Thursday, October 1, 2009
Words, words, words
With many other people around the country I have been wondering what has happened to civility. It seems that in the last month or so people in all sorts of walks of life have forgotten what it means to speak to others with respect and dignity – outbursts at town hall meetings, outbursts in Congress, threats on a tennis court, rude interruptions on an award show stage. Each was an individual occurrence, but is the clustering of these events a sign of something larger going on in our culture?
Preachers around the country who use the lectionary were bubbling over with excitement at these news reports. OK, maybe that’s an over-statement. Rarely do we celebrate rudeness and disrespect. However, the epistle lessons assigned toward the middle of September, when all of this was going on, came from the book of James. Here are a few verses my colleagues were wrestling with in their sermon preparation:
“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on first, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:5-6, NIV)
The warnings are strong about the power of words and the mouths that say them. In a Children’s Sermon I recently talked about the old adage children have been taught for generations, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We decided together that this is not true. Words can hurt. Words matter! The words we choose to say, when we choose to say them, and the tone with which they are spoken MATTER.
Back to my first question – are the recent “newsworthy” events a sign of a larger problem in our culture? Well, I don’t know. I think it’s too soon to tell. I think the outrage of the public about these events is a good sign. It tells us this sort of behavior and treatment of one another is still shocking and considered unacceptable to many. I also think that, if nothing else, these have been a wake-up call to many, and a reminder to Christians of our call to treat others with respect and dignity. James puts it this way:
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:9-10, NIV)
It should not be. All human beings have been made in the image of God, and all human beings deserve to be treated in such a way. This does not mean there can’t be debate, discussion, and disagreement. This does not mean there can’t be protest. It does mean, however, that our disagreement should happen in a way that honors the humanity of our partners in conversation, their creation in the image of God.
The words we speak matter. They matter to those to whom they are directed. They matter to those who overhear them for they speak volumes about what we believe. They matter to God. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps. 19:14, NRSV)