Spiritual growth is always a two-step process. The first step is to stop doing and being evil, and the second step is to start doing and being good. This one two punch of Christian discipleship is found throughout our church life and liturgics. It’s why, before every morning service and any baptism, we first renounce evil and only then “turn to the light of the knowledge of God.” It’s why, before receiving communion, we first confess and repent of our sins and only then have fellowship with Christ. First step; turn your back on the bad. Second step; go toward the good.
It seems that the compilers of our ancient lectionary were also aware of this simple point & counter point of the spiritual life; you can see it in today’s assigned readings. Both readings are about the power of words. The first reading from the Epistle of James, warns us to renounce our tongue’s tendency to work for evil. The second reading from the Gospel of John, reminds us of the great creative power of words spoken in love. First step, refrain from bad words, second step use good ones.
Beginning with James, he wants to make sure we never underestimate the power of the tongue, of our words to reek havoc. One misplaced word can break the spirit of a young person, it can demoralize a volunteer, it can set off a damaging argument with your kids or spouse. So volatile and powerful is the tongue, wrote James, that “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Ja 3:8). But even if the tongue cannot be fully tamed, it can be guarded and restrained. We commit to practice this during our lives at Chrismation, when the priest signed a cross over our lips saying; “This seal in the name of Jesus Christ be for you a guardian for your mouth and a strong door for your lips.”
What might this look like in our daily lives to have a door on our lips and a guard on our words? Its of course to refrain from gossip and trying to make others look bad and all of that. But today I want to offer a simple ‘how to’ refrain from the evil power of words. I read the other day that former US President Harry Truman had a rule that we might do well to consider. Any letters that the President had written in anger had to sit on his desk for 24 hours before they could be mailed. If at the end of that “cooling off” period, he still felt the same sentiments, he would send the letter. By the end of his life, Truman’s unmailed letters filled a large desk drawer. Do you have a place for unsent letters, emails or texts? I have a computer folder with a dozen or so unsent letters; but there probably should be more! In this age of instant communication, forget cooling off for 24 hours, 24 minutes of restraint might spare us much heartache! Our tongues, our pens, our keyboards and smart phones should more often fall silent, as we pray to God for humility and restraint.
So step one in being good stewards of the power of our words is to refrain from using them for evil. Step two is to use words for good, as God uses them. Let’s see what today’s reading from John has to say about this; “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God….And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the glory of the Only-begotten from the father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:1,14).”
John here traces the power of words back to their source, bringing us back to Genesis where God spoke the world into existence with his Word. When God said, “Let there be…” there was! Godly words don’t just describe, they create! And remember that God didn’t just form the world with His Word, He also reformed it. That’s why we call Jesus the Word, because just like our words explain our hearts and minds to others, so Jesus was sent to reveal his Father’s heart and mind to the world.
So today, let’s commit to using the power of our words, not for the desires of our selfish hearts, but rather to reveal the heart of God, the heart of true love to the world. If we can, we join a sacred conversation which continues to form, reform and transform the world. Because good words to our child, to our spouse, to our client, to our enemy, don’t just describe good, they actually create it. And if we want to learn the spiritual discipline of good words, there is no better practice than our weekly worship, right here and now. Because worship gives us the words to honor, thank and praise our Creator and love our neighbor as ourselves. These words don’t just describe what is good, they mysteriously create it, so that in the course of our lives, the good we speak will be of a piece with the good we do and the good we become, now and always amen.