies while keeping my allegiance to the American League Cleveland Indians. You may know that the logo for the Indians is “Chief Wahoo” — a grinning, hook-nosed caricature in bright red. Native groups have repeatedly protested its use as offensive and disrespectful. But up till now these protests have been dismissed by the powers that be (and in the court of popular opinion) with eye-rolling disdain for “politically correctness.” Hmmmm. If I came up to you and slugged your arm and you said “Ow, that hurts!” it would be pretty awful if I responded “Well, you should toughen up,” or “no it didn’t — you’re just too sensitive.” I don’t really see any difference when it comes to words. If you tell me that my name for you is hurtful, how can I possibly keep saying it? — at least if I am seeking to let my speech “build up” our sense of connection and give grace to those who hear.
Such a perspective requires more than just speaking off the top of my head. It means being a little more proactive rather than reactive and involves a good deal more listening than speaking. One of you told me your new year’s resolution (way back then!) was to “pause and pray before acting or speaking.” I’d love to hear how that’s going, because it’s a practice that could actually change the character of our community. While it may well be annoying (and hard!) to learn a new language, a new way of thinking about the power we wield with our words, it’s far more than that.
Friends, it’s nothing short of redemptive. It’s the truth: the truth of God’s love for humanity … that every single one of us is a child of God, and therefore related to all others. We’re brothers and sisters. These rules about how to speak and respond to one another are intended to help us reflect our Divine heritage; to imitate God, as the biblical writer put it. The distinctiveness of Christian faith could not be clearer than when defined with words like “tenderhearted,” “kindness,” and “forgiveness” … attributed to the gracious and all-powerful ruler of the universe whom alone we worship and serve.
But maybe we should have expected it of a God whose name is “Word.” In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … all things came into being through the Word … and the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. The text we read on Christmas Eve reminds us of the dynamic power of language to bring whole worlds into being and to infuse this human flesh with Divine glory. Language doesn’t merely reflect reality; language creates it. Our words matter. Wanna know why?
The Children, Youth and Family Ministries Committee chose a book for the whole congregation to read this year, with an opportunity to discuss it at the all-church retreat coming up Labor Day weekend (register now!). The book, Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, tells about a year in the life of a middle-school-aged boy, Augie Pullman. But what a year! Augie has a congenital condition that seriously disfigures his face and to this point has been home-schooled by his loving, concerned parents. Now he is going to a public middle school. No spoiler alerts, but you can imagine something of what that means. His coming-of-age story is both remarkable and ordinary, like every child’s, simply … well, a wonder. Every year on the last day of school, there is an assembly in which the principal gives a speech, and this particular year, he’s assessing their success.
… the best way to measure how much you’ve grown isn’t by inches or the number of laps you can now run, or even your grade point average. It’s what you’ve done with your time, how you’ve chosen to spend your days, and whom you have touched this year … shall we make a new rule of life … always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary? Kinder than is necessary … what does that mean? Children, what I want you to take away from your middle-school experience is the sure knowledge that in the future you make for yourselves anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary — the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God. [pp 90-92, edited for length, Kindle edition]
There’s a lot of divine potential in this room. Central, I love you.